Undeserving

After three years, two months, three weeks, six days and twenty-two standard hours, I didn’t want to think about it.

It being getting out of prison.

I stared at the ceiling of my cage as I lay on my plastisteel bunk. Three weeks ago my cellmate of just over two years had died in a fight in the showers. I shook my head at the senselessness of it. The fight had been over a roll.

My cellmate Tim had taken the last roll in the breadbasket during the third meal shift that day. In the process he had offended a member of the Steel Dragons, a violent prison gang. A bounty of fifty cigarettes, the cash currency of the prison, had been placed on Tim’s head without his knowing it. He was dead less than twenty-four hours after being green lighted.

Survival in prison is tough if you have a friend to watch your back. When I was incarcerated, I didn’t have a friend in the world.

I nearly despaired of surviving my sentence during that first year of incarceration. Four times I’d gone to the clinic as a result of injuries from fights. Depression was my constant companion. So much so I’d even considered doing the Dutch and ending it all.

Things changed for the better when Tim arrived. Tim was older and knew the ropes of how to survive in an Alliance prison. He took me under his wing and taught me the basics of survival. Tim was in for his fourth stretch. His hitch was one month longer than what I had left.

“I can do this stretch standing on my head,” he’d told me, smiling his gentle smile. “You just listen to me, and I’ll get you through this rough patch.”

Tim had kept his word teaching me how to avoid conflict, spot potentially dangerous situations. We built alliances, not for physical protection, but for a heads up if something was coming our way. Neither of us smoked, allowing us to save our weekly ration of cigarettes in order to bribe prison guards.

Passing time in prison was a challenge for any inmate and it was no different for me. Tim had taught me how to put the time to use, how to make it work for me instead of killing me a little inside each day.

“You don’t want to come back here, understand,” he’d told me. “I regret the fact I’ve spent a third of my life on rocks like Persephone. This is my last time, Ralph. I should have known better than to get involved in the scam I did, but my greed got the better of me.”

With Tim’s encouragement, I finished high school. Not even Alice had been able to get me to do that. I passed my taxi driver’s certification test too. Tim had pushed me to take the test, telling me, “It’s honest work. You won’t get rich, but you’ll be able to earn a living and not wind up back inside.”

School, even in prison, wasn’t enjoyable, but Tim showed me learning could be okay. If it was something I liked, it wasn’t too bad. All of my life I’d been curious about how things worked, especially hover cars. I’d filled up a lot of long hours in our cell learning everything I could about hover cars, how they worked, how to fix them, how to best operate them.

As helpful as everything Tim taught me was, none of it helped where Alice was concerned.

Alice didn’t visit me the first two years I was in the joint. My comlinks and letters went unanswered. I finally came to the conclusion Alice had given up on me and I’d eventually get divorce papers to sign.

Not that I blamed her.

Alice had made it clear to me too many times to stay clear of the people I ran with. I can’t count the number of times I’d lain awake after lights out replaying Alice’s angry rants, telling me I’d come to no good running with the crowd I was hanging with.

I was stupid. That stupidity cost me the only good thing in my life. Alice.

I’d been playing in a floating poker game when the cops kicked the door in. Playing in an illegal game was an offence that only carried a fine, which was why the vice cops, hadn’t been paid off to leave the game alone.

It was the thirty grams of stim the cops found in my coat pocket that got me sent to Graham Correctional on the moon Persephone.

Claiming the drugs weren’t mine but had been planted hadn’t worked very well as a defense. The judge, jury and prosecutor hadn’t bought it. Alice’s silence during the entire trial made me pretty sure she hadn’t bought my story either. So I caught a bum beef for just over three.

So, here I am, hours away from my release from the hell of prison. As strange as it sounds, I’m afraid of what I’ll find on the outside.

Alice stared at the chronometer on the dirty wall of her one room walkup. She glanced in the tiny, cracked mirror sitting on the small, dingy chest of drawers. Its surface was smudged and bleary, making the reflection less than perfect. With her hand Alice captured the few wild stands of hair that had escaped and carefully tucked them back into place.

Standing up, Alice turned carefully and glanced at her attire. It was the best she could do given her situation. Picking up her coat, Alice slipped it on, grabbed her battered purse and left, carefully locking the door behind her.

Light from the lone window peeked in, landing on the calendar Alice had pinned on the wall. Each day bore a single large line through it, marking off the days until she had to confront her future.

