A painfully crooked thumb hangs up in the tiny loop of the scissors with every dull pinch and cut of the red paper. The paper makes its own protest quietly wheezing through each linear cut.The ornament part was simple: make a chain of garland out of construction paper.
“Safe for who?” Walter McEagan grouses to himself about the safety scissors, a certain result of his predicament.
Slice, wince. Slice, wince.
With concentrated effort, Walter finishes converting the stack of paper into eight and a half inch long strips, one inch wide.
He pushes the floppy ruler, scissors and chalk aside, stands and stretches. The room on the northwest side of the sprawling hive of buildings is short on sunlight this time of day. Walter brushes the chill from his bare arms.
“McEagan! You got a visitor. Put your toys away and get over here,” a man’s voice jumps through a sliding panel in the middle of the door. Since the intercom was broke, CO Benny Crumb, a stern but fair man, must bend himself in half and twist sideways to speak through the opening.
“I’ll need a glue stick, Benny,” Walter says before squaring off with the door. He trims his height by bending his knees. They snap and crackle like a chorus of campfire kindling. His hands disappear through the slot.
Gratefully, Benny’s quick with the cuffs.
Walter McEagen mastered the various postures of submission within weeks, but this evening, he feels his emotions tapping against the inside of his skull ever so lightly. ‘Tick, tick, tick.’ It reminds him of live hand grenades, the ones he lobbed at the enemy long ago. His unshaven chin itches but he squashes the urge to raise his hands. Sometimes the guards here spook a little too easy.
Meekly he adds, “And some glitter,” before withdrawing his shackled hands. The cold metal shocks the skin on his wrists, then collides with his soul.
Walter steps back from the door and adopts a nonthreatening posture as the correctional officer pushes into the room. Hands dangle lifeless on the end of extra long arms that must look like limp noodles while his spine curves his body over his shoes like a street lamp.
“Stand up straight, McEagan. I hate to see a man slouch, even a condemned son of a bitch like you,” he grumbles more to himself. He feels like he’s playing the main character in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas around the holidays but he always takes the overtime. Somebody’s gotta do it.
On command, Walter re-inflates himself to his full height of six feet and three inches bringing the two men eye to eye. Benny felt like it was his unofficial duty to encourage a man to hold onto his dignity, slouching was for thieves and computer hacks.
“I never got the word I’d be allowed a visitor today, are you sure it’s for me?” Walter asks, knowing full well Molly would not let him down.
“Molly McEagan your granddaughter?” Benny asks, not really needing to after catching a glimpse of the woman in the visitor holding room. Freckles, fine, strawberry- blond hair, lips and jaw still set in shrewd disagreement with her grandfather’s conviction.
This would be her first and last visit.
The urge to run surprises him, but Walter makes himself walk slowly toward the stainless steel table, and the only other person in the world he cares about. They remain standing, eyes locked and brimming with affection. They were related alright.
The metallic jangle of keys with the rack and slam of doors rolling open then thundering closed creates a disjointed soundtrack to the long awaited reunion. Not quite Christmas music but easier to bear while looking into the eyes of his granddaughter.
“Sit down, McEagan,” Benny urges, breaking the moment open with a tinge of authority in his voice. The pair sits, and he retreats to the corner of the room in an attempt to give the illusion of privacy.
“Thank you for coming, Molly-waddles.” Walter invokes her childhood pet name and grins sheepishly. “Merry Christmas.”
“I’m sorry, Grandpa, but I don’t give a damn about Christmas right now. We’ve got to get you out of here somehow. You are not a murderer.” Molly punctuates her conviction by letting her hand fall to the bare table in a slap and draws a cautionary look from Benny.
Walter raises an open palm to the corrections officer, as if to say, “I’ll handle it.”
“You’ve got to remain calm. Did you bring me the items on my list, my darling girl?”
“Did you get the glue stick from Jimmy?” Walter held his breath for her answer.
Relieved, he lets go, controlling the one thing he can, the exhale. He learned the trick in a twelve week yoga class, and it sometimes made him feel almost invisible. The teacher had told him, “That’s what we call a moment of peace.”
“Well, they’ll check everything over pretty good, and if Jimmy’s as highly skilled as I’ve heard, I may be in Mexico by New Years.”
“I had to pay him two-hundred bucks for that glue stick, but if that’s what it takes to get you free, I’ll buy a truckload,” Molly’s whispered reply floats over the cold metal table, her face neutral.
“Not just any glue stick, Molly,” Walter winks, I’m making a very special decoration for our Christmas tree in the prison Chapel. Remember, the paper chains we made together every year when you were in grade school?”
