“Mags, you ever dream of escaping this shithole?”
“Only all the time,” I sighed. If I pressed my face into the iron bars, I could see my friend’s face around the bend. A dark liquid oozed out of the sponge when Ruth gave it a twist, her face pulled in tightly in disgust. She shoved a couple baby hairs away from her face and huffed loudly, throwing me an exasperated look in her misery.
“They got you cleaning floors again I see,” I commented, noting that the sponge only redistributed the dirt built up onto the ground of the hall. Her task became more menial the longer I watched.
“What can I say? I’m a bad girl,” Ruth dipped the sponge back into the dark liquid and rubbed it onto the floor, “I swear to God though, I could spit shine this floor and it’d be cleaner than this.”
“That’s a thought.” I backed away from the cell door and inspected the dusty bottoms of my own bare feet. But it wasn’t long before I pushed my nose back in between the bars.
“Why’d ya ask me if I wanted to get outta here or not?” I asked. Ruth peered over her shoulder and giggled a little before answering my question.
“Don’t get your hopes up, I ain’t plottin’ nothing.’ I simply asked ‘cause you the white rose of us.”
“What do you mean by that?” I scrunched my face against the bars, for no reason other than sheer boredom. Ruth moved her bucket and sponge a little closer to my cell.
“I was tryin’ to make a metaphor, and sound real poetic. Something about how being stained red by the blood, but you’re still… ugh, you know what I was a math teacher not an English teacher.”
“Your metaphor is wrong anyways I did kill that man.”
“And I shouldn’t have popped lead in that son of a bitch husband of mine,” Ruth snorted. She dunked her sponge back into the old green bucket. Some water poured out over the sides and onto the floor.
“You didn’t kill that man, Mag. You know what I think? I think you’re covering for someone. Your white ass is a white rose”
Ruth could get all uppity sometimes. She’d stick her nose up and puff her chest out, her lower lip would protrude just slightly. It was so signature that I knew I was about to receive an earful of Ruth-approved opinion even before she opened her mouth. Often times, I could smile and nod out of it, but this time I felt like a debate.
“I could do it Ruth. I could shoot a man. It ain’t hard, you just have to point and pull the trigger.” I insisted.
“Oh yeah? But then you have to watch him die.” Ruth pressed.
“That’s the best part.”
Ruth burst out into laughter and shook her head, “Get outta here Maggie. You just get out. You ain’t never harmed a fly, let alone a grown man.”
I pulled away from the cell door once more, a coy smile playing across my lips. Ruth giggled some more, but I could no longer see her face. I heard the sponge submerge into the bucket again.
I squatted on the ground and touched my finger to the growing layers of grime on the worn linoleum tiles. I picked at one of the tiles until it peeled up enough to reveal the dark concrete underneath.
“Is there a way out?” I asked. Ruth had grown silent on the other side of the wall.
“Hush girl, you ain’t supposed to be talkin’ like that with all these guards around,” She lectured.
“But you were just— “
“That don’t matter. You ought to shut it while they still like you. Don’t be like me girl, don’t let them spit on you. You got to suck up to Warden Paul to make it. He won’t like one of his sweeties to go sour. That man likes him some sugar, and you ma’am, supply.”
“You act like I’m sleeping with him.”
“Never said that. I ain’t talkin ‘bout the kind of sugar you get from bein’ loved on, nor am I talking ‘bout the sugar you buy down at the store. I’m talkin’ ‘bout those sugar crystals in your eyes, girl! That little bit of twinkle you still carry around. You see, from the moment we leave our momma’s womb, kickin’ screamin’ and carryin’ on as we are, we have a little bit of sugar in our eyes. Our dreams, baby. Our future! We got a little thing called hope and by God it’s the sweetest taste in the world.”
“Getting metaphorical again, are we?”
Ruth smiled at me, but it quickly vanished as she began to attend to a darker stain on the floor. I rocked on my feet for a few seconds before I decided to be a little bold.
“When did you lose the sugar crystals in your eyes, Ruth?” I half-heatedly dangled one arm through the cell bars, even though the cool metal pinched a little at my shoulder. Ruth dropped the sponge into the dirty water with a splash and wiped her hands on her prison uniform. She sat up straight and gave me a funny, but intrigued look. She chewed on her lip for a second, and that’s when I realized she was actually going to answer me this time.
“I lost my sweetness slowly- a gradual fade, nothing sudden. I’d like to say it was when Joe first threw a drink in my face, but even after that I hoped things would get better… So, I married the bastard, and day by day I started to realize he wasn’t gonna change even if Jesus Christ himself descended from the high heavens to light his way. All I know is that the sugar was long gone when I pulled the trigger on him”
I frowned at the thought and glanced up at one of the guards. A middle-aged woman, with bleached hair pulled tightly into a bun. She watched us with vague interest, either to listen for a hidden meaning in our words, or to find the right moment to snap at Ruth for slacking off. I nodded at the guard and turned back to my own business. Ruth looked back at the guard and scoffed, making one obvious eye roll before bending back over the filthy floors.
