November 11, 2015
One morning was different. It proved to be different enough. I was at the bars, but when one of the officers started getting close, I went to the far end of the cell. There’s a part of the cell that remains shadowed even during what I figure is high noon. It is my idea that they don’t see me there.
If they don’t see me, maybe I don’t exist.
I don’t exist, and they don’t so much as bother me.
They don’t feed my fears.
They had been doing that a lot the past couple days.
Questioning, always questioning. I came to the conclusion that I was guilty. But that wasn’t enough for them. Officers and prisoners and the occasional person that doesn’t look like they belong in a prison, only stopping by, they question. With their gaze, they question.
With their words, they question.
My idea did not work. They saw through shadows.
“You got a call.”
And then, tapping on the bars, “Let’s go. Now.”
I go along, cuffed at the wrists and cuffed at the ankles.
The officer doesn’t want to hold my arm but has to, security reasons; he holds my arm with two fingers, the least amount of holding he can get away with, and we walk quickly.
I almost trip.
If you trip they kick you and force you back up.
Prisoners call out to other prisoners and guards when led down the hall. Seems they keep quiet. They only threaten me at night.
By day they don’t want to see me.
The walk is quiet enough to hear the thin soles of my shoes scraping against the well-worn, stained prison floors.
The phones are old payphones.
I don’t get any privacy. The officer stands there as I pick up the phone.
It’s someone on the line. It’s whoever wanted to call.
The voice is familiar, might be my voice if I hadn’t lost it while talking to Meurks.
“Zachary, are you there?”
He hears me breathing. I have seen blood from my throat. It is raw from repetition.
He knows that I’m listening.
“Okay … I refuse to speak of the incident. I will not speak of the incident. You were always fragile. Don’t deal with social anxieties well …”
The officer listens in.
His voice can be heard without pressing the receiver against your ear.
Distantly I should be concerned, but instead I lower the receiver. Stand there listening to his voice. Seems right. The only thing to do.
“I won’t ask. I want to focus on the matters at hand.”
It sounds like he isn’t concerned.
He was always good about acting, hiding his true feelings.
I get it from him.
A father thinks he knows but he doesn’t. How can he know if I am not fully aware?
“First on the agenda: The film footage. It is all over the net, but not for long. My attorney has made sure to contact the appropriate sources. It is obscene for any site or blog to allow for what is bound to be snuff.”
A father judges without sounding like he’s judging.
“I am under the impression that the associated press is going to create a media storm out of your upcoming trial. I have spoken to a number of my confidants and we are within right to assume that it is true.”
A father once said that things could have been so much different if he had never had a son.
“A problem, and I will not fault you for this, but it seems no public defender will touch your case. I have done my research and a few of my contacts know of some trustworthy lawyers that are at the top of their game. They will take on any case, especially one with as much media attention as yours.”
Balance it out with the early thought that maybe for most, it is the same. Never ready, always barely able to keep up.
“It’s okay, Zachary. I know a person.”
He starts to sound like the way he always does, a fast-talker and a business professional.
“The judge appointed to your case just so happens to be an old friend of Haverly’s. He’s already on it, and you should be thankful. I am not blaming you for what you did. You’ve never been the type to lead, much less follow, so Haverly and I both agreed that the truest course of action is to plead guilty to the murder under the cause of insanity.”
He knows a lot of people.
“I am your father. I am not going to talk about the murder. I am not going to talk about what you did. I do believe that perhaps things have gotten the better of you.”
He is valued by others.
“You never did fit in. I guess it was partially my fault. Your mother and I were never around. We thought we were doing our best by sending you to the right schools and urging you to participate in sports. Well, we thought we were providing you with a stable foundation. You are a good son and I know you are a good person, I am not going to say otherwise; however, maybe it’s time to consider our options. It’s the only way you will survive this case.”
He is professional, a degree of popularity among his peers.
“They are going to put you away for good. Or worse: Capital punishment is being put to an open forum but it is still a just cause; but you shouldn’t worry about that. Haverly has it in our best interest: We don’t have to let it get bad.”
His own father was proud of him.
“Understandably there will be a trial. It will be unavoidable. But Haverly is selecting members of the jury as we speak. He is working to side with the judge. And I am willing to do what it takes to save you from that fate.”
The person people recognize has become the person he thinks he is.
“It is a severe financial commitment but one I am willing to make. Haverly is confident enough that, within a few months, you could be out on bail. This is unheard of, but with the right people on our side, you just might get a second chance.”