“Sure I do.”
I was thinking about that the other day and I got an idea.”
Molly stole a paranoid look at Benny. He was playing Candy Crush on his phone with a thousand mile stare that made him look like an extra from The Walking Dead.
“I’ve got to go,” Molly announces, abruptly standing. Her chair scrapes the floor and snags Benny’s attention from the exploding candies.
Walter remains seated in an effort to vanquish the urge to wrap his arms around his granddaughter and never let go. He knows she will never believe he’d killed his ex business partner, and he needs that, even though it’s a lie. Part of him can’t believe he had actually killed him either.
The only thing the jury had gotten wrong was the degree of murder. It had not been planned, it just happened. The confrontation had turned violent in a hot flash of temper. Fists flew. Furniture crashed. Heads rolled. End of story.
If Walter had been able to afford to pay an attorney he might have walked away with involuntary manslaughter. But the public defender he’d drawn was an idiot and it cost him his life. First degree murder, no chance of parole. The fact that his ex business partner had embezzled their company and left his family penniless had not even come up in court.
“You’ve still got ten minutes, miss,” Benny said to Molly.
“I’m ready to go now, thank you.” Her clipped reply demands a swift escort to the visitor’s exit point.
Benny pockets his phone and pushes off the wall with his shoulder.
“Wait here, McEagan. I’ll be right back.”
Alone in the room, Walter took advantage of the quiet and went over the plan in his mind. His hands trembled slightly with the adrenaline his thoughts generated.
Benny returns swinging a plastic shopping bag. “I grabbed this from up front for you. It’ll take those greenhorns at least a week to screen it and I figure you might want it before someone pillages those Christmas cookies,” knocking on the side of the Tupperware box Benny tries to smile. “Merry Christmas.” He sets the bag of goodies on the table.
“Hey, would you mind taking me back to the arts and crafts room? I’d like to finish my decoration for the tree,” Walter casually asks Benny.
“Looks like you got your glue and glitter there in the bag, so why not?” Benny appeases.
The CO locks Walter McEagan back inside the arts and crafts room and tells him he’s going to get dinner. He’ll be back in a half hour.
Walter McEagan sits still and waits a whole five minutes before opening the bag. His heart pounds when his fingers find the glue stick. He decides to give the cookies to Benny.
Unwrapping the sealed glue stick, Walter marvels at Jimmy’s skill, no one would ever guess it had been tampered with. He moves the stack of red strips in front of him and begins gluing and closing loops one onto another until the strips are gone. The red paper garland spills onto the floor.
Walter puts the cap on the top and unscrews the bottom of the glue applicator. He pockets a small lump of gray putty, a short fuse and one matchstick.
He hears the jingle of keys outside the door. Benny’s back, right on time.
“Hey, do you think I could go put this on the tree in the chapel tonight?” Walter holds up an armful of paper garland.
Benny eyes the red length of chain. “Sure, but make it quick or you won’t have time to get any grub. The chow hall is closing down early tonight, being it’s Christmas eve and all.”
The chapel is located at the furthest point from the watchtowers and the daily prison hubbub. As an outlier, it was almost as if it wasn’t connected to the main complex of buildings, though it was. The chapel was his best chance.
Benny flicks on the overhead lights. Their florescence descends on the room in harsh contradiction to the redemption promised by the chaplain on Sunday mornings. Benny walks over to the Christmas tree stationed in front of the window and plugs in the colorful light strand.
“There, that’s better. Evens things a little, don’t you think, Walter?” Benny almost never calls prisoners by their first name, but he’s feeling the spirit of the holiday and it lulls him into a sense of familiarity.
Hearing his first name spoken aloud jars Walter. He nods at Benny and heads for the tree with the armful of paper garland he’d made. Working from the bottom up, Walter strings the garland while also placing tiny bits of explosive on the tree at various points. He’s careful to keep his back to the CO as he works, but Benny’s not paying attention to anything but his phone again.
The last bit of putty Walter saves for the corner of the only window in the room, which is behind the tree. Committing to his plan, he turns quickly and pushed the last glob into the corner of the window sill with his thumb, it takes all of two seconds.
When Walter steps out from behind the Christmas tree, Benny is looking squarely at him. Walter’s breath deserts him. The moment having been a well of infinite possibilities drained into one tiny droplet of knowing as the two men stare at one another, then Benny speaks.
“Remember, some chains are easier to break free from than others. I’m going to go get some coffee. Merry Christmas, Walter.”
Sandy Knight, 2019, All Rights Reserved