As she walked out into the freezing cold of Beta Prime to catch the tube to the Space Port, Alice was still undecided just what that future would be.

I felt the footsteps long before I heard the voice of the two guards talking. Certain sounds travel faster than others in Graham, at least in the cellblock I’ve been locked up in.

It’s time. At least I think it is. I look around my home for the past three years and three months. I’ve memorized every inch of what it looks like. I’ll never forget it either, the despair, the fear, the loneliness, even when Tim was alive. The sounds of my cellblock will haunt me in my dreams for the rest of my life I suppose. Just like the smells.

It’s funny how much you don’t take note of your senses until your confined. The only way to explore beyond the six square meters of a cell, your house, is to use all of your senses. I learned to listen and hear things I didn’t know I could hear. Things like a man crying a hundred meters away, the sharpening of an object into a shiv or the rattling sound of a man’s dying last gasp of breath.

Smells used to not be a big deal to me. Now I can’t get the stench of prison out of my nostrils. I can smell the body odor of the armed robber in the next cell. I can’t remember the last time that lug bathed. Drugs have a unique odor I’d never paid attention to that much before. Now I can identify about two-dozen different drugs by smell alone.

Graham Correctional has its own unique smell. Doesn’t matter where you go, you can smell it. In the showers, the work and exercise areas, the sealed tunnels and the worse place of all, the chow room. It’s a mix of body odor, urine and feces combined with the stale air of the prison. There’s a moldy, mildew scent mixed in with the institutional smell of cleaner.

Making the smell even fouler is the fact the prison is sealed. It’s airtight. Graham’s built on Beta Prime’s moon Persephone, a piece of rock that doesn’t have its own atmosphere. The result is the odors just get recycled through the air handling system. If there was ever any means to scrub the air of its foul odors, the technology long ago gave up the cause as useless.

Vibration can be felt if you find the right spot in your cell. Like I said, I felt the footsteps of the guards approaching before I heard them.

Loneliness had been the worse part of Ralph being in prison. Alice leaned against the window of the coach as it rocked back and forth, lights from the tunnel occasionally illuminating the dimly lit car. It had struck Alice as odd that she could live in Capital City, population of 2.2 million, and be so alone.

More than anything else, it was being left alone that fueled Alice’s anger with Ralph. They’d moved to Beta Prime to start a life together, to escape the rough start in life both of them had experienced. Newly weds, enjoying the blissfulness of being in love, they’d been shocked to learn life on Beta Prime was so harsh.

They’d not had the good sense to take the adverts for settlers with a grain of salt. Lacking the wisdom to realize the truth about life on a world that had only been settled forty years, they’d made the mistake of casting their lot with other immigrants foolish enough to follow their dreams to frozen world of Beta Prime.

Neither of them had liked school and the resulting lack of education due to ditching school, zero effort to learn and the two of them eventually dropping out was costly. Alice hated to admit it, but the words of so many of her teachers rang in her ears on a daily basis.

“You need to get an education Alice! If you don’t, how do you expect to earn a living?”

It was just another lesson life had beaten into Alice, breaking off one more tiny piece of her strong willed, rebellious nature.

She’d realized fighting authority wasn’t going to work and had started waitressing. It was honest work and the lack of her high school diploma hadn’t stopped her from getting a job. Ralph on the other hand lived like they were still in high school, constantly looking for the next good time.

The late nights and rough crowd he’d started running with kept Ralph from holding down a job for more than a few months at a time. When the cops came to let her know he’d been arrested and was likely going to do a couple of years in Graham, Alice had almost felt relieved.

I looked back down the cellblock that had been my neighborhood. I got a shove in the back from the two screws who’d come to get me. For grins, they’d put a four-piece suit on me.

I got the message and shuffled along as fast as the leg irons, manacles and chains would let me. I held a prison issued bag with my few possessions in my hands.

“Catching the chain Ralph,” a lifer called out to me.

“Yeah, did my stretch,” I answered, shuffling along slowly. I wasn’t too sure if I really wanted to leave. Graham had become home. It was the longest place I had lived for most of my life.

I’d learned the rules, learned how to avoid trouble, finished my bid and now I was set to fly away. I’d gone from being a fish to a con. I thought about the promise I’d made to my dead celly Tim. I wasn’t going to be a violator. One stretch was enough for this con.

What scared me so badly was not knowing if Alice had waited. I couldn’t blame if she’d found a Sancho, another man, and moved on.

