Posted by: Matt Y | 10/01/2014

Live By the Sword

Here’s a short story I wrote for a group project that never took off the ground.  It was supposed to be 1500 words but I’m super lousy about keeping within a word count restriction.  Instead it’s nine words shy of 1800.  I was going to crop it but I’m going to just keep it as it is and post it here.

Live by the Sword

When he regained consciousness James was confused.  Not at the beating he had received, when a guard had disappeared and he found himself cornered by several other prisoners he had understood what was happening and why, and though he had been afraid James had a little relieved.  In his many years in different prison systems the threat of violence had always been like a hideous Jack in the Box just waiting to spring once the music stopped.  When the violence actually happened it meant at the very least of small reprieve from the near constant worry about when the weasel finally did go pop.

The beating wasn’t a surprise.  The fact that he was still alive after however was not expected and he laid there for a moment as his body reported to his brain various aches and pains.

In his 43 years of life nearly half of those were spent on the Inside of a jail or prison as was spent Outside of it.  James knew some might pity that fact but he didn’t mind.  In his early twenties he was sent Inside for a crime he could barely remember anymore, probably for stealing car stereos, that he discovered he had a talent that had never presented itself before.  James had been making a shank out of chicken glass and duct tape and was concentrating hard on the task when his cellmate remarked that he had a real knack for it.

And he did.  Didn’t matter what you needed it for word got around that if you needed a weapon then James was the go to guy for it.  He found he could turn nearly anything into a weapon, toothbrush handles and pens with sharpened scraps of metal he could make deadly in a snap.  Chicken glass blades were harder to get material for but a classic.  He’d made weapons from nails, duct tape, can lids, frames from eyeglasses, utensils, and in some of his more inventive moods, soap, paper mache and the plastic case from a stick of deodorant.

On the Outside he was no one with no friends and no sense of purpose.  The world only confused and angered him at equal turns.  On the Inside he still had no friends, which typically meant being a target for others, except his talent was well known enough that while he belonged to no group every group had need of his skill.  Outside, he was pathetic.  Inside he was respected for his abilities and as an old man of the system, a vet.  The last time they let him out he committed a crime just to get sent right back.  No more stealing stereos though.  When he last broke into a car and saw a CD player he backed away not even knowing where to begin.

James knew that eventually the day would come that someone would get stuck or sliced or hacked or ripped with a weapon he had crafted and instead of going after the person holding the makeshift blade they would turn their anger towards him.  When the beating came he assumed that he’d finally reached the end of his long weapon crafting career.  So coming to and discovering that he had just been kicked around was a shock.  Mercy was one of those little freedoms that people typically left behind when they were walked through the prison door.

James sat up and saw that sometime during the beating they had taken off the shoe and sock from his right foot, which seemed like an odd form of punishment.  His foot throbbed with pain and he looked at it to see what was wrong since.  They had tattooed him.  That was not strange in itself, involuntary tattoos were one of many ways of retribution, though typically they chose someplace visible such as the forehead or hand and not something as easily covered as a foot.

Scrawled into his skin was a rough image of what James thought was a shark.  It was a rushed job and looked like something a very young child might draw.  Just an outline of sharp angles, a large back fin and a mouth full of triangle teeth.  Usually the tattoos done inside were in blue or black ink due to the ink stolen out of pens that were available.  This was done in a bright red and alongside of the concern about if whether used a clean needle or if he now had hepatitis or HIV James wondered where they found the red ink.

James groaned and stood up.  For a second he thought about going to the infirmary but that would raise more questions than he had answers for and since nothing felt broken he counted himself lucky.  Instead he got up, brushed himself off, found his missing shoe and walked back towards his cell.  He never finished the sweeping job he was assigned to but he knew no one would notice.

His cell mate Sam sat on his own bed playing solitaire.  Sam was another old man of the system, older than James, his white hair and beard a snarled mess.  Where James was good with making weapons Sam’s talent was his ability to get along with everyone from guards to the cruelest bastards in the place.  Usually he rode along with James as a look out while James did the weapon crafting and took part of the profits.

