"You may be a cop now, but we know what you did to that corrections officer at Pelican Bay. And that makes you a con." (Pilot Ep.)
"My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes."
There are limits.
They don't stay long. They lengthen, they shorten, they warp, they curl, they tie knots in themselves and then undo everything and slither away.
There are limits.
But they're never solid.
Only takes a week for everyone to know, for word to miraculously spread the whole of Pelican Bay and send the wolves a-coming.
And a-coming they do, from all corners, from all dark shadows and places where they shouldn't, these predators with staple-spears and shivs made of plastic and that one knife some bastard made from the metal binding of a binder.
They come a-running. A-screaming. A-cutting.
And Charlie Crews falls.
They forget to tell Charlie a lot about SHU.
White concrete. White, white white and really it turns blue in the buzzing florescent lights.
They forget to mention that sometimes the stay in SHU is indefinite. Sometimes it's permanent. That Charlie only get one hour a day to see the sunlight, and even then, it's so fucking cloudy in this part of California that mostly, when he look up to the skylight, all he see is gray, gray like the cell and the floors and even his skin.
(He closes his eyes when he starts wondering if he can scratch himself out of this place. If nails that are sharp enough and strong enough can cut cut Charlie out of here and back into the real world.)
(He closes his eyes when this starts happening and says: "I'm not here.")
Guy in the cell next to Charlie's goes crazy after a week, though Word later informs Charlie (Prisoner #1083728) that the guy had been there for a while. Six, maybe seven years. Part of the White Knights. Stabbed a couple. Beaten a couple. Killed a couple. Ordered around more than a few to murder a couple.
The others, they're cool, calm, and collected. They've learned how to focus. How to balance, so very tenuously, their (in)sanity. Some guys have books. And others have television.
But this guy? He has nothing, and so he snaps. Starts screaming, hollering, and that thunk that everyone in the hallway can hear on the heavy nickel door, that's an indication of a skull hitting metal. Cranium ringing, brain bouncing, blood trickling from nostrils and a mouth to provide the only real color this man has seen in six years spray on the floor.
You know where you go when you're crazy?
And there's a waiting list.
So they let him out. Maybe three weeks later. Maybe a few days, a few months.
(Time doesn't really exist here. It can't.)
They let him out, and for a while, Charlie is okay. Okay in the sense that he's learning to adapt, learning the grounds, learning the posturing and the silent language and the motion someone makes when they're getting ready to kill your ass.
Charles Crews learns.
And for four months, he lives.
(But that's the thing, see: this place is built on predators, on rapists, murderers, gang-lords and all the like. These people are warriors and blood kings and they've read their own variations of the Art of War, tattooed into their backs and their forearms and sometimes right under their eyes.)
"When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity." This is written many hundreds of years before Charlie Crews is even born into existence, so he does not know what is means.
But he discovers quickly when he's cornered at the edge of the yard.
Broken fingers and toes don't quite set right.
And the scars on his back remain.
(Charlie, something whispers to him in the corner of the room, Charlie, you're going crazy.)
He tries counting.
How many syllables?
How many letters?
How long have you been here? And that rasp, he realizes with a start, that shaky, rattle of sound, is from him.
"Three months," he says, quietly. "Three months."
Charlie does push-ups.
The first six months he's in SHU solid, they help.
So they let him out again, and he thinks to himself: this is Charlie as a guinea pig.
Let's see how long Charlie lasts.
He envisions himself as a Cavia porcellus. A rodent. He's almost forgotten what a guinea pig is, what it looks like, but when he closes his eyes and exhales, he can see it. Fat. Low ground clearance. Body like an oval with a little triangular face and beady eyes. Handy lab animal around the world.
Charlie the Guinea Pig.
He fucking hates the ring of that in his ears.
Charlie lasts longer this time, because Charlie is a quick study. His cell mate leaves him alone, the C.O.s only have round him up and had some fun with the truncheons a few times and while there are a couple of nudges and pushes here and there, the majority of people leave him alone.
And he gets smart. He learns that the gangs own the prison, that individuals are like weakened antelope that have strayed away from the herd. He learns that mostly if you want to survive, you have to join a gang.
(But Charlie also knows that if you join a gang, you also become a shoe-in for SHU. And once you're there as a gang-banger, there is no escape.)
So he says no thanks. Not only because he's seen enough of SHU, but also because an ex-cop joining a group – even if it is for protection – is a nice way to die very early and painfully.
Charlie thinks of this as consolation, that maybe if he tries to be good, he'll get parole.
But then he remembers: he's here for life.
That strange and almost absurd hope Charlie had that maybe, maybe someone would realize this was all wrong and he wasn't supposed to be here – shatters in a million pieces.
You're here for life.
Two men try to take Charlie down this time. Younger, brash men who have the scars but not the eyes to prove that they've been here a long time. They're new. And blind.
And they underestimate Charlie Crews.
200 stitches and three months of 'vacation' in SHU.
He talks to himself more. Stutters to a halt, and then forgets and starts again.
(Push-ups become an every-other day affair. Charlie wonders what apples taste like.)
