The tattoo takes three days. It takes so long because it hurts. I shriek when she sticks me for the first time.
“Shhh! If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.”
It hurts partly because she’s just dipping a sewing needle in pen ink and sticking me with it, and partly because she’s tattooing my stump.
“Where do you want it?” she’d asked.
“My stump,” I’d said without hesitation. It just felt right.
Each night, she cauterizes her needles in our meager fire. Each day, I sit at the edge of the bottom bunk and read passages aloud from How to Make Friends and Influence People, my shaking hands ripping out each finished page for our evening’s blaze, as she dips the needle into ink and sticks me with it, dips and sticks, for as long as I can stand it. Because of the damage and scar tissue, some nerves are dead. Others sing.
When I can’t take it anymore, I scream a few church curses and she stops for awhile, holding a maxi pad to my stump to staunch the blood.
I don’t know what she’s creating. It had never occurred to me to get a tattoo before – who would’ve thought I’d even have the opportunity! – so when she asked what I wanted, I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, what can you draw?”
I’m on the verge of screaming for the twentieth time in so many hours when she leans back, gently blots away fresh dots of weeping blood and ink and stares for a moment.
“Done.” She sighs in satisfaction.
“What does it look like?” One of the downsides of getting it done on my stump is that I can’t actually see it.
“It’s a rattlesnake with dice for eyes choking out a baby.” She says this matter-of-factly, studying my stump with the critical eye of an artist. “It is probably my most realistic work.”
“I’m honored,” I say. And I mean it.
“Keep it covered for the next few days. It needs to be kept clean until it scabs over.”
She covers it with a maxi pad, scoots back and nods again. “Pretty badass,” she mutters to herself.
I can’t wait for it to scab over. It hurts. I tie off my pantleg and lean back on my bunk, gently pressing my stump to the wall to keep the pad in place. Eventually, the blood will clot to the pad, creating a crude adhesive.
Peaches stretches out on the floor. Then she coughs and spits out a tooth. It’s bloody and longer than I would’ve imagined a tooth to be.
“Huh,” she says, tonguing the hole where her incisor used to be. “You think the tooth fairy gets a visitation badge here?”
She begins laughing so hard she chokes. It’s melodramatic and it’s contagious – soon I’m laughing – howling, really – rolling on my flimsy bunk, tears streaming down my cheeks, then other cells erupt with howls and it gets louder and louder, feet stomping, palms beating the walls, our collective hysteria echoing up and down the hallways, a real prison symphony. At least, that’s what I think until our cell door bangs open. It’s Bulldog Frankestein.
“Fire!” he yells. “Get down to the courtyard!”
Prisoners and guards run down the hall behind him. The smoke I’ve come to view as commonplace here intensifies. This isn’t an ordinary cell fire.
“We need wheelchairs,” I say. “That’s not my problem,” he says, backing out of our cell. “Get out or die here.”
“Hey!” He stops and I stare at him hard. I put every ounce of military training into that stare, I channel Zelda’s most withering look. “It is your problem. I am your problem.”
He hesitates in our doorway. Inmates and guards are pushing each other now, chased by an intensifying heat. He’s weighing the trouble he’d face for letting a military cadet die on his watch. Then he turns his back to us and radios out. “I need medic assistance in cellblock 48. Bring a wheelchair. Now.”
I slide off my bunk.
“Grab the shiv,” Peaches whispers to me, her eyes trained on Bulldog’s back, so I do, tucking it into my still-tender cheek. Soon, a medic arrives with one wheelchair.
“Get on,” he orders, looking at me.
“Her first.” I don’t want to take the chance that he’ll leave Peaches here.
Bulldog jerks his head and the medic helps Peaches into the seat. I drag myself over and suddenly hands are digging into my armpits, lifting me up, dumping me onto a lap of warm bones.
Then the chair whips around and we’re off, flying down hallways I can hardly see, chased by heat and smoke and screams.
