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Jailbird

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It shouldn’t surprise him. He knows better than anyone that life goes on.

After all, when acid pangs ate at his stomach and the hunger consumed his brain, Roman took his chances and left the shelter. Bruno had tried to stop him from robbing the kitchen. But the man was soft, and yielded after Roman pressed the edge of the blade to his throat. It was Pavle who tried to stop him: an idiot boy, who still dreamed of honor, much like Leo. And looks where that got both of them: Roman hamstrung the football star, and led his old friend to his death.

Both those men are mere memories now. The war has finally ended, and Pogoren is at peace once again.

It’s hard to know how much time has passed in the depths of prison.

He has fallen into a routine. Complacency digs her nails into his mind, lulling him into a false sense of security. Breakfast is 8 AM sharp. The guards unlock the cell, and usher his seven cellmates into the commissary. Breakfast ends at 9. From 9 to 12, the prisoners have either chores or schoolwork for “proper integration back into society.”

Roman is stuck with chores. There’s no place in society for a former rebel who clubbed a man to death with a shovel.

(The shovel was an old friend from the Quiet House. The blood-soaked bounty staved off starvation for three more days, seven when the trader came by and took the old woman’s rings. But as the old couple rotted, the shelter dove back into famine.)

He’s spent five years? Six years here? Roman has stopped counting. There is nothing but the barren cell walls and a sea of puke-orange jumpsuits.

From 12 to 1, the commissary opens up again, and there’s diarrhea-inducing MREs for lunch. The Vyseni and Grazni may have united, but their traces linger in the MREs stockpiled for prisoners’ lunches. The cheese omelet one is absolute shit, a salmon pink abomination fit only for the trashcan. Roman used to down it as fast as he could, and collect his reward (always those damned roll-ups. Never had a good cig unless we raided a store) from stunned comrades. He’s seen a few members of the gang in here, rotting with the other dregs of humanity, gagging at the MREs. Some things never change.

(They shouldn’t recognize him. Thousands of Vyseni deserted. But if they’ve ended up in here, they’re men like him. He has enough blood on his hands without taking his comrades’ lives as well. Or maybe he’d just let them shank him.)

 

From 1 to 6, the inmates are shuttled to the city and suited up in hard hats and construction overalls. Roman remembers a time when Pogoren was a bombed out husk. He had full run of the city when dark fell, unless fighting or crime choked certain neighborhoods. He used to climb up the metal skeletons of concrete giants, bared to the frigid air, haul himself to the nearest rubble pile and scavenge for parts.

The skeletons have long since been torn down, replaced by shiny glass and concrete towers. The prisoners help haul sacks of concrete to the mixers and adjust heavy pallets of glass panes before the cranes lift up their cargo.

If only we had all this machinery. Maybe Emilia would’ve made it through the winter,” Roman thinks as he waits for a backhoe to pass. It was much harder to repair the rickety shelter, when there was barely enough electricity to light the kitchen. Emilia froze to death. They buried her body in the backyard.

(They almost dug it back up when hunger gnawed at their stomachs.)

He shakes himself. This kind of thinking has become routine. But the construction sites make it easier to forget. Here, new life is born. A city rises from the ashes, constructed by those who have nothing more to give in life.

At least, that’s what his fellow prisoners say. Personally, Roman forgets, because the whir of saws and crackle of welding equipment demand your full attention.

 

At 6, the inmates are shuttled back to the prison and fed dinner.     

At 7, the commissary is closed and the inmates are given free time until lights out, at 9 PM.

There’s too much time to think between 6 PM and lights out.

He usually wanders the prison, drifting from room to room. The lounge, with a TV that airs soap operas from the 80s and a worn Nintendo 64. The library, with a collection of books salvaged from the bombed-out library (Emilia would have loved these.) The courtyard, where men covered in tattoos kick a ragged football around the dusty cement and cheer like schoolboys (Pavle could have given them a run for their money.) The kitchen, where the good prisoners learn to cook (assholes, the lot of them, Bruno would fit right in.) There’s no reason for him to visit the communications center, where inmates chat over Skype with their families. Who does he have left? (Katia’s story died with her. Wonder what she’d think of us leftovers.)

        

Roman drowns in thoughts. He runs from them, as he moves from room to room (the guards have long since stopped tailing him. He’s a good prisoner when he gets his smokes.) He languishes in thoughts of soft hands cupped around the tattoos of his own (but who wants a prisoner? Who wants a murderer?), of going to the grocery store to buy fresh cucumbers and yougurt, of those he has lost and will never see again, even when the dirt closes upon him and his eyes open no more.

He thinks of the soft-eyed man, who attempted to hide his cowardice behind steel-rimmed glasses. With any luck, Bruno has long since died. Death would have been kinder than life.

Emilia. The hardened lawyer. There would be no justice for her family.

Pavle. The good boy. The football star, probably still searching for his family.

Katia. Went missing on a scavenging run. They never found her body.

Leo. Roman can still see the sharp curve of his friend's shoulders, slightly hunched from years of working at the family’s carpentry shop. Bones now, surely. Perhaps dust lying beneath the steel and concrete girders that puncture the Pogoren skyline. Roman may have aimed over his head, but his comrades did not. There wasn’t enough time to scour the bodies before he deserted. He doesn’t know if he wants this knowledge. In ignorance, he can believe that Leo still lives. Maybe his old friend has a girl, two kids, a car in the garage and a squat house on the outskirts of Pogoren. He can dream that his friend does not rest in a mass grave, a bag of bones in a city of the dead.

 

Roman usually settles in the music room. Among the chatter and squeal of strings – if he finds the person mangling the guitar, he will personally teach them how to play – he finds silence. Odd, really.

It feels like the old days here. There are smokes freely traded under the guards’ eyes, if you have the goods to trade (crack, candy, chore duty, whore yourself out for a night – he thinks in another life, he would have been one of the inmates cracked out against the piano.) A cheese omelet MRE trades for three premium cigarettes, and ten shitty roll-ups. Franko the trader would have something to say about that.

The east wall of the music room has a rack of battered guitars. He picks one up, and falls into what passes for home inside these prison walls. He sits against the cement walls, surrounded by former comrades and old enemies, one hand poised on the neck. The other loosely brushes the metallic strings, drawing a harsh whine from the guitar.

He winces, and turns the peg of the low E string. Roman picks at the string, drawing another whine and a squeak. A fellow jailbird glares at him. He returns the glare, mimics drawing a knife across his throat, and returns to the guitar. This ritual, he knows well. Showboating, but keeping your shivs at your side. He strokes the strings, and a melodic hum echoes through the guitar. It really is like the Vyseni days.

Roman begins to strum an old tune from the shelter days.

It's something wistful, something sad, something that sings of a life wasted and going down the drain.