Never asks whether or not I am listening.
“You understand what I’m saying, Zachary? You get a second chance. You can be someone else.”
Never asks whether or not I am even here.
“Look, I am not saying you’re a loser. What I am saying is that it’s looking like you will be portrayed as such. You are talented and capable of living a good life. We all make mistakes. You are capable of a second chance.”
He never asks about me.
He never asks his son if he is okay. It never enters his mind.
The work to be done is the “matter at hand.” I hear what he’s saying, but somewhere it starts to blend in with the noise of the room.
The phone call ends.
I am taken back to my cell.
With some certainty, I might have imagined the call.
Just like you forget to turn off the lights before leaving the apartment, it’s not really there until you are forced to return. The same thoughts bring me to a revision; I see and hear bits and pieces of the call and by the time I feel sick again, I will already be at the toilet, on my knees, ready to let it go.
I will have saved myself from having to clean up after my sickness.
Save myself from the small messes.
When there is only you, the cell, and the thoughts that stick around, the simplest changes become the biggest. They become the highlight of a time without beginning or end. They work like a slap on the shoulder, the same slap on the shoulder that should have shaken you free, the gesture that should have made you realize that very little of it was genuine.
Instead it made things blurry.
Guilt is a good cover story. But then someone visits and I don’t have a whole lot to say other than, “Yeah I did it.”
Today she visited me.
I had trouble remembering but the walk to the visitation yard gave me enough time.
Veronica looked like Veronica.
Her enthusiasm was as genuine as ever.
She said, “Hello” like it was a normal occasion. But she never greeted me that way, which made me question whether or not she was only here to see what had happened since the murder.
There were other people, a lot of people, visiting other prisoners, but though I looked and tried to count, I could not settle on a number.
I couldn’t just pick one number.
It might as well have been 100.
A hundred people around me. A hundred people listening, talking about me. My time in the relative isolation of my cell had made me more aware of what I could not be without.
I could not just sit there and listen to Veronica.
I could not listen to her.
This wasn’t a conversation.
I instantly became aware of so many voices, and every voice was an opportunity to look and react before I had a chance to explain myself.
Give me a chance to make a first impression.
Give me a chance to be myself.
But then, all I could think was: if given that chance, what would I say?
Veronica spoke with confidence.
She had been doing better since returning to Elite Aesthetics.
I lowered my head so that others couldn’t see me, only her.
“Are you okay?”
She seemed concerned, but I couldn’t tell if that was genuine or more so just because she was talking to me. She chose to visit me; she has some stake in this conversation. The attention drawn to us is shared. She is as receptive to their looks as I am to my guilt.
When I did speak, she criticized me for sounding different.
“You aren’t making any sense.”
I would repeat myself a number of times but it only made it worse.
Veronica changed the subject.
One of the officers told me I had fifteen minutes left.
It didn’t make a difference.
She continued talking.
I didn’t listen.
They were maybe talking about me.
What could they really say?
The considerations were many but difficult to categorize. Every possibility was as bothersome as the past.
Instantly I became angry at the thought.
They felt that they were allowed to think of me in those terms. It was rash to believe that people had the right to label you as something you weren’t.
No matter if they are right, they could only be wrong.
It wasn’t in their right to make someone out to be something without hearing first what they had to say.
No one is sold based solely on the way they act and look.
But almost as instantly I understood that I was wrong.
It made me feel sick again.
I hoped our time had nearly elapsed.
I heard her grin, as genuine as can be. I could not bear to see their glances, hear them maybe speak about me to each other, so I did my best to focus on her, the only person that may have seen me for who I really am.
Someone that didn’t judge me based on my errors.
Someone that said those words to me and meant it.
She loved me. It could only be the kind of love that exists in the past tense. For her to be genuine, she couldn’t love me now.
Veronica moved on.
I could tell that her visit was her way of making sure she had moved on. By the look of it, it’s simple enough to say she was sure.
There was no talk of the party.
There was no mention of Rios, who, when I tried, could no longer be anything but a name I had heard numerous times. No mention of the past, only the present, and how Veronica had been doing well.
MICHAEL J. SEIDLINGER is the author of a number of novels including The Laughter of Strangers, The Fun We’ve Had and The Face of Any Other. He serves as Electric Literature’s Book Reviews Editor as well as publisher-in-chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry.
Excerpted from The Strangest by Michael Seidlinger, used with permission of OR Books. Copyright © Michael Seidlinger, 2015. All rights reserved.