My eyes shoot open as the nightmare collapses around me. A nightmare of smoke, filled with the cries of women and children, and the leaden gazes of corpses with empty eyes.
Without looking at a clock, I know it’s six am. I’ve woken up at six since basic training, a habit that hasn’t changed in my present surroundings, although I have stopped sitting bolt upright after hitting my head on the bunk above me a half dozen times.
I rub my eyes with the palms of my hand then move over to sit on the edge of my bunk. The bed above me lays empty, a testament to my reputation. Roommates don’t last in my cell. The warden finally accepted that point.
I stand, stretching my muscles and staring past the bars. Today begins like every other day for the last five years. But it won’t end the same.
Today everything changes.
Two hours later, it’s time for breakfast. The cells open in coordination with a shrill buzz. I consider staying in my cell but decide a fight with the guards isn’t worth it today, so I get in line with the rest of the inmates and shuffle slowly toward the mess hall.
Carrying my tray of unappetizing slop toward my usual table, I catch sight of a figure pushing his way toward me. I almost decide to swing my tray in an arc, spraying its contents all over the room and smashing the metal tray into his scarred face. Instead, I let him approach. Guess I’m getting soft in my old age.
“Today’s the day, isn’t it?”
His voice is gruff, his eyes filled with an unfamiliar light. Rico scratches at his neck which is decorated with an off-center tattoo of the Virgin Mary. We’ve had our fair share of run-ins, and his crew has, at last, realized that I’m not worth the effort. But every now and again, Rico gets bored and decides to take a run at me. Is he bored today?
I stare at him, then nod. He shakes his head, a rare grin appearing on his face, making him seem even more sinister, surprisingly. “Won’t be the same without you.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re becoming sentimental.”
“What’s that word mean?” he asks, his face blank but a cagey look in his eyes.
I start to push past him, but he grabs my shoulder. I tense, and he releases his grip, his hands in front of him, palms up. “I wanna ask you for a favor.”
Now I’m shocked. Rico Reyes asking me for a favor. Everything is changing, perhaps faster than I’m ready for. “What do you want?”
“I got a sister. She’s younger. A good girl. Angel.”
“What’s your sister got to do with me?”
“I want you to look in on her. Check on her for me.”
Rico looks past me, his expression stony. “You’re not like us, man. You don’t belong here, not really. You’re an honorable man. A hero.”
An honorable man. A hero.
Maybe once, but those days are gone, ground away by five years of grueling monotony, locked in a cage like an animal.
“You’re wrong,” I say. “I’m not a hero. I’m a villain. Find someone else to babysit your kid sister.”
“Puto,” he spits out under his breath. Without warning, his lieutenants appear behind his shoulders, twin snarls on their faces. “I tried to be nice.”
The one on the left charges forward, and at last, I do swing my tray, the fluorescents glinting off its surface, creating a blur of light that collides with the asshole’s jaw. A spray of slop covers Rico and his companion, and I allow myself a grin.
The first one’s down, but the other one is on me, trying to get a grip on my neck. Driving my elbow into his stomach, I whip my fist back, enjoying the cracking sound his nose makes. His hands slide off me.
It’s just Rico and me now. He’s shorter but has a few pounds on me. And he’s mean as a goddamn viper.
“Break it up, ladies,” comes the lazy drawl of the captain of the guards, his lackeys swarming around him. The captain looks me up and down. “Fighting today, Craven? Do you want to stick around here?”
I shrug, then start heading toward the exit. I’d rather spend the rest of today in my cell. Hell, maybe I’ll even feel nostalgic about the old six-foot by eight-foot box after I leave it behind.
“Don’t bother,” the captain says, grabbing my arm. “Your walking papers are in.”
Although I’ve known I would hear those words today, it still feels surreal. Today is the day I leave prison. After five years of staring at gray walls, I’ll see blue sky again.
For as long as it lasts.
The captain leads me past the guard shack and to the clerk’s office where I retrieve the things I had in my possession when I landed here. A metal lighter engraved with a tiger. The keys to my bike. A leather wallet.
I pick up the wallet and flip it open. The ID and credit cards are there, but the pocket is empty. I had over two thousand dollars when I was brought behind the walls of Tabor Correctional Institution. Someone has lined their pockets compliments of me.
A few stone-faced prisoners are mopping the floors as I am escorted down the long hallway toward the exit. One watches me with eyes filled with some unnamed emotion. There’s a jagged scar running along one side of his face, still pink and raw.
I remember giving him that scar.
I have one that matches, along my upper arm.
The prisoner had been a lone wolf, brought inside three months ago and not claimed by any of the prison cliques. He’d watched me for days, and I’d ignored him, assuming he was just another fresh fish considering asking me for protection. He wouldn’t be the first, and I’d give him the same answer I’d given anyone else who suggested teaming up.
