It certainly would explain a lot of things. I didn’t believe it for a second, because you’d have to be batshit insane to believe what he was telling me, and I wasn’t quite to that point yet. But if it was the truth, it certainly would explain quite a few things.
I sat down on the dirty gray mattress to think, then remembered where I was and stood back up again. It wasn’t my first time in county jail, but it was the first time I’d been in one so disgusting. Being in jail isn’t really supposed to be a picnic, so it’s never up to the cleanliness standards of a five-star hotel, but it’s usually gross in a junkie-puking-in-the-corner, drunk-taking-a-shit-in-the-communal-toilet kind of way.
This place was different, though. This place was filthy in the way that an abandoned slaughterhouse would be filthy. Mold and moss and dirt everywhere. Cobwebs gyrating in the damp breeze that seemed to come directly through the crumbling cement walls. Creepy-crawlies scuttling in and out of the shadows, so quick that it almost looks like a flickering of the light.
They stopped me for speeding, and searched my car when they discovered I wasn’t from ‘round these here parts. I told them that I didn’t agree to a search, and they informed me that they didn’t give two shits what I agreed to. They found a bag of weed under the driver’s seat and drew their guns.
Down on the ground, down on the ground, down on the ground! And I dropped to the ground before they decided that I wasn’t cooperating, before they just shot me. On the ground with my hands behind my head and one of them pepper sprayed me. It was pretty much the last thing I was expecting, what with me doing everything they said, as fast as I could do it.
The pepper spray burned like nothing I’ve ever imagined, and I was up on my knees before I even realized it, trying to wipe the shit off of my face. And I guess that’s when I got hit with the club, or maybe that’s when I got tasered. All I know is, that’s when the blackness moved in.
I woke up in this cell, not even knowing what town I was in. All my stuff was gone—cell phone, wallet, cigarettes. My face felt raw, like the skin had been rubbed off of it, and my eyes felt like I had been rubbing sand into them. Every inhalation felt like I was breathing some sort of toxic chemical. There was a giant spider sitting on my chest, eating a cricket.
I jumped up from the mattress, knocking the spider to the floor. It didn’t scurry away, but just sat there, and I could have sworn that it looked indignant before creeping away into the shadows.
I called out until a fat deputy waddled down the hall and told me to shut the hell up ‘fore I got the fire hose treatment. He had what looked to be spaghetti sauce smeared all over his mouth, and crumbs on his shirtfront. I looked at the insignia on his arm patch, hoping that it would tell me name of the town I was in, but all I was able to learn was that I was a guest of the Genning County Sheriff’s Department.
“Can I at least call my lawyer?” I asked as he stalked away.
“Fire hose, you sum’bitch, is that what you’re aimin’ for?”
“No, sir. What about coffee?”
“I take mine with two lumps,” he said and then laughed until he began coughing. He slammed the metal door behind him.
I took a deep breath and turned to examine my surroundings. Genning County did not believe in spending money on upgrading prisoner living conditions, apparently. The walls were the dull gray of unpainted cinderblocks, and the one window in my cell consisted of a set of vertical bars. No glass, no screen—just the iron bars implanted in the mortar. I stood on the bed and looked through the bars, but all I could see was flat. No landscape, no trees, no buildings. Only flat fields and the moon sagging just over the horizon.
I climbed down and paced back across the tiny cell. The iron bars separating me from the hall were identical to the bars in the window, only longer, and not covered in as much bird shit. The cement floor was uneven, and spotted with various puddles where the water from the leaking ceiling had congregated. There was one other cell beside me, and two across the hall.
I couldn’t see into the cell beside mine, but the two across the hall were filled with crusty mops and rotting cardboard boxes that were labeled in black marker with words like, “PayRole 1989” and “STUBS! DONT THROW WAY!!!” and “Dockets, 1957—‘68.”
