Per usual, she sat in her cell with a book she’d read five or ten times cover to cover as she awaited count time to pass. Counts were mandatory and required all prisoners to be on their bunks at 6 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 3:30 p.m., 8 p.m., and midnight. The timing of the counts was precise, down to the second, yet prisoners never knew how long they would last. As grueling as some of the work was over the past few years, count time was the girl’s least favorite part of the entire experience; mainly because it forced her to feel like she was a part of the community she despised so much. Being the only inmate at Central California Women’s Prison on death row, she was treated much differently than the others 95% of the time… and she preferred it that way.
Most prisoners serving time with the convicted murderer were sentenced to life; they would never have the opportunity to sit in front of a parole board in hopes of earning some semblance of their freedom back. This became their entire existence. Each day, they received three meals, had just under an hour of yard time, and were assigned specific jobs. The established routine, which probably seemed harsh looking in from the outside, gave the prisoners a sense of normalcy. It became their world, and all memories of their pasts faded like fleeting flecks of dust after the first month or so.
Intermingling with the general prison population wasn’t a luxury afforded to inmates in Jane’s situation; not that she wanted to be around the others anyhow. Death row prisoners were systematically broken down, with a complete disregard for their mental state, at a more intense level than their peers. The first week consisted of a solid seven days in solitary confinement, which they called The Box, where the only contact with any other individual came from a ten second window. A tray of cold food, if you could call it ‘food’, was slid in on the floor through a small slot under the door.
Anyone who has gone through the terrifying, soul-crushing experience of being locked up in The Box, understands the mental and emotional destruction that takes place there. The human psyche is not meant to endure long spans of time without being around others, confined to a tiny, dimly lit room with only their thoughts and imagination to keep them from complete madness. It was the kind of experience that was arguably worse than any form of physical torture.
After the first wave of panic subsided, the girl allowed her mind and body to rest momentarily. She fell asleep and, fortunately, she was visited by a man who she missed a ton. Years ago, he came to her in a series of dreams and told her what she needed to hear. This time, he helped calm her nerves, put things into perspective, and assisted in devising a secret plan that would result in the girl regaining her freedom. He visited her dreams several other times during her prison stay to keep her focused and on track, helping her remember and realize there was one person in her previous life that was worth fighting for, and she intended to fight when the timing was perfect.
From the second week onward, Jane was immured in a larger cell with only a shelf of books, a constant humming electrical sound, and a steady rhythm of dripping water somewhere beyond eyeshot in the dank distance. Because of the recent pressure on the California government regarding inmate rights, and thanks to The National Coalition for Death Penalty Abolishment, she had a sink with running water, a toilet, and ten monitored minutes of computer time daily. Once per week, she was even allowed to feel the sun on her bare arms and face; yard time, once the other inmates had left, was brief but one of her favorite moments.
It was the warden’s idea to provide Jane with a laptop. It sort of killed two birds with one stone: appease the growing inmate rights movement so he would be viewed as progressive, and see what the girl would do online; her search perhaps leading to more insight into Jane’s true identity. Having not said a word since before her arrest, the prisoner’s search history would hopefully unlock secrets she’d kept buried deep inside. Unfortunately, she only researched the town where the murder took place, photography, and time travel, rarely deviating from those main topics.
Jane ran her fingers through short, unevenly cropped, strawberry-blonde hair and was still thankful for the recent haircut the warden deemed necessary for all inmates the previous week. As she reached up with both hands, the chains from her semi-permanent restraining shackles clanked and jingled reminding her that she was mostly helpless. Unlike other inmates, who were allowed to meander and mix in general population, the death row prisoner had a much stricter schedule. Her life followed a narrow line with every moment accounted for in thirty-minute time blocks.
As count time ended, the girl looked up from her book and realized she’d had been thinking about her first night in the clink. She’d seen movies and TV shows where the beginning was tough for new prisoners, but she wasn’t prepared for the utter feeling of despair and claustrophobia that washed through her early on. The inmate had experienced the heartbreak of abandonment before, and God knows loneliness was an old friend that knew her by name, yet there was no preparing her for the seemingly infinite number of tears that flowed that first night. She was still confused then about what happened; her memory was spotty at best.