Bulldog Frankenstein abandons us outside. It’s dusk but the fire warms us, makes us sweat. Some prisoners are celebrating, smiling and whooping in small groups. Rumors fly as we stand in the shadow of the great building, watching it burn. The fire started in the laundry. It began with a lint trap that got too hot and quickly spread to a pile of dirty blankets, fed by prisoners who gathered around it for warmth instead of calling for help. Then someone’s hem caught fire, and another’s hair, and the screaming started. By then it was too late. That’s what the whispers say to Peaches, at least.
No one talks to me. They ignore me entirely, which is just as well because the shiv once again lodged in my mouth makes talking pretty gruesome. But people seem to know Peaches, even though she’s only been here for two weeks. Only they call her Nadine. She’s hardly left our cell, but they know her. They approach singularly or in pairs and talk to her as if she’s royalty. It’s a bit awkward because I’m still sitting on her lap.
I search covertly for people I know and finally see a group of cadets standing far away from the fire, away from the other prisoners. It’s stupid, them huddled together like that. Collectively, they look a little too healthy for this place. Too clean and well fed. Hair too shiny. Faces too shell shocked by what they’ve witnessed here.
I don’t see Zelda until I do. She, too, is standing away from the others. Alone. She’s staring down, clutching her book, a blanket draped around her shoulders. She looks broken. She looks like prey.
I don’t realize I’m wheeling us to her until Peaches asks, “Where are we going?”
Instead of answering, I spit blood.
Another woman gets to Zelda first. I can’t see her face but the woman’s energy is erratic, menacing. Zelda won’t look at her. Just clutches her book and blanket.
That woman wants her book and blanket. I know it. I wheel faster.
“What’s happening?” Peaches asks. I ignore her.
I try to shout but it comes out a bloody gurgle. The woman doesn’t turn. Her arm snakes out and she grabs Zelda at the throat and shakes her, hard.
Another shake and Zelda’s on the ground, the woman on top, choking her with one hand and clawing at the blanket with another. Zelda slaps at her hand but doesn’t fight back – not the way she’s trained to. She just takes it.
I launch myself onto the woman’s back with such force that the wheelchair tips over. The woman shakes me off and then she’s straddling me, clawing at my face. I’m dimly aware that some people are yelling – either to stop us or spur us on. In the flickering light of the four-story fire, it’s impossible to know what they see. It’s impossible to know who sees me spit the plastic shiv out into my palm and stab the woman in the face.
It slides through her cheek like a steak knife through butter. It’s so easy, I pull it out and stab again, only this time, my hand slips on blood, so I leave it there.
The woman rolls away, screaming, clutching her face as a garish amount of blood slides through her fingers. I realize my palm is also covered with blood. Only when I reach down to wipe it off do I realize I’m half lying on Peaches.
The guards arrive. Two bend down to pick up the screaming woman, their faces in shadow.
“What happened here?” One asks.
The woman tries to speak but chokes on her own blood. She tries again but her words come out garbled. I wonder if I cut off her tongue by accident.
Zelda doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even move. I’m beginning to worry. “Is she okay?” I ask.
“It’s too soon to tell. Once we staunch the blood –”
“Not her,” I interrupt the guard. “The one she attacked.”
“Tell us what happened.” It’s Bulldog Frankenstein. Of course it is.
“Sure,” I say, jerking my chin at the bleeding woman. “She got stabbed in the face.”
“And how did that happen?”
I need a quick lie. If I had more time, I’d tell Peaches everything: how I’ve been more honest with her than with anyone in my life. I’d tell her what a gift that is, how she’s liberated me. How she’s changed me, left a mark on me deeper and more permanent than a snake with dice for eyes choking out a baby. But I don’t have that kind of time.
I point at Peaches.
“She stabbed her,” I say. “They were fighting over that girl’s blanket and she stabbed her in the face.”
“What? No, I–” My elbow connects with her ribs with such force I know I’ve cracked a few. It’s what I’ve been trained to do. Now she’s gasping beneath me and I know this looks bad but if she stops to think, she’ll realize I’m doing her a kindness. I’m giving her what she wants: a one-way ticket to Farm 19.