HORSE


By Jeff Baker



Trying to keep to yourself in prison is generally a survival skill; at least it worked for me. But there were times when I may as well not have tried. Billy Sacks didn't even try. He was a schemer and spent his time running stuff, drugs, money, whatever from one inmate to the other when he wasn't charming the socks off someone else. He was a born con artist with a not-perfect track record which is what landed him in Millington Correctional in the first place. Me, that was more trouble than I wanted. I figured I'd just do my time and get out. After two years behind the walls I should have realized that wouldn't be that easy. But I wouldn't have guessed that I'd get involved in Billy's mess.

I'd met Billy in the line to use the weight room. We'd shot the breeze and he'd basically given me his biography, not that I'd wanted to know that much. I certainly didn't want him to latch onto me, which he did; managing to run into me during the hour or two every day we were out of our cells. I guess he saw me as his big brother figure. I was 22 he was about 21 but he looked about 16 and acted just as reckless as a teen-ager. The riot was what really did it. I was watching a couple of guys play cards trying to see if one of them was cheating when all hell broke loose. Alarm bells went off and everybody tensed up. I looked around quick for trouble; I saw one of the guards who looked younger than me looking as clueless as I was. There was a scared look in his eyes. I didn't blame him a bit for being scared. I was scared every time I walked out of my cell, I just hid it well.

The intercom came on and I made out the words "all" and "proceed," barely audible over the commotion. Right about then a few guards ran into the cellblock and started giving orders which none of us heard over the intercom. The gist of it was a series of fights had broken out in the yard and we were all being herded into the gym so the guards could keep an eye on us. I saw a couple of guards running along one of the upper tiers and wondered why they didn't just stick us back in our cells. But they didn't ask me. I was milling around in the gym, watching my back when I saw someone reach over to me out of the corner of my eye and heard the voice the second I wheeled around.

"Hey, Bro.' Looks like a riot, huh?" Billy said.

Yeah, looking as spooked as all of us felt, Billy had walked up and tapped a guy on the shoulder in the middle of a prison lockdown.

"All I know is I didn't start it," I said.

"Me either," Billy said ending it with a fakey laugh.

I looked around. There were guards standing around the edge of the gym and in front of the doors. I could see inmates had grouped together like they did most of the time: the gays, the child molesters (who nobody liked), the trustees (who we liked even less) and the gang members who were in their separate groups but sitting down a few feet away from each other. I realized that Billy was standing way too close to me and breathing hard.

"You wanna go get a beer or something after this?" he asked. Believe me, I did, but going somewhere else was starting to look like a good idea. I didn't like the way some of the gang members were looking at each other. I ignored Billy and started talking to a couple of other guys I got along with. The one we called Crazy Eddie was looking around with a big grin on his face, figures that he'd enjoy this.

I saw one of the guards talk on his cellphone, nod and talk to a couple of other guards. In another minute they were waving some of us out the door, doubtless back to our cells. I was eyeing the group of gang members and one of them was standing up and flashing gang signs at the other. I figured a second riot was about to break out and I didn't want to be there.

"Let's go," I said loud enough for everybody right near me to hear. Crazy Eddie and a couple of the others nodded and we started for the door. That was when there was a crash. One of the gang members had jumped the other; the guards were rushing over to break up the fight. I glanced back; Billy was standing frozen, shaking visibly. I glanced at Crazy Eddie. We walked back and grabbed Billy by the arms and half pushed half walked him out the door with him sandwiched between us, Crazy Eddie and me watching each other's backs until we got back to our respective cells. The last I saw of the riot was a bunch of guards rushing towards the gym and the smell of tear gas in the air.

And from then on Billy seemed to think that I'd officially become his friend for life. I could take him or leave him. He started following me around, and he always called me "Big Bro'." Even when I was on my way to my work detail he'd holler out to me from his cell. Then he started to offer to run stuff for me which I didn't do, or get me stuff most of which was illegal. Not that I wasn't into getting stuff but I didn't need the trouble. But, as usual, what I wanted didn't matter in the general prison scheme of things.

