Authors: Erin Jade Lange
ALSO BY ERIN JADE LANGE
This is a book about friends,Â and you were one of the best I ever had.
EVERYTHING IS GRAY.
The concrete floor is littered with ashy dirt and dust. Grime is packed down at the edges of the floor like a gray glue holding the walls and this whole awful place together. My eyes wander upward. Even the fluorescent lights seem to glow gray here. I never knew there were so many shades of such an awful color.
A hollow beep sounds, followed by a loud clang, and the iron bars in front of me slide to the left, shrieking as metal scrapes metal. A guard holds out a stiff hand, and I follow her past the first set of bars to a second, identical set. The holding area is so small, it would make me claustrophobic if I couldn't see past the bars. I stare through them across a room full of tables bolted to the ground. The tables are a cold, hard gray, like everything else, but they're shaped like picnic tablesâfunny, since it seems to me that picnic tables are usually happy meeting places.
Beyond the tables, another iron gate stands exactly opposite the one I'm behind, and the face waiting on the other side makes
me feel like I'm staring into a mirror. I lean into that reflection, wrapping my hands around the cold metal bars as if I could press right through them to get to her.
“Step back!” The guard's voice is booming, and it's too warm and round for this quiet, cold place with all its sharp gray edges. Only beeps and clangs and other metallic sounds belong here. Everything else should be a whisper.
I flinch and let go of the bars. “Sorry, Kate,” I mumble.
I've been on a first-name basis with this guard for years. After enough visits, you get to know some of the jail staff, and I've visited more than most.
Her voice is quieter now. “Just don't want you to lose a finger.” Then the second wall of iron slides left like the first, and I step into the room of picnic tables, taking a deep breath as if the air will somehow taste different on this side.
Across the room, my mirror image repeats the processâsliding bars, stepping throughâlike a reflection on delay. The guards hovering around each of us usher us to a table at the center of the room, and we sit on opposite benches, our movements identical. But now that we're close, the mirage is fading, and the woman across from me is definitely not my mirror image. Our eyes are the same, maybeâthat startling shade of green that makes strangers stop us on the streetâbut hers are creased at the corners, and her skin is pulled tight over sharp cheekbones. Her mouth is pinched, and I see deep lines there, too.
“Hi, Sammy,” she says.
A spell is broken, and suddenly we can both be soft in this hard place. We lean in simultaneously, elbows pressing into the table and hands reaching for each other. Those hands clasp and become a single knot of intertwined fingers, so I can't tell where hers end and mine begin. The knot falls to the table, and the clunk of a metal chain linking two cuffs interrupts our moment to remind us where we are.
I frown down at the cuffs.
As if these are necessary. As if there's any danger here.
“I can't believe they still use these things,” Mama says. “When I was over at Richter, it was all zip ties.”
Her tone is light, and I know she's trying to make conversation. I open my mouth to say something, but I've never had her knack for pretending everything is fine, so all that comes out is a whimper.
“Oh, Sam, don't cry.” Mama's hands squeeze mine, then squeeze them again, over and over, so our knot now feels like a beating heart.
I sniff. “I never do,” I remind her.
She watches me not cry for a moment, then says, “I broke a promise to you.”
I don't respond, because she's broken so many promises I can't imagine which one she means.
“I swore to you we'd never be here again.”
“No more bars,” I whisper, echoing something she's said to me many timesâevery time, in fact. I untangle my fingers from hers and pull away, examining my hands so I don't have to meet her eyes.
“It's not your fault,” I say.
The words would have sounded hollow even if we weren't in a place where sound bounced off the walls and came back to you changed and muted and as dull and gray as everything else. I've had so much practice telling Mama “It's not your fault,” the phrase is empty now, its meaning all worn out from overuse.
“It's always my fault,” she says.
“Not this time.”
“Especially this time.”
