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The Silent Inmate


Liam Brennan

The young guard towered over the blood-drenched body in shock. Officers gathered round to witness the horrific site that lay on their cold, cement floor in Kingsway Penitentiary. “He went for my gun. I was lettin’ em out to the yard and he jumped me. I didn’t know what else to do boss,” he uttered as beads of cold sweat met with tears. I wavered at a distance as they carried the body away; their heads low out of respect. The dead man had been a favorite among the inmates and guards because of his solemn presence. “He used to smile two miles wide when that weekly letter came,” said one of the guards. They consoled each other in various ways, trying to maintain a strong presence in front of the other inmates before leaving the block.

The young guard, the newest in the Illinois State Penal System, stepped into the dead man’s cell and paused. I moved closer, peering over his shoulder as he stooped down to pick up a yellow note that had fallen from the open envelope on the bed. I sensed the apprehension in the man’s eyes as he unfolded the paper and scanned its contents: Young Max has lost his arduous battle that consumed him these past four years. He is in a better place. Placing the note in his breast pocket, the guard composed himself; he couldn't let the other inmates see through his cool exterior. He brushed against me inside the confined chamber, the hairs on the back of his neck rising as he passed. When he had gone, I sat down on the silent inmate’s bed and flipped through an old comic serial, “The Last Stand of James T. Tall” that accompanied the note. The main character lived in the woods, a lumberjack by trade, and each week he warded off the menacing creatures that came his way. It was a simple life, something that the inmate and I had discussed many times.

“That boy wrote him every week.” I turned to see two older guards, their faces frail and ravaged by years, standing at the door. They looked around the empty cell with great compassion and sorrow in their voices as they traded stories about times the inmate had confided in them. “Talked about that kid like it was his own” said the elder guard. “Used to sit there day and night readin’ those damn books. Said he identified with him, the main character. I’m sure he meant that bald little cancer boy though.” The other guard held back tears as they flooded his eyes, “Must have been some bad news this mornin’.” The elder guard blessed himself and they departed.

I decided it was time to move on as well, stepping past the icy, brick walls and chain linked fences, walking toward the dense forest that isolated this place from the reality of the outside world. The trees towered over me as I knelt to gather wood. I’d never started a fire before but the pictures in the serials were self-explanatory. With the smack of two stones, a spark shot up and I lay back with a sense of pride, although it appeared too effortless to be true. At that moment I heard it, the thumping sound of an axe blasting through tree stumps with the greatest of ease. I turned and there he was, having already arrived in our new world. The bullet holes were gone and he looked as I’d always pictured him, just as James Tall looked when he conquered another scoundrel. I stood and brushed the hair out of my eyes as he chomped through the final piece. He wiped the sweat from his face and moved slowly towards me, with that comforting smile creeping across his face. “Max?” he said, as I nodded my head and returned the favor. This was the life we had been dreaming of, in a world without restrictions.

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