The trouble started about three weeks later. Things had calmed down since the riot and the feeling of tension in the air had gone down to its usual level, like a cloudy spring Kansas day before they officially put out the tornado warning. Billy was still hanging around me, but not as close. The routine had settled down to its usual bearable dullness. That was when I noticed Billy hanging around a couple of the gang guys who'd been in the fight in the gym. I hadn't seen those two in the weeks since the riot and I hadn't missed them. My guess was they'd done most of those weeks in the hole.

Billy was doing his usual stuff, running for anybody who'd hire him. What he was running I didn't know. None of my business, thankfully, but I could tell when he looked around to make sure nobody was watching that he was delivering whatever to whoever. I always wondered if some of the guards were seeing it and looking the other way, maybe not wanting to wreck the underground prison economy. That business wasn't my business, but it all got dumped at my cell door anyway a few days later.

It was around three in the afternoon and the warning bell had gone off signaling back-to-the-cells, all-the-outs-in-free after the hour in the afternoon we had to kill outside our cells in the weight room or whatever. Yeah, free time ha-ha.

I'd wandered back into my cell before the warning went off, determined to enjoy time by myself before my smelly cellie got back from his work detail, which gave me about three hours without him. That was when there was a crash and Billy ran into the bars of the open cell yelling my name, his eyes wide. He ran into the cell and about jumped onto me. He was more scared than I'd ever seen him, even that day in the gym. He was followed by three of the gang guys running like cats after a mouse in an old cartoon. And I was the owner of the house who the mouse and cats slam into after they slip on the rug after running around the corner. Billy ducked behind me and pulled me around so I was between him and the three guys who were all crowded into my cell.

"Matt! They're gonna kill me!" Billy yelled.

"Hand him over!" one of the guys yelled in my face. One of the others yelled something else. I would've gladly tossed Billy at them to get them out of my cell and out of my face, but Billy was hanging on to me like I was his mother.

"Hey, leave me out of this!" I said. It was almost funny, my asking to be left out of a three-against-one-fight in a five foot eight cell with me in the middle.

"You want trouble, Matthews, you've got it!" one of them said, and Billy squeezed me tighter.

"I haven't been taking any of that stuff, I swear!" Billy said, near panic.

"That's a load of crap," said the big guy with arms covered in tattoos.

Now it all started to add up. Billy wasn't just the delivery boy he was either sampling or selling on the side. Profitable but dangerous.

"Hey, leave me out of this," I started to say. Then we were interrupted.

"Guard." That was from another one of the gang who poked his head inside the cell. My mind jumped — how many more of them were there out there? No way that was good. But in seconds we all straightened up like we had all just been in my cell to look at my vacation pictures, and sure enough one of the guards walked by making his rounds. Time to mosey back to your own cells guys, I thought.

They all walked out. Billy walked one way, keeping close to the guard. The rest of them walked the other. But the one glared at me, the look that said this wasn't over. Like it or not I was involved. The cell door slammed shut a few minutes later. Great. I had all night to worry about this before we were let out for breakfast the next morning.

One of the good things about mealtimes in prison is that most people are only interested in chowing down and getting back to their cells. To them it's all business of the moment and as long as they have something to do, in this case breakfast, they aren't going to make a lot of trouble. Nonetheless, I kept my eyes open and watched my back. And for the first time in days Billy didn't try to sit by me and make small talk. I saw him sitting a few tables away from me in the prison cafeteria as he hurried through breakfast and then made a beeline back to his cell. I caught a glimpse of the gang guys who were after him, luckily they were housed in a different cellblock than I was and they showed up right when I was leaving. But they still glared at me across the room.

I didn't get a chance to talk to Billy until our free hour that afternoon when he slid up to me. "Talk" may have been a gentle word. I looked around for any watching guards and then grabbed him by the collar, pulled him into an unoccupied cell and slammed him against the wall, demanding to know what the hell he was trying to do. He tried to blow it off.

"We are both in big trouble now," I said through grit teeth. "And I sure as hell don't need it."

"Take it easy, Bro," Billy started.

"I'm not your bro," I said. "You've been screwing those guys around and you've got me dragged into this now."

"Bro, I swear I didn't!" Billy said.

I didn't trust him. For a moment I considered punching him out. But that would've gone on my record and wouldn't have solved the bigger problem.

"Those guys you're involved with have no problem getting rid of you or me."

"Yeah, I know," Billy said. But at the same time he had this half-assed grin on his face, like it was all just some big game to him. "You gonna talk to G.D., right?"

It wouldn't do any good I realized. But at the same time I wasn't sure what G.D.'s take on all this was.

"Stay by me," I said to Billy, at the same time not believing that I'd actually said it. It didn't take long for us to run into G.D. — That's what they called him; I never asked what it stood for. He was about as tall as I was and leaner. His long blond hair didn't look like it got washed often. His arms were covered in tattoos which looked like they were crawling up the sides of his neck under his ears. Up to now we'd just given each other space and left each other alone.

"Your boy and me got business, man." G.D. said.

"He's not my boy," I said. "He just hangs around a lot," I said.

"Yeah, he knows what he's supposed to be doing, he works for me."

Probably the only work Billy had done in his life, I thought.

"Listen, I'm not involved in any of this," I started.

"Load of crap right there," G.D. said. "I think you got your buddy Billy to screw me around."

"You got problems with Billy, I'm not involved."

"That ain't what I heard," he said.

Great. Add a sticker that says 'Hi, I'm Matt and I'm in deep doo-doo' to the blue prison-issue shirt and the clip-on badge with my name and picture on it. Make it all official.

"I don't know what you heard, but this is the first I've heard about it." I said.

"Oh you and Billy Boy are in this so deep," G.D. said, his voice becoming an almost guttural growl.

We were inside, in the free area with the tables bolted to the floor and the cell tiers towering over us. If you let it, all the rambling talking and yelling of the other cons would just drive you nuts. Everybody in their own little groups and in their own little world. That's why the tense confrontation between us wasn't getting any attention from the guards, but it would if a fight broke out. I could feel the tension; see it in G.D.'s eyes and in the tensing of his buddies who were gathered pretty close around me and Billy. I didn't need a fight on my record and I didn't need one of the zillions of varieties of homemade prison weapons rammed into my chest or gut. I'd seen the damage they could do. But walking away would be just as bad. Running would be worse. Billy was ready to run; he was shifting from one foot to the other.

"You want Billy, you can have him," I said. "Just leave me out of this."

"You are both in this up to your butts," G.D. snapped, drowning out the groaning that had started in from Billy. No way I was getting G.D. and his buddies off my back. And I was tough but I wasn't going to come out of a fight with six, seven other guys.

G.D. glared at Billy.

"Who'd you sell our stuff to, punk?" he said. I saw Billy shudder at the word.

"I'm sorry, man. I really am." Billy said. "And I didn't do it, I swear! Just ask Matt!"

Great, I thought. Time to brawl.

"Hey, Sacks," came the voice.

"Huh?" Billy said, looking startled.

"You're supposed to be at the pharmacy," said a guard. "Don't you read the bulletin board?"

"No. I mean, yeah. I'm going." Billy said, turning on his heel and trying not to run.

"I'm with him," I said quickly following. A guard had saved me twice in two days and I wasn't counting on that impossible luck. Usually my luck wasn't that good.

"What's going on?" I asked Billy.

"I got this pill I have to take, I'm on this prescription and they were out," Billy said. "You sold me out, man! Why'd you do that, buddy?"

"I'm not your buddy," I said. "And thanks to you I'm gonna get stomped by those guys."

"You can't get stomped, man! Nobody can take you!" Billy said as we reached the line at the pharmacy.

I decided not to explain that one guy, even a six-foot-seven guy, is still one guy up against a whole gang.

"I've been thinking about this, Billy. You've got one way out of this. Go to the guards and tell them you want to lock up," I said. "Protective custody."

