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Something Human
For days or weeks or months (he couldn’t be sure), he listened to the birds and saw only the dark. The slab of metal he slept on never warmed, and his clothes (more paper than cloth) never quite settled on his shoulders. The smell of concrete and mold rose and fell, and once a day (it could have been more, it could have been less), a strip opened and someone shoved his food in, a cup of water. He was always hungry, but his first impulse was to stare at the light, to let it linger in his eyes long after the slit closed and long after the metallic scrape from the tray echoed off into the distance. He ate (a concession, a surrender), the bread and gruel tasteless (and not enough), the water (he imagined) dirty and yellow and heavy with lead. It passed the scar on his tongue (the half of his tongue that wasn’t there) and negotiated the knot in his throat. Though he couldn’t see much of anything, he knew the size of his cell (very small), and he felt his arms and fingers (still there) skim through the dark. Blood trickled up his arteries and veins; his heart beat (relentless). Each time he stood, he was aware of his strength (weakening). He was aware of his feet and the thin soles of his slippers and the hardness of the floor. Rage meant nothing, jealousy, power, or pride; emotions that once made up his life balled into something else and murmured away. Who he was (who he’d been) receded to a speck. And a second speck orbited the first like some distant planet: his injuries, what he’d done to get them. He remembered the bodies of women, but they floated off as if under inches of water. He tried touching himself as he recalled they had touched him, but it felt dishonest (like corruption, like trespass). When he slept, it was to dream. When he forced himself to stay awake, it was until the black turned purple before him and pulsed with other brilliant colors. He invented games. He counted how many push-ups he could do before he collapsed and how many sit-ups before he couldn’t sit. He held his breath until his body made him start breathing again. He began to distinguish the birds’ calls, to anticipate each like the laugh of a friend. He named them (though he knew nothing about birds): Nightingale and Robin and Blue Jay and Lark. He imagined them perched on the other side of the wall, the space of the sky above them and the space of the sky below. He heard voices, a never-ending din soaking the bricks and rumbling like low low thunder. It was in his mind (he told himself); (he told himself) it was his mind inventing something human. He stopped believing. Then (suddenly, suddenly) he started again. Months passed (or weeks or hours or years). He couldn’t be sure. It rained, and he liked the sound of the drops in the corner of his cell. He didn’t like that he had to like (but he had to, he had to or else). Finally, the door opened and a group of shadows huddled around him like angels (like ghosts). A flurry of hands (palms and fingers and the tips of fingers) grabbed his shirt. They pushed him into the throbbing brightness of the hall, into the throbbing stink of piss and shit, ammonia and sweat. He followed their footsteps (a tumult). He covered his face and pinched his nose and glimpsed what he could through the bars of his fingers. His eyes took days to adjust (his hearing, again, dimmed). The birds faded; the voices grew louder, became real. He ebbed into routine (inhaled, exhaled). He relearned the rules of the place, and he learned the ones that had changed while he was away. One: every week they took his name and gave him another (always the name of a white man, he noticed: Jeremy and Jason and Jack, Randy and Patrick and P. J. and Hugh). Two: the inmates were also the guards. And three: half the men in the prison weren’t even criminals (half of them had never even committed a crime).


They’d assigned him Joseph that week, and when they called him through the loudspeaker, they called Joseph. Remote guard duty, they said. He knew what that meant. He went to Dr. Avalon’s office at the end of the long hall, and she led him to a back room where he recognized a row of lockers and his gym bag half deflated in the center of a table. The doctor reminded him the prison wouldn’t be responsible for what would certainly happen to him if another prisoner noticed he left. She was sure he wouldn’t be safe here anymore. She was sure it would cost him his job.

      He shrugged. Be back tomorrow, he said.

      The doctor repeated the rules. One: he must leave at night. Two: he must come back the next day immediately after dark. And three: he couldn’t tell anyone where he worked, couldn’t discuss what happened in the prison at all.

      She left, and Joseph changed out of his inmate uniform and into street clothes. He went through the other door and down a ramp. A concrete slab sheltered the parking lot from the windows above, so he didn’t have to sneak. He walked the aisle of parked cars, pressing the button on his key, listening for the unlocking, the click. He found his car, and inside he opened the glove compartment and took out his registration and the map he’d paper-clipped to it.

      The sight of his real name filled him. He read it and repeated it aloud. The scaffolding of himself, his past, clambered back into place. A half hour earlier, he’d been Joseph, and he knew he’d have another name as soon as he returned. But he was Nathan again for now. Nathan as always. Nathan for an entire night and day after that.