There was a single light in the hallway, a bare bulb with a pull-chain. It wasn’t swinging, exactly, but it swayed with the same breeze that moved the cobwebs, and it occasionally flickered. It didn’t cast much light on my surroundings, but it was bright enough to illuminate several sets of eyes in the vacant cells. Rats, hopefully, because I’m allergic to chupacabra.
Everything smelled like damp cellar, and although I expected there to be some air circulation because of the current that moved the cobwebs and the light, the air was thick and heavy, almost suffocating. I climbed back up on the bed to try to breathe in some air from outside, but it was like trying to breathe through a straw. The night air was wet and thick and as musty as the air inside the jail.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of claustrophobia, and knowing that I couldn’t get out of the cell almost caused my brain to short circuit. Inside, I was already screaming, clawing my skin, banging on the bars, weeping. I took a deep breath. It was a damp, shit-tasting breath, but it was a breath, nonetheless. I wasn’t suffocating, I was just in county.
Not all that unusual, sadly.
I stood at the window, breathing when absolutely necessary, and waited. I must have dozed off, because I never heard the door at the end of the hall open or close, nor did I head the door to my cell open. I just suddenly had the feeling that someone was staring at me, and when I turned around, there he was.
I jumped, the way you do when you walk into a room you thought was empty, but find someone. I said “holy shit,” in a voice louder than usual, but not quite a yell.
“This place is a dump,” he said, and sat down at the end of the bunk. I just stared at him. “I mean, I been in some real shitholes, but I think this place has to take the cupcake, you know?”
He was skinny and pale, and the moonlight seeping through the window seemed to change him to a bluish color, like a white t-shirt under a black light. He had circles under his eyes, and his dark hair was disheveled. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and white sneakers. His face was covered in dirty-looking stubble, like when a guy hasn’t shaved in a few days, but not on purpose. He scratched his chin and lit a cigarette.
“They let you keep your cigarettes?” I asked. He looked up at me, but didn’t say anything.
“You think I could bum one from you? They took mine.” He looked me over, as if he were trying to decide if I was worth it, and then he stood up, took a pack out of his front pocket, and flipped open the top. He handed me a cigarette, along with his lighter.
I thanked him as I lit the cigarette, and handed the lighter back to him. He sat back down on the bunk, and I turned back around to look out the window.
The moon had sunk closer to the horizon, and I wondered if that meant that it was almost dawn, or if it just meant that I’d soon be without any outside light. I’ve been awake plenty of times when the sun came up, I just never paid much attention to the moon while I was doing it.
“This place really is a shithole,” I said, trying to make conversation.
“Yeah.” He looked around the tiny cell. He stood up and looked down into the community toilet. “There’s no water in here. Don’t shit unless you absolutely have to.”
“Man, all the bugs and shit I’ve seen running around in here, I’d rather shit out the window.”
He looked at the window, which was eye-level to me when I stood on the bunk. “That would be entertaining to watch.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just turned and looked back out the window. “I didn’t even hear them bring you in,” I said after a few minutes.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t.”
“What does that mean?” I turned and looked at him. He was now leaning against the nasty-looking wall, which took more courage than I planned on summoning during my visit.
“Means just what I said. You wouldn’t. If you were to say, ‘I ate a Twinkie and didn’t float away,’ and I said, ‘You wouldn’t,’ would you ask me then what I meant?”
I stared at him for a second, trying to make sure I had understood correctly. “No?”
“No. No, you wouldn’t. This is goin’ nowhere.”
“What’s going nowhere?”
He took a deep drag on his cigarette, held his breath, and then expelled it in an almost hateful manner, like an angry teapot. “You’re a lot worse in person.”
I nodded like I understood, annoyed that I was stuck in a cell with a crazy person, a little sad that he was the one with the cigarettes. I rubbed my chin in a thoughtful manner. The only thing I was thinking about was whether there were any makeshift weapons around the cell.
He had his cigarettes and his lighter, which meant that there was a good possibility he had more. The cops hadn’t searched him as well as they had searched me, either because they knew him or because they didn’t give a shit. Whatever the reason, it meant that he probably had more paraphernalia at his disposal than I did. Paraphernalia being anything from a crack pipe to a knife.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. He looked around the cell. “Not anymore than this, anyway.”