“You ain’t got nothing better to do than to watch us all day?” Ruth pestered the guard. She kept her eyes down at her work, but scowled as she did so. The guard straightened.
“Ruth hush!” I warned.
“You think I like watching a bunch of rats scrub floors? I don’t do it for glamour, I do it to make an honest living, something you should take note for the next life,” The guard retorted. I think her name was Judith. She had many other names among the inmates, but I could say with about 70% certainty that her real name was, in fact, Judith.
I noticed Ruth setting up in her opinionated stance, chest puffing and everything. I tried not to sigh too loudly as I realized the hell that would soon ensue.
“Please. Even my worst students have ended up better off than you. “
Judy cut her off.
“Ah, yes, those poor little wretches. I can’t imagine what it must be like finding out your children were being taught by a murderer! Guess I’d just be lucky you snapped on your husband before you had the chance to snapped on those kids. Those students deserve a proper education by a proper woman.”
Ruth threw down her sponge and turned towards the guard, “Oh, I can show you a proper woman.”
“Ruth…” I warned again, but I knew my friend well enough to see the little engine in her mind start to rev. Her arm drawing back, fingers curled and primed/
Ruth swung a mean left hook square into Judith’s jawline. The other cell girls cheered and chanted in the new wave of emotion coursing through the hall. The embers in Judith’s eyes were consumed with fire, and it was on.
Ruth collided into the wall, with a quick and sickening sound. The guard didn’t stop after the shove, she continued to slam her fists into Ruth, whose blood dotted the newly “cleaned” floors. Ruth pushed up; even stumbling she swung wildly again, hitting Judith with the precision of a panther. Judith grabbed ruth by the head and slammed her knee into Ruth’s skull. Ruth dropped to the floor.
“Stop! Stop! Please Stop! She was just pickin’ fights! Please!” I shook against the iron bars, carrying on like a child. The guard waited for a moment for Ruth to move again, and when she didn’t, the guard stood to her feet. She looked at me with a deepened scowl and ran one bloodied hand over her messy bun.
“Prisoners should not disrespect their authorities. This one should serve as an example to the other girls that disrespect is not tolerated here.” Judy announced, scanning the other cells as she spoke. She nodded and began to walk off, presumably to get a medical staff member to carry Ruth off to the infirmary again.
“She was just offended; she wouldn’t have disrespected you like that if she weren’t so offended. She was being dumb! She didn’t mean it!” I insisted, glancing frantically from the guard to Ruth’s shaking form on the floor. I prayed deep down inside that Ruth was okay.
“She didn’t mean it…” I repeated.
“Oh, shut up! I meant every word” Ruth moaned from the ground. She pulled herself up to sit against the wall. She eyed her attacker and spat at Judy’s feet. The guard responded with a swift kick to the side. Ruth groaned and curled over her stomach. The guard said something into her walkie-talkie that I didn’t pay attention to and walked off around the corner.
Ruth tilted her head and looked at me with watery eyes.
“I want to leave this place, Mags. I never thought I’d say it, but damn. I just want to go back to being a math teacher,” Ruth coughed.
I reached out as far as I could, but my hand was still shy of reaching my friend. Ruth flopped her arm closer to me and I held her hand in silence until two medical clerks rolled her onto the stretcher rather carelessly. Ruth’s chest rose and fell unevenly, and she stared at the ceiling, grumbling lowly about being on death row anyways. The two clerks paid no mind to me, and talked as if neither I nor the other cell girls could hear.
“Assaulting Judy is sure going to hurt this one’s chance of appeal…” One of them said.
“I say the judge isn’t even going to hear her case.” The other replied. That was the last I heard of their voices before they turned the corner, and the language of the other cell girls drowned them out.
“Atta girl Ruth, I saw Judy looking a little roughed up after that spat!”
“Old Bitch deserved it! I hope she has to get her ugly face stitched up like Frankenstein’s bride!” One of the Cellmate cried out.
“Oh honey, I think Frankenstein’s out of our Judy’s League” Another commented.
“Sour-faced crab!” The girls all cackled.
I sat down in the corner of my cell and pulled my knees to my chest.
I want to leave this place, Mags.
I tried to turn my attention to the tally marks with my head. A set of them were scrawled into the concrete by my own hand. Another set of tallies were boxed off to the right and came from the girl that came before me. I didn’t even know this girl’s name, but from what she left me, I knew bits and pieces about her. She was in love with someone who had the initials R. J. and must’ve done something bad on the outside. She was around for just shy of a year before I heard she was executed. Ruth told me she chose the firing squad, and as a last trick up her sleeve, she managed to undo the binding on her wrists and stuck up both her middle fingers moments before the bullet reached her.
I bet R.J. would’ve been proud.
I knew after I left this cell, I wanted some kind of story to remain behind in my honor, so that another girl, like me, could look around the walls and see the spirits of women who had no choice but to be brave in the face of death. I just hadn’t decided what yet – how is one supposed to leave a jailcell legacy?
I want to leave this place...
The girls were still rattling off about details of the fight, but I was no longer paying them any mind. I was imagining all the things I could say to my cell successors.
(Maybe I could tell them how I escaped.)
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions