You know how they say the worst thing about prison is the food? They're right.
Not the actual eating cause hey, three squares a day is more than I've had for most of my life, but when you pull kitchen duty and you gotta clean the slops out of what these girls leave behind... well that's just nasty. It's like trying to clean a Chaiken demon out of your hair, only with more peas. I'm pulling the last load out of the dishwasher when the buzzer goes, signaling an end to my stint in the kitchen and the start of the couple of hours we get in the yard. Weather's been good lately and everyone's eager to get out there and catch some rays. Days like this are easier to handle - a good mood's kinda contagious in here, and even though I know it might flip to an all-out riot on the turn of a dime, for right now I'm just gonna soak up the sun and make the most of it.
The girls are already lined up by the time I scoop the last handful of the unidentifiable crap out of the bottom of the sink and join them in the corridor outside. The guards are running a count before they herd us out and I nod to Eddie as he passes. He's got a new guard in tow, one of those clean-cut fresh-faced types. New Guy looks nice enough, he's wearing a smile that I bet gets him all sortsa female attention in the bars, but there's a coldness there in his eyes that makes me think I don't want to get on the wrong side of him. Not that I make a habit of pissing off the badges. These days I'll let a lot of things go for the sake of an easy life.
Satisfied we're all present and accounted for, Eddie tosses the door open and the mood of the crowd picks up when the sun streams in. We file out into the yard, some of the girls going over to start a lazy pick-up game on the court while others just hang out, trading cigarettes, phone cards, drugs - whatever they got to pass the time. I take the long way round to the bleachers, avoiding Deb and her crew who are leaning up against the fence. They're huddled together and eyeing up the fresh meat, and that can only mean trouble. Still, not trouble for me and like I said - anything for an easy life. I grab a seat on the bleachers, tilt my head up to the sun and close my eyes.
After a minute or two I find myself falling into a slow pattern of breathing exercises Angel showed me. It's less about meditation and that kinda shit, more about giving myself some time to think. I know, right? I'd figured on the inside I'd have nothing to do except sit around and think but turns out even with all this time on my hands my first instinct is to react, not to make with the cogitatin'. So this is good for me, taking some downtime with just me and my head for company. Between Angel's 'Murderers Anonymous' pep talks and some of the stuff the prison shrink says to me, I'm actually getting to a point where I can just let my brain run, remembering all of the shit that happened without instantly feeling like a complete fuckup and then going and doing something stupid to distract myself from feeling like that.
So when I hear the sounds of a fight starting up I take a really slow, deep breath and tell myself it's not my problem.
Release the breath. 'Just stay out of it, Faith.' Breathe in. I try and push down the adrenaline twitch that comes with the change of mood in the yard, focus on keeping my eyes closed. Sure, sometimes I play peacemaker if someone's stepping out of line, but I can't go jumping in every damn scrap that breaks out. Not enough hours in the day. So I ignore the sound of one woman crying while another voice - I recognise it as Deb's - cuts across her. Calm. Focus. Breathe out.
"Aw don't cry little fishy. Pretty thing like you ain't gonna have a problem making friends in here," Deb growls out from somewhere to my left by the end of the bleachers. Her latest victim sobs a little harder.
"Just l-leave me alone. Please."
"Fuck you think you're talking to, newbie?" This accompanied by the very quiet but distinct sound of a shank coming out of a sleeve. If you weren't a slayer you probably wouldn't even have heard it, but I am, and I did - lucky me. And now cause I am a slayer and some bitch just pulled a knife on someone, I'm gonna have to go save the day. Not sure if that's an actual clause in my contract but I gotta figure I put myself in here for a reason, and trying to keep some sort of balance between right and wrong in the world - or at least my little barbed-wire fenced corner of it - well, that's reason enough. With a sigh I open my eyes, take in the sight of Deb and four of her crew standing around a crying blonde. And not a guard in sight - typical. I stand up and start a slow stroll towards 'em.
"Leave it, Deb."
She spins to face me and I see the glint of metal in her fist.
"Stay the fuck out of it, Lehane. Ain't none of your business." She's not even angry, just putting on a show for her crew.
At least she's taken a step back from the crying blonde chick, give me a chance to get between 'em if I need to but right now all Deb's attention is on me. Deb's got herself a rep as the resident hardcase. She ain't top dog or nothing, no way near smart enough to play political, but she's there when somebody needs muscle. She pulled this same 'click up, newbie' bullshit on me my third day in here. I had told myself I was gonna keep out of trouble, walk away rather than kick off on anyone who hassled me, but something about her 'you're a piece of shit' attitude got my blood up. She said she wanted to introduce me to life inside so I introduced her face to my elbow.
We're not what you might call close.
She spits on the ground at my feet and throws a hard look in the girl's direction. The new girl's about thirty or so, pretty in that clichéd `girl next door' way. She's crouched on the ground, back to the bleachers, trying to keep an eye on the five women surrounding her.