Her fingers stretch across the table for mine, but I lean back and hold up a hand to stop the “I'm sorry” about to pour from her mouth. I've been listening to Mama's apologies for sixteen years, and I can't listen to one more. It's my turn to talk. For once, we're going to sit at one of these metal picnic tables and it's not going to be all about her.
“Mama, I need to tell you a story.”
MAMA HAD BEEN to jail more times than I could count and to prison exactly twice. It took me a long time to figure out the difference. Grandma always said jail was for people who did a little bad and prison was for people who did a lot of bad.
Beep. Ninety-nine cents.
Mama said jail was the place you went first and prayed really hard that you didn't get sent to prison. Aunt Ellen used to grumble that the only difference was the prisons were farther outside of town, which meant she had to spend more time and gas to drag me there for visits.
Beep. Thank you for your coupon.
The truth is that jail is a place where you can still hold on to hopeâhope you'll be bailed out, hope you'll be found innocent, hope you'll get a second chance. Prison is the place where hope has left the building.
Beep. Ninety-nine cents.
“Excuse me? Miss? Excuse me!”
I pasted on a smile. “Yes, sir?”
“This machine is broken.”
I eyed the self-checkout machineâthe worst idea River City Market had ever come up with. People in this town were too stupid to do something as simple as checking out their own groceries. It
rocket science, after all. That's why they hired meâto man the little computer at the end of the self-checkout aisle, a job that pretty much consisted of pressing a Clear button when customers messed up and calling a manager when they got rowdy. This guy looked like he might be about to get a little rowdy.
“What's the problem?” I asked.
“It's broken,” he repeated. He slapped the side of the machine a few times and then pounded it once with a fist.
“Sir, please don't bang on the checkout terminal.” I gritted my teeth, hoping whatever expression I was making still looked like a smile. I wasn't that great with customersÂ .Â .Â .Â or with people in general; lack of practice, I guess. But Mr. Dugan kept telling me all I had to do was be polite and use words like “sir” and “please.”
I stepped over to the man and eyed the terminal screen. “You're trying to use a coupon?”
“I'm not trying. I
using a coupon. And this thing can't count. It keeps saying ninety-nine cents, but my coupon should make it fifty-nine cents.”
Yes, obviously you can count better than this computer.
“Can I see the coupon?”
The man passed me the little paper he'd been scanning: forty cents off tomato soup. I glanced down at the can in his hand. Clam chowder. A real genius, this guy.
“This is for tomato,” I said.
“Then why did it thank me for my coupon?”
“It says thank you for every coupâ”
He punched the terminal again.
So much for being polite.
But it was a computer, after all, not a vending machine, and I was pretty sure that rule about the customer always being right stopped short of letting him destroy store property.
The man's jaw dropped slightly. “But this stupid machine .Â .Â .”
“Yeah,” I muttered, keying an override code on the terminal screen. “It's the machine that's stupid.”
At least I thought I muttered it, until a woman at the next kiosk gasped.
“What did you say to me?” The man seethed.
I pretended not to hear, my cheeks burning as I quickly worked out how many free cans of soup I would have to give him or how polite I'd have to be to make up for what I'd just said.
Please, stupid sir, don't tell my boss!
“Sam.” A voice wheezed behind me, and I slumped.
I turned to Mr. Dugan, a frail, wispy-haired old man who'd probably been working at River City Market ever since people carted away their groceries with horses and buggies. I stared at his shoes to avoid meeting his eyes. I liked
Mr. Dugan. He was patient, and he let us blast music over the intercom after closing. He was the kind of guy you didn't want to disappoint.
“What seems to be the problem here?” Mr. Dugan rasped.
The man spoke before I could.
“This girl just called me stupid!”
On a slow night, with no witnesses, I could have denied it, but the self-checkout kiosks were full of Friday-night folks stocking up on booze and TV dinners to get them through their lonely weekends, and now they were all staring, waiting to testify to what they'd heard.
“Sam, is that true?” Mr. Dugan asked.