People telling me out of the blue that they aren’t going to hurt me always sets me on edge. I mentioned this to him, and he just shrugged and lit up another cigarette.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “And I know it’s gonna be hard to believe. I’m your conscience.”
“Oh. My conscience. Of course you are.”
He flipped me the bird. “Don’t patronize me, you son of a bitch. I don’t expect you to believe me, but you could at least show some respect.”
“To the drunk stranger telling me that he’s my conscience? Of course. Where are my manners?”
“You’re a lot worse in person.”
“Yeah, you are too. How ‘bout you give me another cigarette?”
He tossed over the pack. “Look. You’re kinda in a lot of trouble, here.”
“I’ve been in jail before.” I put a cigarette between my lips and sparked the lighter.
“Yeah. The convenience store chick, this fat slob of a Sheriff is her uncle.”
The flame of the lighter was still several inches away from the end of the cigarette, occasionally flickering with the breeze. I stared at the stranger, trying to figure out something to say. My brain felt slow and buzzy and worthless.
A trick. This had to be a trick. I lit my cigarette and tossed him his lighter. “You’re not makin’ much sense, pal,” I told him.
“I’m making more sense than you’d like. This isn’t a trap, this isn’t a setup. This is me telling you that unless we figure something out, we’re both up shit creek.”
I blew out a cloud of smoke. “Ah. I got pulled over for speeding, man. An illegal search coughed up some grass, but that’s all I’m good for.”
He snapped his fingers, and he was suddenly holding my cigarette. I was suddenly holding nothing. “See how that works? That’s my way of telling you to shut the hell up and listen. It was a bad idea, I see that now. I’ve been going through some shit, drinking more. A lot more, really. My girlfriend just left me, she said I had a problem. I’ve been going to meetings. I was caught up in the moment, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Give me my cigarette back,” I said, because I wasn’t ready to say anything else just yet. He snapped, and my cigarette was suddenly back in my hand, between the fingers that always held my cigarettes when I smoked them. “Wait. I want a new one.”
This time, he didn’t even snap—the burning cigarette was back in his hand, and between my fingers was a brand new, unlit cigarette. “You got a lighter?” I asked.
“No, you do,” he said, indicating my other hand. Sure enough, I was holding a lighter.
“How do you do that?”
“Same way I do everything—power of suggestion.”
“You suggest I have a cigarette, I suddenly have one?”
“I suggest you have a cigarette, you suddenly think you have one.”
“This can’t be happening.”
“It is happening. You need to understand that, and you need to understand that the threat level is so significant that I’m actually showing up in person to try to get your ass out of here.”
“I’m going to have to think this over.”
“Think it over, but think quick—that little chick will probably be getting freed up any time, now, and the first person she’s going to call is her cop uncle.” He leaned back against the wall, and took a drag from a cigarette that hadn’t been in his hand moments before.
It certainly would explain a lot of things. I didn’t believe it for a second, because you’d have to be batshit insane to believe what he was telling me, and I wasn’t quite to that point yet. But if it was the truth, it certainly would explain quite a few things. I sat down on the dirty gray mattress to think, then remembered where I was and stood back up again.
“I’m not saying I believe any of this,” I said, after several minutes, “But let’s just pretend for a moment that I do, and recap.”
“You’re my conscience.”
“And you’re a drunken loser.”
“I think ‘loser’ is kind of a harsh term.”
“You’re an alcoholic.”
“So, just one more time, to make sure I got it straight…my conscience is an alcoholic.”
“That about sums it up, yeah.”
I stared down at the floor, but a roach the size of a hybrid car ran across my foot, so I decided not to look down anymore. “Another smoke?”
“Sure,” he said, and there was a lit cigarette in between my fingers. I took a drag and continued to pace around the dirty cell.
I was thinking of the girl. This guy, whoever he was, had it pegged. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back, it seemed really terrible.