Keep moving. I’m not interested.
But it turns out the fish hadn’t wanted to join Team Ax at all. Instead, he’d determined to stab me and watch me bleed out all over the commissary floor.
He’d been behind me in line as we waited to get through the door. One minute I’m considering which toothpaste to buy this time and do I really like the fake mint flavor of the last tube, the next I’m fighting for the shiv he’s got locked in his sweaty hand.
He managed to slice into my arm before I knocked him back into the wall and pinned him there. The blade came up between us, and I hammered at his hand, recommending that he drop it.
Instead, he made a last-ditch effort , bringing the shiv up higher. I countered, and he’d ended up raking the nasty blade over his own face before he dropped it.
He spent time in the infirmary, and then solitary confinement. They’d stopped sticking me in solitary, knowing that it had no effect on me. A box is a box, no matter how small or silent. When the fish got out, he’d avoided me, but his eyes still followed me, promising their revenge.
Get in line, asshole.
It isn’t long before the outside gate is opening in front of me and I talk a few short steps to freedom. It doesn’t feel any different once I’m on the other side.
A black town car is waiting for me. The driver hops out to grab my door when he sees me head in his direction. I nod, then slide into the air conditioning. The leather seats are smooth, the car purring gently. The driver shuts his door and looks in the rearview mirror expectantly.
“Do you have something for me?” I ask.
The driver tosses a heavy envelope onto the backseat.
“Cape Craven,” I tell him, and he bobs his head and puts the car into gear. As we roll away from Tabor Correctional, I remember the last words I’d said to the guard captain.
“Keep my cell warm for me.”
I rip open the envelope. A smartphone slips into my hand. I set it aside, pulling out the sheaf of papers. Clipped to the top is a stack of hundred dollar bills.
I fit the bills into my wallet and tuck it back away. Riffling through the papers, I realize I’m wearing a scowl. My brother’s face stares out at me from the stack, and I resist the urge to rip the fucker’s photo to pieces. Starting to read, I realize I’m fumbling through the same sentence over and over.
The memory of what happened is pushing its way to the forefront of my mind, making the words on the page an unreadable jumble. Five years behind bars is a long time, but I remember the last time I saw him as if it had just happened.
Brent’s face smirking at me across the courtroom as the bailiff led me away to begin my half-decade vacation in what the inmates called Southeast Hell. After he’d told one lie after another on the stand, each lie pushing the jury closer to a conviction.
My little brother had me thrown in jail and hadn’t even had the decency to tell me why.
It isn’t that I don’t have theories, the most logical being that he’d wanted me out of the way. I’d recently returned to Cape Craven, the prodigal son turned hero. I’d been patching things up with Dad, sorting out the pieces I’d left shattered when I’d run off to enlist straight out of high school.
That all ground to a halt when I’d been sentenced with extortion, assault, and armed robbery. The charges were ridiculous, the crime itself farcical. But that didn’t stop me from spending 1,825 days in prison.
Forcing myself to concentrate, I skim through the latest material I had my agent compile. Craven Industries seems to be lumbering along, confidence in leadership eroding of late. My brows shoot up as I see that dear old Dad wasn’t present at the last few board meetings, and that my darling brother led the most recent shareholder’s meeting himself.
The town isn’t faring well either, in the wake of declining profits. Our company is the largest employer in the county, and a dip in business for Craven Industries means lost jobs and tightened belts. It doesn’t take much for sentiment to turn in a town like Cape Craven, and I know I already have a black mark against me in the court of public opinion without the company going downhill.
Not like it matters what people think of me. Taking my revenge on Brent isn’t going to make me look like a saint. Or a hero.
Then I turn a page and see a picture of her. My heart freezes in my chest, and for a moment I can’t breathe. I flick my eyes away from the page and take a breath.
Her eyes remind me of the ocean pounding off the cape on a sunny day. Golden skin, dark blond hair, and an expression that is no less sweet than it had been on the day I first laid eyes on her, back in junior high.
I can’t help myself. My gaze returns to the picture, my mind working to memorize her features. As if she isn’t already burned into my memory permanently.
It’s been five long years in prison. Five years since I tasted her skin, since I felt her velvet wetness around me. Fuck. My cock is hard in a split second, remembering our time together.
She’s not alone in the picture. There are other women and a gaggle of children. The photo is labeled “Craven Foundation.” There is no other information.
Moving past Sabrina’s picture, I scan the rest of the pages. There are a few rumbles of dissatisfaction in Brent’s recent leadership. A few folks are not so impressed with the Ivy League Asshole, as I’ve taken to calling him in my head.
A savage sense of satisfaction washes over me. For a man the town thinks walks on water, his knees are starting to look a little wet. And once I show up, it won’t be long before his head sinks below the surface.
And I drown that motherfucker.
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