The taller of the two CO’s gave me another push. “C’mon Ralph, we’re about to get off duty. Speed it up a little will ya?”

I ignored the CO and stood on the yellow line on the floor in front of the electronically controlled steel door that led to freedom. A loud buzz sounded and the door slipped open to the right. I stepped through and spotted another yellow line painted on the floor. I put my toes on the line and listened to the loud slam of the door shutting behind me.

“Inmate Number 876912435, step forward two steps, set your bag on the table to your right and take two steps back.”

And so it was I began the process of transitioning back to civilian life.

Alice bulled her way through throng of people crowding forward to get on the subway train. Life on her own had taught Alice how to fend for herself, to be hard and tough when necessary.

Shooting a final dirty look at the man who’d blocked her way, Alice hurried towards the ticket counter to buy a ticket for a shuttle to the space station.

Keeping an eye on the flight schedule, Alice waited impatiently for the line to move forward.

“To think in this day and age, you have to wait in line,” Alice muttered softly. Reaching the front of the line, Alice carefully counted out her hard earned credits and waited for her electronic ticket. One final glance at the departure board and she hurried to catch her shuttle.

I sat trembling on the bench with seven other cons making the trip back to the universe. My civilian clothes fit me a bit looser than when I’d gone in. Eating prison chow and working out an hour a day due to boredom will do that to a man. I had my paperwork, my hack license, high school diploma, the name of my Probation Officer and 100 hard credits in my pocket, my debt to the Alliance and society paid for in full.

I’d also just found out the price of my ticket down to the surface of Beta Prime would come out of that 100 credits.

My wrists were sore where the manacles had rubbed. My ankles hurt as well. The soft feel of my clothes felt odd after my years wearing rough prison orange. My shoes actually felt comfortable after the prison boots I’d been forced to wear.

A CO entered the waiting area and motioned for us to follow him to an airlock. The prison bus was waiting. We cycled through and milled together, crowding the entrance to the small shuttle.

The pilot laughed. “Guys, you have to start thinking for yourselves again. There won’t be anybody to tell you what to do now that your back in the ‘verse. Take a seat, any seat you want, and strap in. We have a schedule to keep.”

I found a seat and sat down and fastened myself in, noting the manacles and handcuffs fastened by chain to the seat.

“Got a pick up to make,” I asked before I could stop myself, flinching in anticipating of getting hit.

“Yep, bunch of hard core cons,” the pilot answered easily. “Two are going to medium security at Graham. The others are doing all day and a night at the Supermax wing. One of ‘ems going to take a stainless steel ride.”

I shuddered. Lifers. Another headed for the Row. Two who’d be lucky and get out. I didn’t envy the pilot his job hauling around dangerous inmates like the bunch he would shuttle up to Persephone after dropping us off.

It was that moment I knew I couldn’t go back. It didn’t matter if Alice had left me or not, I couldn’t go back to Graham or any other place like that piece of hell on a airless rock orbiting Beta Prime.

The flight was a longer one than I remembered, taking just over two hours to cover the distance from Persephone to the Space Station. I guess it all had to do with the moon’s orbit and the fact the Space Station was in geosynchronous orbit over Capital City.

Slowing his approach speed to change vectors, the pilot dropped down towards the bottom of Beta Prime’s connection with the universe. Clearing all of the other traffic at the platform, the shuttle drew near the secure airlock. Used only for transferring prisoners to the correctional shuttle, it was heavily secured by human and automated guard technology.

With a gentle nudge, the pilot docked.

“Almost free guys,” he said encouragingly. “Give me a minute while I cycle the lock and then you guys can get off. There will be a CO to escort you to get your tickets. You can take a shuttle down to Capital City or anywhere in the ‘verse you want to go.”

We looked around, the eight of us, unsure of what to do. Without speaking, each of us began to unbuckle from our restraints. I stood up, my knees shaking. Taking a few unsteady steps towards the airlock, I noticed the pilot was smiling at me, his hand extended. I gingerly took it and let him shake it once.

“Hope I don’t see you on my bird again,” he said, his smile gone.

Alice hated flying, in atmo or the vacuum of space. It just didn’t seem natural. If not for the meds she’d taken prior to lift off, her stomach would have been flying on its own as well. As the Space Station came into view, Alice realized she still hadn’t made up her mind about Ralph. Alice only knew whatever she decided he was going to hear it from her face-to-face.