She wasn’t hot, exactly, but there was something about her that seemed kind of hot. I had been running low on gas, so I pulled over at this little gas station in the middle of nowhere. I think the name was Cisco. Cisco, Crisco, Citrico, something like that.
I filled up the tank, and went in to get something to munch on. She was there, looking kind of hot in a small-town girl, check-out-my-gigantic-hair kind of way, and on a whim, I decided to sweet talk her.
She was easily won over, and we ended up screwing in the supply closet, her leaned up against the wall, me behind her, one hand on her ass cheek, the other holding a mop handle so I didn’t get hit in the face with the stained-gray mop head. She had whinnied like a horse as she had her orgasm, and it had kind of tripped me out, but not enough that I didn’t bust a nut right along with her.
Afterwards, she wanted to smoke a cigarette and cuddle for a minute. We were out of the stockroom by this point—we had gone another round after she had decided to be a rebel and actually lock up the store. We were collapsed on a piece of cardboard on the floor in front of the ice maker in the back room. She was telling me all about some stupid reality show that she always recorded so she could watch it when she got home.
That’s the moment where everything went crazy, I think. She was talking, and stroking the back of my neck, carrying on about how one of the judges was a drunk, and I saw a roll of silver tape up on top of the ice maker.
“You want to try something cool?” I asked her.
“You just can’t get enough,” she giggled.
Long story short, I taped her wrists behind her back, I taped her ankles together, and I put a piece of tape across her mouth. Then I left her there in front of the ice machine, naked as the day she was born. I cleaned out the two cash registers, kicked in the “safe,” which was actually just a wooden box with a padlock, and took that money, too. And, because I was a little hungry after all that humping, I snagged a few candy bars. Oh, and several cases of beer, for good measure. I used her keys to lock the convenience store door behind me, and then I took off, leaving her keys on the roof of her car.
Like I said, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“So what do we need to do?” I asked.
“What do we do? To get out of here?”
He sat silently. For the first time, I realized that it wasn’t cool posturing that kept him leaning against the back wall, it was a drunken lack of balance. He didn’t have a collected, introspective look on his face, his eyes were just squinted. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were bloodshot and a little crossed.
“Yeah,” I said. “That.”
“Okay, here’s the plan.” In a movie, this is the part where they’d lean in and begin speaking in a conspirative whisper, and then the scene would fade out. He explained his plan to me, and I noticed that while he explained it, he smoked a cigarette and drank a beer. I noticed that while he explained his plan, I had a cigarette and a beer, as well.
I didn’t have to wait long to put my newly thought-up plan into action. Uncle Sheriff kicked open the door at the end of the hall in a manner that suggested that he had discovered the things I had done with and to his niece, and in a manner that suggested he was very unhappy about this.
I was curled up on the skanked-out mattress, pretending to be asleep. I figured if I could manage to do this, the rest of the plan would be a cake-walk. He slammed open the cell door and reached for me.
I turned and kicked out, catching him in the balls, and making him drop the can of pepper spray he had been planning to empty into my eyes. He doubled over and opened his mouth to yell. I kicked him in the side of the head as hard as I could, and he tumbled against the wall with a series of thuds.
I picked up his pepper spray and his pistol, and hauled ass. The guy behind the desk, the fire hose guy, was smirking as I crashed through the door—probably thinking that I had been tossed through. He stood slowly, ready to join in the violence, and I gave him a liberal dosing of the spray. He fumbled with his pistol, somehow managing to fire off a shot before he even got it un-holstered, and I crashed through the front door and out into the night.
My conscience was sitting on the hood of one of cop cars.
“This one! This one has the keys in it!”
I slid across the hood, action-movie-style, and started up the cruiser.
“This is what makes it all worth-while!” My conscience screamed out the window. He popped open another beer. He offered me one, but I decided to hold off for the real thing—I still had several cases in my car that I had swiped from the gas station. “This is living!”
And you know, I had to agree with him.