By 36 months, some people begin to realize that he will not go down.
And finally, during lunch, someone speaks to him.
"You should be fucking dead," an older man declares, short, stocky and with the blunt angles that give away someone who did manual labor for most of his life. This man's fingers are all out of alignment, his ears have become cauliflower-curled and his nose points to the side, and when he says this to Charlie, looming over the table with tray in hand, Charlie ignores that fear that rattles quietly in his stomach.
"You going to kill me?" he asks. He's gotten to the point, now, where emotion can leave a conversation and he can sound just as blase and nonchalant as anyone else here.
The man shakes his head, hesitates, and then takes a seat opposite of Crews.
"I wanted to congratulate you," he says after a moment. "Most of B Wing had a running pool that you would've been dead in the first three months."
Charlie pauses over the hideous beef/spam conglomerate and slowly raises his eyes.
"What side were you on?"
The man smiles. Toothily. Revealing checkerboard teeth.
"So far," he says, "The side that's winning."
His name is Ryan Broder, and he killed two men in Corcoran. Wounded a prison guard.
"They didn't kill me," he murmurs, prodding at his broccoli. "Do you know how often we got away with shit like that?"
"You didn't," Charlie points out.
Broder looks up. His laugh is mirthless.
"That's right," he says. "But they normally just shoot your ass."
"Why not yours?" Charlie asks.
Broder's eyes hood, and he leans back. "The world," he says after a beat, "works in mysterious ways."
Loners. Not alone, but no gang.
By 40 months, Charlie knows fifteen people who fall under this classification.
Only five of them talk to him.
"You've lived this long," Broder remarks, "and three years ain't bad, but to most everyone, you're still a cop."
Sergei Dukov, an (ex) member of the Russian mafia (and he explains that the only reason he's not in a gang is now because he is so unimportant that no one gives a shit what he does), now sits at their table. Bendy, hachet-faced Russian of the Soviet variety.
He watches people a lot. Says little while Broder and Charlie talk, instead slouched over the table, elbows up and chin cradled in the net of his fingers. Tattoos march on the backs of his hands, telling just as much about this man as the scars on his cheekbones and forehead do about knock-down/drag down fights with knives and fists and anything that caused pain.
Unimportant. Didn't matter much.
It's a load of bullshit. And Charlie knows that.
But he's also figured a lot, and the first thing is that he don't ask questions. If someone wants to say something, they'll say it.
Otherwise, he waits. And watches.
Charlie gets library privileges back. Shuffles in there. Goes up to the desk and asks, "Do you have any Steinbeck?"
The librarian (and dear god, it's a woman behind the counter, and that in itself surprises Charlie) is older, gray hair held in a rigid bun and back straight. Behind square glasses she blinks at him with sharp blue eyes.
No fear. Evaluation.
"Yeah," she finally says. "We have some Steinbeck."
He hasn't read Steinbeck since he was a junior in high school. And then, he had hated it.
Now has changed things, though.
He picks up Of Mice and Men. Sees an outside that he hasn't witnessed in almost four years, sees the lazy Salinas River, the mountains, a rabbit jumping across the plain after being spooked by human footsteps, spoon-shaped jackrabbit feet and those black eyes that look back to see if they're being followed.
Charlie almost cries.
The divorce papers come exactly 48 months after Charlie Crews enters Pelican Bay.
First three days, he's catatonic. Doesn't talk to his cell mate, doesn't acknowledge the guards, doesn't speak to Broder or Dukov or the other guy who came to the table recently.
He grinds his teeth. Goes outside and does push-ups and sit-ups for nearly the full hour of recreation. Runs in place. Hits the bag.
Fourth day, he gets in a fight with a kid who picked the wrong fucking day to insult him.
Dislocated shoulder and fractured ribs for the kid. Bruised spine and a nearly-broken forearm for Charlie.
"Wrong fucking day," he snarls to the kid, curled up on the ground with blood trailing off his lip, his nose. It's the first thing Charlie says to the boy on the ground and it's also the last. A group has circled around the two, but they're silent as he kicks the kid, once, in the stomach.
In the stillness that follows – the blood pounding in Charlie's ears and his breathing ragged – the crowd dissipates, a shuffling and creeping shadow that slides away with the deadly grace that it came to arrive in.
The kid stays down.
And Charlie doesn't move.
("You need to know something," Broder tells him quietly when he sees Charlie again, one week after a four-day SHU excursion. He pulls him aside with a light tap on his elbow, mouth an angry and thin line. "You need to know that you can't fucking beat someone's meat and expect to get away with it.")
("I'm not," Charlie responds.)
("You're full of shit," Broder says, almost contemptuous. "You're fucking full of it.")
Turns out Broder was right.
60 stitches and a concussion.
"Congratulations," the medic ward's doctor says dryly. "You're down from 200 by nearly 70%."
Charlie says nothing.
Dukov speaks. Finally.
"You should be dead," he states matter-of-factly, gray eyes briefly looking away from the world to glance at Charlie. His English is good, in fact, excellent, but the Russian is there in the heavy 'r's and garbled a's and u's.