In the distance a standard transport shuttle came into view, decelerating rapidly as it vectored its approach. Squinting hard, Alice could make out the broad orange stripe running the length of the shuttle’s hull. As both shuttles grew closer to their destination, the logo of the Alliance prison system came into focus.

“Ralph,” Alice whispered, the word catching in her throat.

I counted my money and looked at my one-way ticket down to Capital City. My knees shook so badly I had to sit down to get ahold of my nerves. I was scared stiff at getting the prospect of reentering society. Just looking at the clothes everyone wore told me how much things had changed while I’d been away.

Facing things without Alice scared me even more.

Of all the things I had learned to do without in the can, my wife wasn’t one of them. I’d realized how foolish I’d been not to listen to her common sense demands as a wife. Alice was my best friend in the entire galaxy and I’d screwed it up.

I’d also learned in prison that a man has to face up to what he’s done, good or bad. It didn’t matter that I’d caught a bum rap. What I’d done my time for was taking a good woman who loved me for granted. I decided right then that if Alice would have me back, I would do whatever it took not to screw up again. At least not screw up big.

I stood up and willed my knees to stop shaking. Scanning the busy throngs of people milling about, I spotted Alice standing alone, waiting. Ironically, she had on a poker face, betraying nothing about how she felt inside.

It was now or never and I needed to be a man about this. I made my feet move, one step at a time towards the treasure I’d foolishly risked losing. I pulled to within ten feet away from Alice and the herd of people parted, allowing Alice to see me. The time spent apart had been hard on her. I could see it in the careworn look in her face.

It was time to face my fate.

I said her name aloud. I don’t know if she heard me or read my lips, but the frown that formed on her face sent my heart plummeting towards Beta Prime below. Alice would tell me to my face she was leaving me. She wouldn’t do it by sending a nameless process server to drop divorce papers in my lap.

Taking small steps, the fury in her face growing by the second, Alice drew closer. I braced myself for what was coming. I deserved it.

“Ralph, from this day forward, you are to never, ever run with trash like that again! Do you understand me? Because if you do, I’m gone, done! If you want to have a friend, you check with me first! No roaming around at night! You get done with work you come straight home to me! I will not go through what you put me through again!”

I felt torn inside. I would get another chance with Alice. The tears she was crying told me I didn’t deserve that chance. Alice was better than me.

“I don’t deserve this,” I choked out.

“You’re right you don’t,” Alice snapped, wiping tears from her cheeks. “It’s called forgiveness.”

My wife took my hand and tugged, nearly pulling me off my feet.

“I’m hungry and you’re buying me lunch,” Alice said, pulling me towards one of the overpriced diners located on the concourse. She slipped her arm through mine, the beginnings of a smile forming on her tear stained face. “Then I’m going to take you home and lock the door.”

Six weeks had passed since I’d gotten out. Alice didn’t exactly make things easy for me. She’d gotten a new job at a place called Joe’s. It was a joint done up in ancient Earth style décor, complete with artwork promoting classical music acts like these bands called The Rolling Stones or The Cars.

The neighborhood was okay. It bordered decent working class housing and the mining and industrial districts of Capital City. One of the main hoverways cut right through it.

Believe it or not, there was actually a guy named Joe who owned the place. Alice liked Joe but he scared me a bit. I got the impression Joe was a lot tougher than he looked. I know the two bouncers who worked the door when the place transitioned into a bar at night were scared of Joe and that told me more than I needed to know. If those two lunks of muscle were wary of Joe, I needed to make sure I stepped carefully around him.

Besides, Joe knew people. He helped Alice and me put down our first payment on a used cab so I could work for myself. I made sure anytime people asked for a good place to eat I brought them to Joe’s. I didn’t care if they wanted to eat in some upscale joint.

I never caught any grief for it, well, that is after they actually ate the food at Joe’s, which by the way is as good as Joe claims it is. Then I’d drive the fare back to the nice part of town where I’d picked ‘em up.

It got old never playing cards or running with some friends. Whenever I got the itch though, I just had to think about Alice. If that didn’t scratch the itch, I could hear Tim’s voice, telling me if I was smart to never make the mistake that got me sent to Graham a second time.

Lightening doesn’t strike the same spot twice they say.

Every night when I went to sleep, I held Alice close and thanked God she’d had the grace to forgive a man who didn’t deserve forgiveness.

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