The first time I saw the blood seeping in under the door I screamed. Now, the third time, I pick up my stuff off the floor to avoid the mess and go back to my bed. They’ll come in eventually to clean it up. But not before it turns to jelly on the concrete floor and the edges get dark and crusty like burnt candy. Sometimes it’s water that comes under the door instead, sometimes both. I never understand the guys who flood their cells, turn on their faucets and keep it running until it runs out into the hallway. Or the ones who cut themselves to get out. But then again, I’ve only been in here for three weeks and two days; some of those guys have been in solitary for years.
I don’t know why they call it that. Solitary implies quiet. And in here it’s anything but quiet. Guys bang on the doors with their fists, on the little glass rectangles. Bang, bang, bang. Sometimes I think it makes a rhythm. Bang, b-bang, bang, bang. Come on, beat louder. Maybe they’ll let you out. Maybe they’ll let you out if you bleed.
It’s hard to remember when I got here. I keep track of the days by tallies in my notebook. I started a new one the day they put me in solitary. I need to know for my own sanity. The guys who lose track of time are the ones who’ve given up.
“Don’t give up, Lu,” she said to me once, long ago. “It’s you and me now.” It’s getting harder to remember her face. Her hair is long, so dark brown it’s nearly black, the same with her eyes. I run my fingertip over the place where I have her name tattooed on my forearm, tracing the ink strokes: L-A-N-A. “Lana and Luis. Letter twins,” she always says. The last flourish of the letter A is fading, fizzling out into tiny specks and then nothing, ashes on my skin. How do you plead?
They move me to an empty cell while they clean up the blood, another eighty square-foot room, a different sameness. I spend the entire time looking out the window at the sliver of grey sky visible above the stone walls. A rectangle of matted yellow grass. It’s the same courtyard I see from my window, but slightly altered, different angles, different lines, shadows, and spaces to memorize.
That night I wake up to my arm burning as though consumed by fire, but there’s only darkness. My skin feels hot, and I keep my arm raised in the air to let air flow around it, but it doesn’t cool the burning. The flameless fire keeps me up most of the night. When the grey pre-dawn from my thin outside window lights the cell, I awake from a light doze to find the pain completely gone…and so is the last A from Lana’s name.
I’m getting that restless feeling in my belly—the kind that makes me want to burn something. And I’m good at it. I know how to make a fire burn long and slow or fast and hot. I know which accelerants to use on which materials, how to focus the heat and the power in a certain place. I know how to destroy evidence you don’t want found. The flames grow inside of me, first a single candle, then a monster clawing its way out of me, a never-ending clamor in my brain until I let him out. And then a relief, a lightness and a freedom. Maybe it’s the beauty of the flames: the gold and sienna and the blood-red which create a new painting every time. Moving art. Maybe it’s the power, the raw heat, wild and fierce, begging to be tamed. But even the tamed beast still bites. Patches of healed skin scatter over my hands, my arms. Some scars are old, some more recent. My body has its own geography. Another thing Lana would say, running her silk palms over the rough, scarred patches: the trailing ridges, the mountain ranges, the lines that snake like rivers.
“You in here for the fight a couple weeks back?” It takes me a good ten seconds to realize the officer is talking to me. He unlocks the outer trapdoor and slides the breakfast tray onto the little platform.
“Uh…” Words cling to the walls of my throat like bats in hibernation, pinching, breathing in tandem, a dozen tiny lungfuls of air. I haven’t spoken to another human being in three weeks. It wasn’t my fault, I want to say.
“Yeah, that’s what they said,” I say. In here you neither confirm nor deny. Confirming makes you liable; denying makes you weak. The officer unlocks the second trapdoor and slams the first closed. I amble over to the door to get the tray. The only events that mark time are meals and the changing light outside. And even then, at times the darkening or the growing of the light surprises me, having come or gone too quickly or too slowly.
The memory of food is a bird loose in the house; I can never fully grasp it. I don’t eat the soggy, bland prison food; I consume. I chew and swallow the way a cow does to its cud, unenthusiastic and studious. I chew, and then I try desperately to recall the pleasant burn of Mama’s roasted pepper salsa on my tongue, to taste again Lana’s carne asada—always a bit over-cooked—but still wonderful.
On our first date, Lana spilled grape soda all over my pants. She just looked at me with these wide, brown eyes as though terrified she’d ruined everything. Oh, to recreate the sensation of grape soda in my mouth, the syrup sweetness and crackling on my tongue. To recreate the laughter that overtook us the next moment, seeping out of our bones, flowing from a bottomless spring. When was that? Everything seems far away here and yet I can feel her hair between my fingers. The hands don’t forget like the mind does.
I fill the empty hours and minutes and seconds. Somehow, I fill them: sometimes by doing push-ups until I collapse, sometimes by scribbling words and drawings, and sometimes by studying the patterns on the floor, the texture and varying shades of grey in the concrete. There is a particular place in the corner beneath the sink that’s a significantly darker shade of grey, and I’m still deciding whether or not it resembles the shape of Alaska.