      He passed the gates they’d opened for him and followed the curved road through the woods. Whether it was winter or summer, snow or rain, Nathan always rolled his windows down as soon as he hit the highway. He always leaned into the wind as the car picked up speed. When he’d first started this job, he used to go out on these nights; he used to search for people as alone as he was. Now, he went straight home and left his place only if he had to. The hallway in his building smelled like air freshener, a sad camouflage over the carpet’s woody musk. In his apartment, a dark couch faced a dark television, and the refrigerator, when he opened it, gaped empty with its burnt-out light. Nathan grabbed one of the five bottles of beer he’d left for himself inside the door. He twisted the cap and tossed it on the counter. His plan was to order two large pizzas, to stuff himself with one while watching TV and stuff himself with the other as soon as he woke in the morning.

      Neighbors bumped around next door and walked above, but Nathan liked how the little apartment freed him from the relentless noise. Everyone in prison was always talking; the walls trapped their words and their voices cluttered and caromed and never quite fluttered away. Nathan didn’t know if any other innocents had nights off like he did, but he felt sorry for them if they didn’t. The rules of the place kept shifting, changing, and in the last few months he’d developed a kind of motion sickness. He felt buried everywhere but in his own skin. Everything blurred. All the men in the place had some things that made them look like they should be there and others that made it look like they shouldn’t. That silent black guy, for example; he had the scars: half a tongue and a bullet lodged in his neck. But he also had soft eyes, kind ones. And Nathan himself, who hadn’t broken any laws, still carried around the broad chest and jagged tattoos and quick anger that made others suspicious.

      Only at home could he step outside the shock of it, the confusion. Home reminded him he was an innocent, just working, and the pay was good, and he was saving up to leave.

      Forty-five minutes later, a delivery woman tapped on his door. He handed her the cash and lifted the boxes from her arms. Before prison, he’d kept his name back until he’d known he could trust a person with it. Now, on the outside, he couldn’t stop himself, offering it up to anyone like a gift they didn’t really want.

      I’m Nathan, he told her. He invited her in, and she pulled her cap lower and glanced past into the dim apartment.

      You about to have a party? she asked.

      He apologized. You probably get that at every door, he said. You probably get it twenty times a night.

      She wrestled a wad of money from her front pocket and began to count his change.

      Keep it, he told her.

      She nodded and stuffed the money back in.

      Alone again, Nathan devoured two slices over the kitchen counter before grabbing a paper plate from the cupboard and piling on three more.

      He flipped channels, and two hours later, he got up to answer a knock. The delivery woman stood there, again, her nose wrinkled, her mouth scowling.

      It stinks out here, she said. She maneuvered past him and straight to the kitchen, where she took one of his last two beers from the fridge.

      Don’t even try to touch me, she said. Or I’ll pop you.

      Nathan laughed.

      How old are you? he asked.

      She pulled her cap down as she muttered it. She was young. Twenty-two. Her thick, black ponytail poured out the back of the cap, and he’d worked in enough kitchens to know the smell of grease that had soaked into her uniform and would never wash out: putrid, almost sweet. She opened one of the boxes and then the other.

      I hate pizza, she said, but took a piece anyway.

      Where are the pictures of kids? she asked. Where’s the ex?

      I don’t have any of those, Nathan said.

      She studied him, or the bill of her hat did. She tilted her face so she could see him better. You look like you’re on the run.

      I have a job, he answered. I can’t tell you where.

      She took another bite, and he saw her smiling for the first time. Lying already, she said.

      I’m at the prison, he told her. I stay there mostly.

      I was guessing you might be a guard, she said. Gets tough there, I bet.

      I can get more beer, he said. If you want some.

      Not sure how long I’m staying, she said. Not more than tonight.

      I go back tomorrow anyway, he told her.

      She followed him through the door of the kitchen to the couch in the other room.

      I’m Nathan, he said, I don’t know if you remember.

      She sat. She took a sip of beer.

      We don’t have to watch baseball if you don’t want, he said. We can watch whatever. He tossed the remote so it landed on the cushion beside her. She picked it up and tossed it back.


