He awoke in his usual surroundings and for a moment all seemed normal, or as normal as it ever got in a federal prison. Reaching for the last cigarette in the pack, he placed it between his lips. Striking a sulfurous smelling match and applying it, he inhaled the harsh smoke deep into his lungs and lay back to look up again at that same spot on the ceiling he had stared at so many times. Then, as he heard the hard rubber heels of the guard's shoes hitting the concrete and adding their own noise and rhythm to the already almost deafening din, he remembered........
Today was not just any old day. No Siree! It was THE day! The very LAST day he would have to spend in this cesspool. It almost seemed like a dream, and some inner part of him more than half-way expected the guard to walk right past the cell door with a brief look in just like always. But that didn't happen.
Joe Claxton had been a guard for almost as long as Earl had been behind bars, and over the years a strange sort of friendship had evolved between the two. Now, as he and the other two guards walked up to the door and opened it, Earl could see he was troubled.
"You know Earl," he said in a somber tone, "I really hate to see you go, in a way. Although God knows fifteen years in this place would be enough for anyone."
"Aw hell Joe," Earl said in the raspy voice of a heavy smoker, " You'll still have plenty of cons to boss around after I'm gone!" He rolled to his side and sat up on the side of the hard mattress with a lopsided grin on his grizzled face. Fifteen years. Damn near half his life spent behind these God forsaken walls with some of the worst thugs, murderers, rapists........well you name it, they were there. He shook his head. It did no good now to wonder at the twist in life's road that had brought him here to this place that was so much more than just a prison. It sucked the very soul from a man and left you hollow as a corn husk.
At first he had thought he could ride it out. And, if the original sentence had been all he'd had to pull, he would probably have done just that. But then, there had been that trouble with one of the other prisoners. Well, he had the right to defend himself didn't he? But evidently things didn't work the same in here as in the "real world"and when the other fellow had died, he drew an additional 15-20 years on top of the 7-10 he was already facing.
When he found out he went berserk, and it took 4 of them to get him into solitary confinement where, as one out of breath guard put it, "He can scream and bounce off the walls 'till Judgment Day for all I care!" And he did, for a while at least, until he lost his voice and all that would come out was just a dry wheeze.
Well, 6 weeks in solitary can do a lot to help you see the light about things like that. When his time was up he seemed calm enough, so they let him back out into the main block. But he wasn't calm, he was empty; as empty as the cigarette pack he crumpled now and half-heartedly tossed towards the little trash can in the corner. As he had lain there with his tear streaked face pressed against the coolness of the floor, he could feel the life force being drawn from his body into the huge mass of concrete and steel that was his living hell. But he was also a man with a plan. There was no stinking way he was going to spend that many years behind the walls of this place!
Now, as Joe held the door open for the last time, he took one last look around the small room that had been his home for so long. At long last, freedom from this accursed place, this festering boil on the butt of humanity. He turned back to the guard with a sigh and that same lopsided grin and said simply, " OK Joe, I'm ready now."
As they walked down the corridor between the cell blocks toward the big metal door on the other end, it became strangely hushed and the sound of footsteps bounced from wall to wall and back again until all the echoes merged in a cacophony that seemed to sing a farewell tune in his ears. He even tried a joke, but Joe managed only a weak smile.
When they reached the door, he turned, and raised his fist high in one last defiant gesture. The silence erupted into a deafening roar as hundreds of trapped men shouted and strained against the bars that held them like the animals most were. Finally, he allowed his arm to drop limply back to his side and turned towards the the door that was his gateway to freedom. He walked through with the echoes of that last farewell ringing in his ears and was escorted into a room where he was told to sit, and try to relax.
Well he could sit, but he for damn sure couldn't relax! This was the most exciting thing to happen to him in more years than he could remember! At long last the dream was coming true! He would never again be put in that little rat hole of a cell with the peeling paint, and the graffiti that went back to a time long before he had first arrived.
He was actually happy for the first time in a long while! It had taken killing another prisoner to do it, but at long last freedom was within his grasp! And as the priest from the nearby parish entered the room, a smile actually made it's way across his face when he raised his hands to his head to touch the places they had shaved for the electrodes to fit.