She knew she didn’t really belong in prison in the first place; at least she believed it. She apparently did what she was accused of, as she was experiencing the aftermath of the incident. Evidently, the gun was in her hand still pointed at the victim when it was confiscated. The girl was painfully forced to the ground, handcuffed, taken away, and ended up in a holding cell. All she recalled from that event was the jolt from hitting the floor with all of her weight. Unlike her typically rage-filled personality, a numbing nothingness cascaded through her mind. It was as if she was watching her own arrest rather than actually experiencing the moment. It felt like when she was a little girl; her parents often asked if she remembered a certain thing from her past. She didn’t really, but she saw herself in pictures so it must’ve happened.
The truth was that she did want to kill the man. The things he did to those other girls, including the two that meant the world to her, were unforgivable. She definitely hated him. If circumstances had lined up, she might have enjoyed pulling the trigger. As it stood, she couldn’t be certain she actually did it, though the evidence was undeniable to the courts.
Even though restrained, and regularly reminded that she was currently trapped in her situation, it didn’t do much to deter the girl from her plan. As she considered who would soon come to visit her, a smile tightened the skin in her cheeks. Her heart began racing and her blood pumped in a way it hadn’t in years. A nervous, yet heartfelt, energy pulsated throughout her extremities warming her soul. The secret plan was finally starting, and she couldn’t wait to see her favorite person the following morning.
Max spent the remainder of her morning preparing for the following day’s interview and photoshoot. After her meds kicked in, she felt a swift relief from the anxious fear that had crept into her mind.
During her research, she recalled names and locations but couldn’t clearly remember many of her own experiences in the tiny bayside town. Like bubbles floating on the breeze, as soon as she’d reach out to grasp a memory, it burst before she could touch it. Max just figured it meant her time there must not have been impactful or very memorable, but she knew she spent most of her childhood in Arcadia Bay.
She moved to Seattle, returned to her hometown for a brief time, then moved again to begin her undergraduate degree which she completed in four years. It seemed like a lifetime ago that the photographer even stepped foot in the place where she grew up, yet a murder happened shortly after she left, only to be discovered much later. The victim was a teacher at Blackwell Academy, and she recognized the name, but no solid memories existed to separate him from anyone else. It didn’t surprise the girl that it was tough to recall much of her past. For the better part of the last few years, her main priority was the future; now completely focused on her career.
If it weren’t for her coworker’s insistence, Max probably would have continued to work throughout her lunch. It just happened that a Tex-Mex food truck was set up only a block from the office in front of the largest building in the area, so she and Maria strolled the short distance for a quick bite to eat.
They didn’t speak much as they ambled past the crowd and to the truck. The girls ordered then paid for their meals with hardly a word between them, yet that was perfectly fine with Max. She felt cool around Maria, and that wasn’t a feeling she experienced too often. Maybe it was the idea that she might have a new friend, or perhaps her growling stomach took her mind’s priority. Nevertheless, her anxiety was tucked away and didn’t peek out like it typically would in a similar situation.
Every bench and every tiny round table with an umbrella were taken, so the girls gathered their food and meandered back towards their place of employment. Since there were no spots available near the truck, they would find another space to enjoy their meals.
This is nice. New job, new friend. I could definitely get used to this.
“Are you worried that someone who killed a man asked for you?” Maria spoke up then paused, taking a large bite of her soft chicken taco, allowing the juices to drip from the corner of her mouth and to the asphalt. Despite having a mouth full, the seasoned reporter continued. “I mean, damn Max, I know journalists put their lives on the line every single day, but shiiiiit. It’s not like you can really say ‘no’, but like, I dunno. That shit’s heavy.” The women stood propped against the twelve-inch-wide concrete railing that surrounded the Fresno Herald parking lot with their food and drinks sloppily placed on top.
Max took a sip of her Cherry Coke to wash the first bite down, then patted her mouth with the single thin napkin she was given with her order. She glanced over at her colleague, whom she desperately hoped she could soon call a friend, and explained, “I don’t know what choice I have. W-Weston also sent me an email saying Jane wants the camera turned off when I’m there. She wants nobody else in the room either so it can be just me and her. Am I worried? Hell yes. Terrified.”