"Everybody will think I snitched somebody out!" Billy yelped. The inmate in line ahead of us turned around and stared at Billy. I glared back, he turned back around.

"You get out of population or you're going to be passed around like a TV schedule during football season," I said. Billy went paler than he already was after months inside. He didn't look at me; he just stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked down at his shoes.

I started to say something but the con behind the steel mesh window that separated what passed as the pharmacy from the rest of the prison called out to me.

"Yo, Matt! You supposed to be back here, man?"

"Nah," I said. "I'm with Billy. Sort of."

"Well if you don't have no prescription you not supposed to be here man."

I nodded and walked off, keeping an eye out for G.D. and his buddies until it was time to get back to my cell for lock-up. I would've made a beeline for my cell but it would be the perfect place for them to corner me. I felt a lot more secure when the door was safely locked. It sucked, but that was life. I kept pacing and thinking about the mess Billy had gotten me in. I just couldn't see any way out of it.

I'm glad I didn't remember my dreams. Life seemed like a bad dream more than it usually did. The next morning at breakfast I spent most of the time checking my back. Billy didn't even look at me and I didn't see G.D. or his buddies. The trouble started up at lunch. I passed G.D. on his way into the chow hall as I was leaving. He glared at me and said "College Court. This afternoon."

At least, I thought, we were going to get this over with.

I made it to the gym just after the afternoon free period started. It was already pretty busy, guys shooting hoops or trying to, and others clustered around the edge of the basketball court talking or just watching. The prison gym looked like your standard high school gym, except with armed guards. We called the half court at the far end "college court," because it was where the serious players played. That was where I saw G.D. standing with his buddies under the hoop at the end of the gym. Billy was standing to one side looking like he wanted to be anywhere but there. I sighed.

"Here's how this is gonna work," G.D. said when I made my way over to the far side of the court, Billy staring at me with a look that was just one side of controlled panic. "We have a major disagreement, mainly because you got in the middle of our business."

I wanted to say that I hadn't gotten in the middle of anything, but Billy was edging behind me, putting me between him and G.D., but I noticed his buddies making sure that they were surrounding us.

"I always liked you, Matthews. You don't give anybody any trouble up to now, and you still don't take crap from anybody. We could use a guy like you. You interested?"

"That's not gonna do my reputation for not giving anybody any trouble any good," I said, my mouth feeling a little dry.

"Tell you what we're gonna do," he said. "You think you're a pretty good baller, right?"

"I do okay," I said, not liking where this was going.

"We play ball for this. Maybe you really aren't involved in all this and maybe you are. Here's how it works out."

One of his buddies tossed G.D. a basketball.

"You and me play a little one-on-one," he said. "You win we call this all a big misunderstanding and we leave you and Billy the Kid here alone, you don't mess with us, we don't mess with you."

"And if you win?" I asked, not liking his grin that flashed the moment I asked him.

"I win," he said, grinning broader, "you join my little group here and start working for me," He looked over at Billy and grinned even broader, "and he's mine."

And so much for any low profile I had, I thought. To say nothing of increasing the possibility of getting shived or handed more time. Billy grabbed the back of my shirt. I reached behind me and swatted his hand away.

"You got a deal," I said. What choice did I have?

He tossed me the ball and jumped to one side, blocking a shot I hadn't even started to make yet. Yeah, he's good, I thought. I'd seen him play a few times and I'd played a lot on the outside and in here, but nothing like this.

Billy and the rest of G.D.'s gang walked over to the wall behind the hoop and they made sure Billy was in the middle of them. Anybody else watching wouldn't have known that there was anything more going on than your typical hard-fought prison basketball game. A lot of sweat and a lot of trash talk. On the inside people made deals and bets on the outcome of games all the time, but I'd never made one like this. Billy sure hadn't. I caught a couple of glimpses of him, trying to look like he was tough and not scared. It made him look like he was about to throw up. I about laughed.

I could say one thing for G.D., he was good. I was no slouch and we spent the next half-hour making shots, blocking shots and sweating. Our shirtfronts were dark with sweat. I felt impossibly hyper and alive. We grabbed breathers when we could. I walked around the edge of the court dribbling the ball.