The midnight burning returns more frequently and spreads until one night I wake up to my entire body alight with invisible flames, searing me deeper than any real fire ever has. I scream and claw at the air. My body rolls onto the ground, but I barely feel the dull pain in my hip when I hit the floor. There’s only the fire fire fire and the burning. Metallic thuds reverberate in the hallway, the others telling me to shut up. I can’t help it. Maybe somebody will come maybe somebody will come maybe somebody will come take me out of this shit hole, douse me in a bath of frigid water water water waterwaterwater…
In the morning when the officer comes with my breakfast, I’m lying face down on the cool floor, coated with sweat. I ignore the customary clangs and the whir of the tray and the footsteps of the officer outside and sit up and rub my Lana tattoo with my thumb out of habit. The N is gone. I brace myself for the burning to return, but it doesn’t. Instead I feel cold. I drag myself up off the floor and go to the sink to splash water on my face, but when I put my hand on the faucet handle, I jump back. The metal is hot enough to sear skin. I reach for the cold water handle. Same thing. After several more attempts, I use my shirt as a barrier and fill my hands with the water—which is as cold as ever—to wash my face.
Later when I get my shower, I let the water run cold and stand under it for several minutes, head and all. I look down at the way my body has changed. I was fit before, but now, even with all the push-ups and one hour a day outside in the cage, I’ve still gotten thinner. I run my palms over skin that once knew another’s caress, over bones pressing to the surface like drowning mouths, over pipes splayed out around a tremulous, fluttering being inside.
Play me like an instrument, beat my stomach like a drum, breathe the blare of a trumpet into my mouth the sound the sound the sound is almost gone. I am a shell, hollowed out, my ridges worn smooth, my strings broken and out of tune. How do you plead?
When I glance down, I notice the lion tattooed over my heart has shifted. He used to be roaring. Now he’s close-mouthed and looking down, dejected. I scrape my fingernails across his face, dig until the skin is red and raw and blood beads on my chest in the wake of my fingernails, but still the lion gazes at the ground.
I’ve taken to drawing on the walls. You get punished for it in here, but I figure I’m in solitary. What more can they do to me? I draw the face of my lion the way he was meant to be: roaring and fierce.
I am washing my hands when I notice the other letter A has all but disappeared, reduced to a fleck of black. All that’s left is L. And I can no longer picture her face at all. Only the shape of her lips, the soft curve of her ear. I’m examining my overgrown beard in the square of stainless steel they give us for a mirror when a shadow flickers behind me. I twist around. Nothing. I turn back to the mirror. There it is again: a puff, a wisp. Black. Curling tendrils. How do you plead?
No. Stop. I am not doing this. I am not crazy. This place will not break me. Not like the others. I am stronger than that. You have to stop this, Luis. You’re killing us! No, I’m not. You don’t understand. You never understood, Lana.
The presence of the smoke has become like another fixture in the cell. Like the steel toilet or the bed frame or the little metal slab that juts out of the wall as a table. I manage to ignore it most of the time, until the day it curls itself unabashedly around my legs and arms, a spectral clothing.
I wake and realize I no longer know what day it is. I rush to my notebook to double check my tallies, flipping to the last page I wrote on. The last date I wrote something was last month. Or was it only yesterday? Cold prickles over my arms.
I’ve lost track of time.
“You think we have all this time, Luis. But we don’t. Why are you doing this to yourself? To us? You’ve gotta stop!” She twisted the dishtowel in her hands.
“It’s not that simple, Lana.”
She threw the towel into the sink. “Then tell me what it is. That is my mother’s apartment building! You’ve gotta be insane!”
“We’ll make sure she ain’t there. Nobody’ll be there. Imma make sure.”
“You can’t ever be sure.”
“It’s good money, baby! This is the last one.” I edged closer to her, rested my hand on her smooth cheek. “And then we can settle down. Have a real life. Don’t you want that?”
“Of course, I do, but—” She started to pull away, but I lifted her hand slowly to my lips and she went still.
I spoke into her skin. “Then you’ll let me do this last one.”
Fire. Pain. I open my eyes, not to darkness, but to color: orange, scarlet, amber moving through black and grey shadows. I breathe in the smoke with a lungful of air and scramble up, choking.
Water. I have to get water. I try to jump out of bed, but my legs get tangled up in the blanket and I crash to the floor, landing hard on my tailbone.
Leaping over flames, I reach the sink and twist both handles to run at full speed. It’s not enough. It won’t be enough. But what is there for the fire to consume in here? The bedclothes, metal, concrete. Me.
“Help!” I scream. “Help! Fire!”
But nobody hears me. Or nobody cares.
I crawl on top of the sink, perching like an animal, toes curling around the edge. I sit there, yelling and panting at alternating intervals. My legs and feet grow numb.
Still the fire burns.
Water spills over the edge of the sink now and onto the floor, but it neither quenches the fire nor feeds it. The flames continue in a stasis, as though I am living in the space of ten seconds being repeated over and over again.
The heat makes sweat bead all over my skin, and a few times the fingertips of a flame get close enough to singe hair. I cry out and curl myself tighter and smaller. But there is nowhere to go.
Luis Hernandez Juarez, you have been charged with arson, reckless endangerment, and manslaughter. How do you plead?
Lana went back. She went back that night to get something. She didn’t tell me. I didn’t know. Oh God, I didn’t know. I must’ve been blocking it out of my mind, but now it comes back to me, consuming and burning, searing through all the layers. I shut my eyes against the picture of her face, clearer than it’s ever been.
A mouth of fire bites into her face. I brace myself for her scream, but instead she is silent, her red-rimmed mouth open to blackness.
How do you plead?
Karissa Riffel earned a B.A. from John Brown University. Her work was published in an anthology by John Brown University Press. A teacher by day and writer by night, she enjoys reading and writing stories that take her to another place—whether that’s a new world or a secret pocket of our own. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found cleaning and listening to a true crime podcast.