Maria looked around appearing to make sure nobody else was within earshot of the pair. She swallowed her bite, took a quick sip of water, then shuffled closer to Max. “You do know there’s one way you can be taken off the assignment, right? Like, if you absolutely don’t think you can handle it. Weston is reasonable, but you have to go a little above and beyond to get what you want. Know what I mean?” The woman bit her lip and winked at the brunette. “It’s how I got the best assignments early on in my career. Spring-boarded me to where I am today.”
Max nearly choked on her soda, coughing several times before gaining a clear breath of air. “You don’t mean… A-Are you cereal?” She could feel her face tighten as she reacted to the implications of what Maria was suggesting. “So, you slept with him? Sorry, but… eww, gross.”
“Keep your voice down, Max. And don’t fucking judge me. I did what I had to do to advance my career. You’ll do the same damn thing if you want to get ahead. But no, I’ve never gone all the way with Weston. He’s married and has two sons and a daughter. I only helped him out a few times several years ago, though I’d do it again if I needed to.”
Helped him out?! Dammit. That’s fucked up.
“Maria, n-no offense, but I could never do something like that. I want to use my skills and experience to make my way up. Plus, I’m not attracted to him, like, at all.”
“Attraction has nothing to do with it, girl. We’ll see if you keep that innocent shit going after several months working your ass off with little to show for it. We all do what it takes. I’m pretty sure it’s no big secret, but keep your mouth shut about this. I know I’m not the only one who’s used my resources to gain an advantage around here. We do what we need to do… then we do our jobs. It’s all business.” The woman assertively balled up her foil wrapping and slurped the last few drips from her Styrofoam cup. She bobbed her head towards the near corner of the parking lot and made her way to the grey trash bin, discarding her items. After another wink in Max’s direction, Maria dramatically bowed then disappeared inside the building.
Damn! I knew this job was too good to be true. She’s wrong though. I will NEVER stoop to that level. I’ll prove myself without taking shortcuts. And… fuck that gross shit. No way.
The brunette discarded her trash and followed the woman back inside their office building. When she returned to her cubicle, she noticed Maria had headphones on enjoying music while she worked. The woman bounced her head up and down and craned her neck back and forth mouthing the words as she listened. Max noticed the woman was logged into Spotify, shaking her hips in her chair causing it to marginally roll back and forth in rhythm. She almost made a comment but didn’t want to interrupt or intrude. The younger girl sat back at her desk and resumed researching her first assignment. Besides getting up to use the restroom once, she didn’t leave her desk for hours, as she was deeply enthralled in her work.
At the end of the day, the photographer signed-out the camera equipment her boss listed in his assignment detail email. Maria joined Max on her way out, with a sucker in her mouth, and walked with her to the parking lot. Without relaying any words, she embraced the brunette with a quick side hug near her car before disappearing inside her vehicle. It was a little odd how joyful the woman was; Max figured her comments during lunch would have pissed the reporter off, but she didn’t appear to hold it against her. In fact, she seemed overjoyed for some reason.
Maria backed up then stopped beside the spot where Max was standing still fiddling with her keys and car door. She titled her sunglasses down from her face, showing her eyes as she stared back at Max. “I’ve got my amnesia interview in the morning,” Maria called out from the half-way-rolled-down driver’s side window in her black BMW. “Which is essentially the same time as your interview, I believe. If I don’t talk with you before,” the curly-haired woman imparted, “good luck with your prison story. You’re gonna KILL it. Oh, too soon?” she chuckled. “Just remember that the inmate asked for you. You’re the captain of the ship.”
“I-I’m the… captain?” For some reason, another strange wave of undefined nostalgic energy briefly washed through her entire body.
“Yeah, you know, you’re in charge. Take lead and don’t let her control the conversation.” Maria reached up and swiped a stray strand of obviously dyed blonde hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. “You’re a bad bitch, remember that.” She pressed the tips of her ring and pointer finger to her lips and then blew a kiss in Max’s direction; in a chef’s kiss motion.
“Have a nice evening, Maria,” Max hesitated, awkwardly waving with a loose wrist and an extended arm reaching out towards her peer. She was thankful the blonde didn’t notice her dorky gesture.
Damn. You don’t have to be a total dweeb, Max.
“Nite nite, hun.” After readjusting her glasses and looking forward towards the parking lot exit, Maria lifted one hand up beside her head and moved her fingers up and down in a sort of twiddled wave. The woman pulled the gearshift down and floored the gas. She peeled out of the parking lot like she didn’t have a care in the world.