The sign next to her office door announced her name. The warden had promoted Janice multiple times. She was second in command now, but she saw no reason to move. Her office was the last in a hive of them, many empty, all buried deep in the prison like vaults in a catacomb. She liked her hard, wooden chair and the exact way she’d organized her file cabinets and the spotlessness of her desk. She didn’t like the cinder-block walls, painted white, or the fact that she didn’t have a window. But all of the offices were like that. And the sounds of the inmates filtered into all of them, the knocking about in the hallways above, the constant shuffle and rattle. Sometimes they fascinated Janice; sometimes they overwhelmed; sometimes they repulsed her so much she grew dizzy in her chair.

      The whole experiment started five years ago, with her idea to eliminate divisions between the inmates and guards. They would treat everyone the same, and those expectations would foster trust. It was about identity, about giving purpose to the men, and she made it clear to all that they would do their jobs with the same seriousness and punctuality she expected from herself. For a while, they teetered on the edge of chaos, but eventually they’d pulled away and the prison settled into its new culture. All was going fairly well, all kept inside, except the innocent who’d negotiated that special clause in his contract. They’d granted it because they’d been desperate for people, and though he only left one day a month, it seemed like he was always out. Janice trusted him less than she ever had, especially since they’d started the name rotations and other readjustments. A few of the initiatives weren’t yet legal, and she recognized how the innocent had emerged from his first stint in solitary stiffer and whiter and unbalanced. Yesterday, Janice had tried to scare him into silence, to convince him not to leave. She wondered if next month they should just forget the contract and keep him, send him back to solitary or lock him up inside.

      The inmate she waited for this morning knocked on her door a few minutes early. The huge man’s shoulders filled her office, the scar on his neck intimidating and gruesome. She knew the bullet that severed his vocal cords was still there, hiding underneath, and she had pictures of what he’d done in her file cabinet. She didn’t look at them anymore. She chose to trust his eyes instead: full of feeling, of empathy. She believed her system had uncovered this, brought it out. The man was rehabilitating, she thought; she was on her way to making him good.

      The inmate answered Janice’s questions with a nod or a shake. If he had more to say, he jotted something on a piece of paper, his handwriting slanted and anxious. He sat waiting in the chair that was much too small, and Janice almost laughed at how silly his big hands looked folded there in his lap.

      What’s your name? she asked.

      He wrote something down and angled the paper so she could see.

      It was not Janice’s job to keep track of names, so she didn’t know if he was lying or if it was correct. She chose to believe him.

      James, she said, you recently got out of solitary.

      He nodded. He wrote: I could hear the birds.

      Janice smiled, but her smile was tense.

      Birds? she asked.

      He nodded again.

      How do you feel?

      He shrugged.

      She sat back in her chair to study him as if another few inches would provide an entirely new perspective. Five years ago, forty percent of the prison’s inmates had been back before the end of the first year and eighty percent before three. The hate and anger the inmates brought with them didn’t dissipate as it was supposed to. It clung like parasites, intensified and spread, added to the humidity in the place. Janice’s experiments had improved the numbers, drastically. But she knew it was a small sample so far, and she knew it wasn’t perfect. She wanted the rate down to zero; she pushed new ideas to get there. Right now, everything they did followed three simple steps. One: Remove from the men who they were, who they’d been. Two: promote expectations, trust. Three: replace the old selves with new, productive ones.

      James, Janice said.

      He stared past his hands and knees to the floor.

      James, she said again.

      He glanced up. In his eyes, he saw no recognition, not of her or himself.

      She felt bad suddenly, suddenly she felt almost evil.

      Are we hurting you? she asked. Am I hurting you?

      The inmate leaned forward, over the front of her desk. He cocked his pencil, and then stopped and shrugged instead.

      What will you do after parole? she asked him. Who will you be?

      He wrote something down and spun the paper so she could read it. I don’t think, it said.

      He’d shaken her, but she wasn’t sure why.

      But you should, she told him. She pointed to her temple. Decide, James. The things you did before, they don’t have to hold you down.

      He nodded as though he wasn’t quite listening, as though what she told him wasn’t quite true. His eyes flickered over her as he waited for the next question.

      When she didn’t ask one, he wrote something else. He slid the paper over. He’d written: I’ve learned to shed names like hair (unswept on the barbershop floor).

      What? Janice asked.

      He shook his head like it was nothing, or a joke. They glared at each other for a moment until Janice realized he wasn’t actually looking at her, but at her forehead or maybe even a little above.

Lucas Southworth’s first fiction collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun (University of Massachusetts Press), won AWP’s Grace Paley Prize. Recent work has appeared or will appear in AGNIAlaska Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XLVI (forthcoming in 2022).