“You don’t look good.” Sam said.

“I guess not everyone is happy with my services.  Look what they did to my foot!” James said.

“Huh, that’s a new one.  Never saw a man get a fish drawn on him.  You going to give them a receipt?” Sam asked.  The question was really if James was planning revenge, certainly enough people owed him a favor to make it simple to carry out if so.

He just shook his head and said. “Nah, was bound to happen sooner or later.  I get them back and I’ll spend the rest of my time looking over my shoulder.  Not worth it.”

Sam shrugged and turned his attention back to his game.  James laid down and wondered who he might be able to trade with to get some decent strength aspirin.

That evening he woke up in a world of pain.  It felt like he was being stabbed in his right foot though when he sat up he could tell there was no one else in the cell buy him and Sam.  He reached down not sure what he could do but needing to find the source of the pain.  As he touched his foot it stopped and went away.  He laid back down in the dark and wondered if it was a muscle cramp or if the tattoo he had been given was infected.

As he fell back to sleep it occurred to him that it had felt like the biting of a several small, sharp teeth.

The next morning he woke up and again felt the stabbing pain come and go again.  Quickly he kicked away the sheet and looked down at the tattoo.

It had moved.

James was certain the tattoo had been on the top of his foot.  The head of the shark was now above the knob of his ankle with his mouth stretched wide.

It had also changed.

The tattoo yesterday had been the sketching of a young child’s idea of a shark.  Now it was longer, larger, and more detailed than the day before.  Now it looked more like a shark, with predatory black eyes and rows of teeth visible behind the ones in the front.

James shook his head and wiped his hand down his face.  He had taken a few blows to the head the day before.  That was probably it.  He just wasn’t remembering the details right.  Then he stood and realized that though he could feel the cold concrete under his left foot, his right foot was numb.  He stomped it up and down a few times and still felt nothing.  It was as though his foot was full of Novocain.

His mind spun.  He could call for a guard but then what?  Explain that he had been tattooed against his will and that the tattoo was moving around?  He’d be in the ding wing with the other lunatics before sundown.  James thought he could wait to see if it would get any better.

During his work duties the stabbing pain occurred again.  It lasted for only a few seconds and would go away quickly, leaving a growing trail of numbness it its wake.  James took a look when he went to the bathroom and nearly cried when he saw the tattoo.  The shark was now long enough that the tail stretched to his ankle while the open mouth was nearly on his knee.  He tried to keep up appearances until the end of his job shift and then sweating profusely with fear he limped back to his cell.

The cell was empty as he sat on his cot and stripped off his pants to see what the tattoo had become.  The shark was large enough now that the mouth of the beast went all the way around his leg and was resting on his upper thigh.  The detail was such that it as more of a portrait of a crimson shark than a tattoo.  As he stared down into the black eyes James notice that the skin on his leg was starting to ripple.  The dorsal fin actually rose up stretched the skin of his leg out, and as James watched the head of the shark bulged, it closed its mouth to the now familiar stabbing pain, and open its mouth again.

Panic took a hold of James.  There was a corner where he had stashed some of the weapons he had created.  He frantically dug them out, spilling contraband over the floor of the cell but oblivious to anything but the tattoo.  Searching quickly he took a sharpened toothbrush with a duct taped handle, raised it high and jammed it down into the eye of the shark.  Doing so he felt a sharp pain, thinking it was the shark he pulled the toothbrush out and stabbed it over and over again as blood covered his leg.

He kept stabbing, arm pistoning up and down, until the tattoo was unrecognizable.  Then his fingers became too weak to grip the toothbrush any longer and it rolled off his cot into a pile of his other creations.  James saw it and knew that he should really hide the weapons he made but his eyelids just felt too heavy to keep open any longer.  A few moments later he was beyond feeling anything.

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