It's month 56 and Charlie just came out of (yet another) bout in SHU.
"I get that a lot," he says.
Dukov's chin dips down in a nearly imperceptible nod. "You should," he replies.
The two eat in silence for another minute, Dukov staring off at the lunch line and the plexiglass barrier dividing the cooks with their shit food and the inmates with their shit lives.
"Where's Broder?" Charlie asks.
"Sick," Dukov responds.
Later, they find out that Ryan Broder was involved in an 'incident' with his cell mate. Fight over television maybe. Fight over something else, perhaps.
Whatever it was, it involved a shiv. And blood.
"Bastard gave me fucking Hep C," he says when he at last returns after nearly two weeks in the medical unit. Hands fisted on top of the table, head down. He tries to say this calmly but his voice shakes.
"Do you know how long I'm going to last now?" Broder looks up at nothing, lets out a snort of laughter. When he finally glances over at Charlie, the brutal confusion and anger in his eyes is palpable.
"Fifteen goddamn years," he says softly. "Fifteen years I avoid the fights, I get some education, I leaveeveryone alone. Fifteen years and I get fucked up by a Chicano would wanted the bottom fucking bunk."
"You let your guard down," he says, blunt as always.
Broder uncurls his hands, flattens them on the table. There's a moment where he inhales, holds it. And then he sighs, laughs again. "Don't I fucking know it."
They sit, quiet, until Charlie clears his throat.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Charlie starts dreaming of the outside, again.
Of Mice and Men isn't in, and briefly Charlie feels almost dejected. Disappointed. He wanders the 000 section of the shelves, lost.
The guard near the librarian, tall guy with the eyes of Auschwitz guards and the Gulag, watches Charlie drift around. Waits for a mistake. But he's learned enough to ignore the knives at his back, and instead tilts his head down, invisible strings pulling his neck to a lopsided 70 degree angle.
There's one book there that catches his attention. A ragged, badly beaten and abused paperback curled into a corner of one of the racks, cream-colored spine torn with the faint ZEN scrawled across the cover.
He brushes a hand over the top, feels the dust gathering there.
"Zen." Charlie says. Aloud.
He checks it out. Swears that the librarian almost smiles in that dry, mournful way that she looks at all the prisoners when she thinks they're not looking.
(Charlie reads in one of the first lines of his book: it is everywhere.)
(He's not quite sure what to make of that.).
The Chicano gets to him before the Hep C does its dirty work.
Before Charlie becomes Zen, Charlie becomes angry.
Corrections Officer (but you never call him that – you never call them guards or C.O.s because they think of themselves of deputies, like this is the damn Wild West or something) Jeffery Billings has always been a cruel man. The kind of guy that would've been here, fucking kids and shanking anyone who stood up to him, if he didn't have the badge and the Taser and the truncheon he always made sure you could see.
Jeffery Billings, for lack of better word, is a prick.
And he knows it.
"Coppy," he calls to Charlie one day, during indoor recreation. Even over the boisterousness of a place reverbrating with the calls and curses and conversation of prisoners playing cards, talking and arguing over the television, Charlie recognizes the concrete roughness of the C.O.'s voice.
He ignores Billings, turns to Dukov and lays down a straight.
Distantly, he thinks of the book lying in his cell. Thinks that holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.
Dukov's gaze flickers up from cards, and the flint in them is as cutting as it is quietly angry, silently furious. The two make eye contact, blink in wordless dialogue. A keep cool from Dukov and a muffled acknowledgment from Charlie, who tries to remember to breathe evenly and think of the Selinas River, of the shadows of deer and foxes engraved in the soft mud of the riverbank, of early dawn and peace.
They continue playing, even though everyone can smell the fight in the air, the violent static that pushes the already stifling heat of the hall down like a blood-soaked blanket.
Motions slow. Words deepen. People step back, move forward, still their activities and – with the predatory and calculating gazes of creatures adjusted to turbulence – turn to focus on the main event.
You don't need to know who's at the center of it.
You just know it's happening.
(Billings shouldn't know anything about a woman once named Jennifer Crews.)
(He shouldn't know anything about a divorce.)
(He shouldn't know.)
(But he does.)
To be fair, Charlie didn't start the fight.
But he tries to finish it.
(It's at this point that Charlie knows he really has fucked up. You don't break the bones of a guard, don't make him bleed and swear and grunt like another inmate in another fight and expect to get away with it. Charlie knows he's hurt this man. Knows he's hurt him bad.)
(They give him his book. ZEN.)
(And then they close the nickle-plated door.)
A/N: Credits to Rand Ravich and his absolutely brilliant characters and original plot. Sure, it's been buggered up in the second season, but I have faith.
Hope you, as the readers, enjoyed this. It was depressing as all out to do research on prison, and solidified whatever subconscious doubts I may have had on the literal and figurative suckage of prison. Don't do crime, kids. Prison is bad, and -- contrary to popular belief -- is no hotel.
ANYWAY: thanks for reading. Feel free to critique or comment.