"You know, I still can't figure you out, Lehane," Deb says to me. Her tone is light like we're just having a friendly chat, but her knuckles are white from the death grip she's got on that blade. "You got no time for anyone in here... no real friends, no crew, but soon as we want to have a little fun you're all up in my business like you're some kinda fuckin' hero?"
I try my best to keep my face blank. For all that I like to walk around not giving a shit about what anyone thinks of me, every now and then some fucking low-life con throws an insult my way and I'm back to being an eight-year-old kid trying not to cry in the playground.
"You know what most heroes got in common, bitch?" Her whole arm tenses, ready to swing that blade at my face. "They die young."
She takes a slight step forward and all I can think is 'don't kill her' as my hands come up to meet her, but in that half-instant between threat and blood one of her girls lets out a sharp, low whistle. Guards. Thank fuck.
Eddie stops a dozen paces away, hand on his nightstick. New guy is at his shoulder looking eager for some action.
Both Deb's hands are empty as she holds them up to Eddie, the shank back in her sleeve. "Not a one, officer. Just getting to know the new girls."
Eddie's eyes slip from the new chick to me, and he raises an eyebrow a silent question. I shake my head.
"Well keep it that way, yeah?" The new guard - his name tag reads Morris - smiles at the group of us. "I'd rather not have to go knocking heads on my first day."
He gets nods from us and a roll of the eyes from Eddie, then the two of them make their way back across the yard.
I blow out a breath and Deb turns to the blonde. "Count yourself lucky, mama," she snarls. "We'll talk again when you don't got your guard dog around." Then she turns on her heel, stalking across the yard with her posse in tow.
Which leaves me with a whole bunch of directionless adrenaline and a still-crying woman sitting in front of me.
I fumble a pack of cigarettes out of my back pocket to buy some time and to give me an in to the kind of conversation I've never been any good at having. I squat down beside her, hold out the pack. She just wipes a hand across her eyes and shakes her head.
"Word of advice," I flick the lighter and take a drag. "You wanna have a breakdown? Best to do it in your cell where you don't attract so much attention."
"Sorry." She won't quite look me in the eye. She's got that same energy about her that some of the girls do when they land here first - like they're walking through treacle or something. Everything they do or say is a couple of seconds behind what it should be. I guess they're still telling themselves that it isn't real, that any minute they'll be waking up back on the outside. "I just have absolutely no idea what to do here."
This brings on a fresh round of tears. I just stare at the cigarette I'm rolling between my fingers, I've never been good at dealing with crying people. Or people, I suppose really. I guess I could hug her or put my hand on her shoulder or something, but I always figured people could read the tension coming off me if I touched them when I felt like that. She'll have to settle for a comforting pep talk.
"Act tough." Great, I must be spending too much time around Angel - I'm starting to dispense monosyllabic words of wisdom. That wasn't much of a talk, and hardly comforting, but points for trying, right?
She laughs a little, like she didn't find that funny at all. "I'm a housewife from Silverlake, I have no idea how to be tough."
"Didn't say you had to be tough, just act it." She looks over at me, squinting into the sun. I guess she's sizing me up, trying to figure how much of what just went down with Deb was for real and how much was a front. "In here, bullshit's about all you've got.
She looks away, somewhere into the middle distance and I know in her head she's way the fuck on the other side of the fence. "I have two kids, you know? Danny's going to be four in a couple of weeks and I'll be in here. How do I explain that to him?"
Alright, I'm on board with the 'prison's a rough ride' concept - 'specially when you've got kids and families and hugs and fuckin' rainbows waiting for you out there - but let's get off the pity train already. "You think you're the only one? Most of these women got kids outside waitin' for 'em, families to miss 'em. How long you in for?"
She sniffs again. "Five months."
I'm laughing. I swear I don't mean to but I'm laughing my ass off. Five months and she's looking like she just got handed life? I mean I know the worst sentence is always your own, no matter how long, but to a lot of us a stretch of under six months is pretty much blink and you'll miss it. She looks downright offended though, so I shake my head and point at a middle-aged woman playing guard on the basketball court. "See her?"
She nods, looking at me warily.
"Tracey - she's got six kids outside. She's been here five years already and she won't be getting out til she's old and grey, if she gets out at all. Five months isn't worth pissing on to her, so tough as it might seem for you, girl you've got it easy." I stub the cigarette out and stand up. "Just keep your head down, walk tall, and you'll be out of here and back with your kids before you know it."
She nods a little, shading her eyes as she looks up at me. "Thanks for that. Sorry, I must sound like a complete brat, I just..." she looks like she might start crying again but pulls herself back, shaking her head. "Anyway, thanks. I hope I didn't cause any trouble for you. I'm Carly by the way."
I crack a grin. "Faith. And Deb ain't nothing I can't handle, don't sweat it."
She smiles back at me. "Thanks. Again."
Yeah, for sure it sounds weird to hear anyone saying those words to me, even casually, and meaning it. Still, stranger things have happened. Just another day in NCWF - sunshine, death threats and a new friend.
I sit back down in my spot on the long bench and tilt my head up, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, close my eyes.