"You packin' it in?" I said.

"No! You?"

"No way!"

G.D. had a smile on his face when he'd answered. This was intense and serious but he was enjoying it and in spite of it all so was I. It felt like my junior year of high school when any thought that I'd be in this place was a million miles away.

We'd kept the score close. We were tied when I noticed that the clock was nearing the hour. I could tell that G.D. was getting tired but neither of us was willing to give and we hadn't set any ground rules about to end this other than one beating the other. I was pretty sure in that case that G.D. would keep up his end of the deal and leave us alone. If the game was tied when it was called on account of our free period being over I wasn't sure what was going to happen.

We kept playing. I made a few more shots which he blocked. The clock's hands kept moving towards the hour.

"How we gonna end this?" G.D. said, standing at mid-court dribbling.

I stood there for a second staring at the hardwood floor. Then the idea hit me.

"Horse," I said. G.D. stopped dribbling.

"Horse?" he said, half laughing.

We stared at each other for another second and he nodded. He walked over to me carrying the ball and we positioned ourselves on the free throw line. I glanced over at Billy.

"We're gonna play Horse," I explained.

Billy's jaw dropped.

I was grinning as I made my first shot. G.D. made his first basket too.

For the next few minutes we kept moving around and shooting, one after the other. We each made a few shots and missed a few. I kept glancing at the clock. I'd managed to accumulate four letters and so had G.D. All either of us needed to lose was an "e."

I glanced over at Billy, he was visibly shaking.

I aimed and made my shot. Perfect.

"Swish," I said, tossing the ball to B.D. He posed for a second like he was in the NBA and prepared to let the ball go in a perfect arc at the instant the bell went off.

The perfect arc went bad, the ball missed the basket, banged off the back wall and almost hit Billy who started laughing, I guessed with relief. I didn't blame him.

I walked over and scooped up the ball and tossed it to G.D. who wasn't smiling.

"E," I said.

"You won, Matthews, and a deal's a deal." he said. "We won't give you any hassle. But if you want to join up with us anyway, you know where I am."

I shook my head.

"Okay, man. Let's get out of here," Billy said walking beside me deliberately turning his back on G.D., who glared at Billy.

"But this little piece of crap is yours now," G.D. said, his voice rising. "You won him fair and square."

"I don't want," I started to say.

"We're spreading the word that he's yours, Matthews." G.D. said.

"Hey, man!" Billy said looking from me to G.D. and back again.

"I'm outa here," I said walking toward the gym exit.

The near-constant noise of inmate chatter and yelling blended with the echoing of steel cell doors being slammed shut as Billy caught up with me.

"Man, what're we gonna do?" Billy said.

I grabbed him by the collar and got in his face.

"You are going to leave me alone from now on. That's what we are gonna to do," I said. I let go of Billy and walked back to my cell. My hyper mood from the gym had worn off. All I wanted to do was lay down and watch the afternoon pass by.

I saw G.D. and his buddies around, there really wasn't any way to avoid anybody in that place, but I did my best to mind my own business and they didn't give me any trouble. And I saw Billy a lot, if he was running for someone else he was a lot more careful about it from then on from what I could tell. I never asked him about it and he barely ever spoke to me. I did hear that he was telling people who tried to give him trouble that they'd have to talk to me first.

When I got out a few years later I saw Billy bagging groceries at a place across town. He grinned at me and I left and made sure I shopped somewhere else after that. A while later I heard he'd gotten sent back to prison. He was inside this time with nobody to help him. Like I said, I kept to myself most of the time but there's times I may as well not have tried for all the good it did.


A lifelong native of Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Baker has worked in fast-food where he once had to dress up as a lobster; performed comedy in local clubs and driven delivery trucks carrying everything from amaretto to zucchini. He has been published in Space and Time and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. "Horse" is a sequel to his previous story for OMDB!, "The Problem of Cell A307," which appeared in the June 2011 issue.


Copyright 2014 Jeff Baker. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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