Wowser. Even her wave is cool. Maybe we really will be friends.
Max hopped in her car, turned the key in the ignition, and was quickly on the road. She couldn’t wait to get back to her apartment and resume research for the following day’s interview. Her mind was lost in thought during her drive, so the trip didn’t seem that long.
Before she knew it, she was arriving at her apartment where she was glad to completely let her guard down and relax a little. After an almost-too-hot shower and a small ham and cheese sandwich with chips and a pickle spear, Max picked back up where she left off at work. She was planning to only use the interview questions her boss provided, but there were other things she wanted to know that were not listed. Per his email, Weston seemed to be fine with deviating from his planned questions as long as she brought back compelling information that would both make a good story and appease the government officials who were interested in this case.
After a couple of hours had passed, and being deeply involved in her work, Max suddenly realized she neglected to call her parents as they had asked her to on a daily basis. She knew they regularly worried about her well-being and made it abundantly clear it was tough to let their only child move so far away. Allowing her to pave her own path through life without being close by was obviously not an easy thing for them. While she was in college, Max still lived at home and commuted to campus for classes. She was very aware of her mom and dad’s need to hear from her, and she felt terrible it was starting to get late without her checking in yet. The brunette picked up her cell and called her parents’ line.
After two rings her mother abruptly answered, “Max! We were beginning to get worried. Your dad wanted me to call you hours ago, but I knew you’d remember. Anyway, how are you, sweetie?” Her dad’s muffled voice grumbled in the background. “Yeah, it’s her, Ryan.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. It’s been a long day.”
‘Long’ is a damn understatement.
“We were just worried, that’s all. So, tell us about your day.” Max noticed a more discernible background hum, realizing she was now on speakerphone, assumingely so her father could join the conversation too.
“Honestly,” she paused, considering for a moment, “it was great. I have my first assignment tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, honey. That’s fantastic. We’re super proud of you.” She could tell the woman really was delighted by the wavering of her voice.
“Yeah, it’s nice to feel like I’m diving into my career and all. Plus, the assignment revolves around a murder that happened in Arcadia Bay of all places. Crazy, right?” Max heard her mom unexpectedly cough and her father mutter some words she couldn’t quite make out. “I know. I never even heard of anything like that happening in my hometown, but the murderer asked for me specifically to interview her. I was worried about it most of the day, but for some reason, I’m excited now.”
“Max, you can’t!” Ryan shouted from the distance but was clearly audible over the phone. A shuffling struggle seemed to break out on her parents’ side, and her father’s voice was amplified as if he had pressed the phone directly to his mouth. “This is a terrible idea, sweetie. Tell them ‘no’. You don’t have to do this. We can find some other role for you.”
What the fuck?
“Dad? No. I-I wanna do this.” Max swallowed hard to push away the confusion and threatening anger. “This is my career and I have an opportunity to…”
Before she could finish, she was harshly interrupted. “Stop! It doesn’t matter what you want. Sorry, sweetie, but it’s true. We… er… don’t want this impacting your mental health. You’re already on anti-anxiety medication and this could severely set you back. I forbid it. Stay the night then come home tomorrow. We’ll worry about moving you back to Seattle later.”
“What? Back home? Uhm… No. I’m still taking my meds, Dad. I’ll be fine. Why are you so worked up?”
“I’m just worried about you, Max. This may sound patronizing, but life is complicated. We’re your parents and it’s our job to ensure your health and safety. You’ll understand one day when you have children.”
“And I’m telling you, I’m fine! I’m an adult doing my… a-adult thing. You have to let go, Dad. You AND Mom. I’ve got this. Love you.” Partially not wanting to hear them smothering her anymore, but mostly because she didn’t want to say anything she might regret, Max hit the end button on her phone and powered it down. She knew there would be messages to deal with later but she didn’t care. She would call them tomorrow after her interview to prove that they should back off and let her live her life.
God, they’re unbelievable! I’ll be fine!
What she said was true, it had been a very long, and somewhat emotional, day. She knew tomorrow was going to be difficult and mentally taxing, so she closed her laptop and fiddled around in her bag, finally locating her pills. After swallowing one down with a gulp of water, she used the bathroom and tucked herself in bed. Her anxiety dematerialized, scattering from her mind, as it typically did after taking her meds, and she quickly drifted off to sleep.