Chapter 1: Metastasis
... in my professional opinion, the data is so outlandish that I would call it sheer fabrication had I not seen it firsthand. Cancer rates this staggeringly high would make sense only if the prison were built atop a toxic waste dump, where the prisoners regularly consumed dioxin-tainted food and breathed asbestos-laden air.
Without a more reliable metric, I cannot make any kind of intelligent recommendation other than "get those people out of there." To do any less would leave you vulnerable to criminal and civil suits, and frankly, I encourage you get a good lawyer anyway.
Relocate the prisoners, and tear that place apart brick by brick. Have it declared a Superfund site if you must. If this data is to be believed, what we are seeing is no less than a cancer epidemic across the prison population, staff included, and one that I suspect is airborne.
In addition, I strongly urge you to make an appointment with your physician for the most thorough physical examination possible, as soon as possible...
"My first day outta jail in twenty years and it's gotta goddamn rain," she muttered as the early morning wind drove cold rain and stinging desert sand into her face. Dressed only in a "Top Gun" t-shirt and acid-washed jeans, Theresa was soaked to the bone and utterly miserable. She had taken shelter, such as it was, in the doorway of an old boarded-up sidewalk church whose name might once have been "Apostle's State Street Church" but now the peeling and faded paint only read "Apos tate".
Shivering hands performed the age-old ritual without guidance or thought. Tear the cellophane from the box; discard. Tap box sharply against hand. Open lid; rip open foil. Select cigarette. Place in mouth. Smoke.
Except Theresa was thwarted in this last regard. "Oh, don't you fucking tell me," she muttered darkly, first fumbling in her purse, then dumping its contents onto the rain-slicked street and getting on hands and knees in desperate search for that one singular, magical, elusive object she needed to make everything right with the world, if only for one moment: a lighter.
Lipstick. Ray-Ban sunglasses. A ring of old keys. A packet of tissues. A used bus pass. Half a pack of chewing gum. A wallet.
"Oh, fuck me," she mumbled around the cigarette, which was beginning to droop in the rain. For a moment, Theresa contemplated crying. She had certainly earned an extended freak-out session, and the fear and powerlessness and nausea swept over her, fighting the cold and the wet for dominant sensation. Her arms trembled. For a moment, she thought she might take a header onto the concrete.
Then, just as suddenly, strength. "No," she said, softly at first, and then with more force. "No. Fuck this." Her back straightened. "Fuck you," sweeping the remnants of her life back into her purse. "Fuck the wind and fuck the cold." Standing now. "I am going to have a fucking cigarette."
Eyes tightly closed, body shaking with adrenaline and cold, Theresa concentrated on the cigarette in her mouth, willing it to light. She felt a burst of warmth in her chest as the tumor in her lungs radiated power outwards, up her neck and through the roll of tobacco clenched in her teeth, drying it, before settling on the tip and igniting.
*** *** ***
Theresa Esmerelda Reyes believed that, given enough cigarettes, she could outwait anything. It was one of the great truths upon which she hung her life, because for the last two decades her life had been little more than smoking and waiting. Sitting in the doorway, she was content to smoke, and wait, and think, because even cold and wet as she was, she was also free. Sitting in that doorway was a choice, freely made by her, and if she wanted she could get up and walk out into the wind and the rain.
She half-recalled something she'd read once, long ago, a mystery story that talked about the Santa Ana winds, how they caused meek little wives to finger sharp kitchen knives and glare at their husbands' necks. It was a sentiment she could appreciate, even if the winds today weren't hot and dry. The weather lent itself to dark introspection, and Theresa lost herself in thoughts and memories and self-recriminations.
"Hey, lady, you got a light?"
Theresa looked up at the owner of the voice and winced. Not because the young man it belonged to was ugly but because he was, well, young, and Christ did it make her feel old. She didn't recognize the kind of sneakers he wore, or know why his pants were too big for his skinny-ass legs, but god damn she knew that she didn't need to see his underwear. The ratty t-shirt was universal for teenagers, even if she didn't know the band it was fronting, and the pimply face with a scraggly beard and stringy hair only reinforced that opinion. She knew the type; back when she was in school, they'd have called themselves stoners and gotten high in their parents' basements smoking marijuana. Didn't know what they called themselves now, but it didn't matter. A punk was a punk.
"Hello? Lady?" he repeated, leaning forward. "You got a light? Uh -- hay tengo un lighter-o?" he added, his voice louder, as if volume alone could force understanding of a foreign language. God, had she ever been that young and stupid?
"No," she said sharply, then blew a long stream of smoke from her nostrils. "I ain't got a light." She noticed that his hands were deep within his pockets, and given the size of those jeans there was no telling what he had in there. Theresa was suddenly very aware of how vulnerable she was, with no one else on the rainy early-morning streets and no place to run. Even her temporary shelter had become a cage, a wall to her back and sides, the young man between her and the rest of the world. She shifted slightly to the right, trying to put as much space between them as possible, right hand slowly freeing itself from her purse while her left clutched the cigarette between trembling fingers.
"If you don't got no light, then how'd you get that smoke?" He was threateningly close now, she could smell his breath as he loomed over her, his eyes were bloodshot with vicious little pinpricks for pupils, and he was going to attack her and beat and rape her or...
Her left hand shot out and up, the burning ember between her fingers grinding itself into the man's right eye. He started to scream, but was cut off as her right hand shoved his head against the brick doorway, a shudder running through his body on impact. Then she was pulling, grabbing him by the hair and yanking him off balance, using her entire body weight to drive him down.
She landed on top of him, her left arm firmly against his throat as the first two fingers of her right hand, stained dark with tar from decades of smoking, hovered just millimeters above his one good eye like a raptor's talon. "Listen closely, you little shit," Teresa rasped, her throaty voice making her words thick and vicious. "You so much as twitch, you'll never see again. Got that?"
"Good. Now here's how this works. You close your eyes, and I'm gonna go through your pockets. You look, you move, you so much as fart and I'll end you. I've been inside for murder already, so don't think I won't grease your sorry ass."
*** *** ***
Theresa seemed to be outside of her own body, looking down as she helped herself to the cigarettes she'd taken from him. She wondered, somewhat numbly, if she'd broken a new speed record for parole violation.
She opened the pack of cigarettes and lit a fresh one with the smoldering butt of the old. She'd allowed the boy to keep his wallet, mostly out of shame, but she'd acted like it was the greatest act of generosity she'd ever performed. He was just some damned stupid kid with bad hygiene coming down off some kind of high, not a predator intent on theft and rape and murder. He'd wet his pants and cried softly as she frisked him, and she was glad that he'd kept his eyes tightly shut, because otherwise he'd have seen her starting to cry as well. She'd almost mauled a poor stupid kid, still a child, some mother's precious baby. Again.
Jesus. It'd been a while since she let anything faze her, and here she was breaking down with every goddamn breeze. Pull it back. Let nothing show. Watch the kid run away and stay stony. That's how this worked, after all. How she kept it together.
She let the emotions flow out of her with every exhalation. Sit. Smoke. Don't think about it. Let it go, let it flow, with the time. Given enough cigarettes she could deal with anything.
*** *** ***She'd just lit another when the car pulled up.
It was old even by her standards: a big, boxy station wagon from the 1970s with dark blue paint and fake wood paneling along the sides. The driver's window shushed downwards, and an elderly black woman's face appeared.
"Are you Theresa?" The voice was warm, like syrup over pancakes.
"What if I am?" she shot back.
"If you are, sugar, then I'm here to give you a lift. But you'll have to put out that Satan Stick before you get in."
Theresa took a long look at the car, and then at the cigarette she'd just started. She didn't like having terms dictated to her, but sitting in a warm car beat the hell out of wet and cold. With a sigh of regret, she slowly ground out the ember before pocketing the stub.
Another great truth of her life: a ride always arrives after lighting up.