Tony lay on his back with his left hand behind his head, looking at his cellmate who was way older than him. His cellmate, a short, staunch man with a shiny bald, was seated on the edge of his bed, a burning cigarette wedged between his left hand’s fingers and an open Bible balancing on his right thigh. He took a puff each time he wanted to turn a new page, the cigarette butt smouldering red as he drew in smoke, which he let out through his nose, eyes closed in what Tony imagined was sheer delight. Tony searched the man’s face, wondering when he was going to look his way and maybe strike a conversation with him. But the man bowed his head to his Bible and continued reading, tracing Bible lines with his finger, intriguing Tony the more. Who was this guy? How come he smoked in a cell while reading a Bible like it was a normal thing to do? And, perhaps most importantly, what was he doing his time for?
“Is it your wish to die in prison?” his cellmate asked in a hoarse voice that startled him. Tony hadn’t expected him to speak so soon so he found himself blubbering, seeking for the best answer.
“A-ah, excuse me?”
The man lifted his eyes from the Bible and looked at him for the first time. His eyes appeared small but fierce.
“I asked, is it your wish to die in prison?”
“This is my first night here so I haven’t found time to make wishes,” he said, making sure the words came out of his mouth in a whimsical way so his cellmate could know he was making a joke.
“If you want to make out of this place alive, you need to stop staring at people, me especially. That is the number two rule in the unwritten book of How Not To Die In Prison.
“And the number one rule is?”
“Reading your Bible. Do you ever read the word of God?”
“When was the last time?”
“I can’t remember but I do read my Bible.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No one who reads their Bible ever forgets the last time they held one in their hands.”
“The truth is it’s been a while.”
The man closed the Bible loudly as if to register his disappointment with Tony and placed it on the bed before leaning forward, eyes fixed on Tony. Tony sat up straight in bed, back against the wall and stared right back at him.
“If you don’t read your Bible, how am I supposed to trust you?”
“I asked, how am I supposed to trust you if you don’t read your Bible?”
“You don’t have to trust me, man, I am not asking you to. Besides, who said I must read the Bible to be trustworthy, what if I am a Muslim?”
“Son, are you a Muslim?”
“I said, what if?”
The man grinned. His teeth were brownish from smoking. When he patted his bed and slightly lifted the mattress, Tony thought he was reaching for a knife and he started panicking. He had no idea why this man whom he had just met would want to hurt him, but he had watched movies and read stories about inmates stubbing each other either for fun or to exert authority. His eyes darted to the iron door and his first instinct was to run and bang on it, hard, to alert the guards but he reckoned that would make his cellmate angrier. Besides, what if he had the guards in his pocket? That wasn’t a crazy thought, it was a possibility. Up to this point, he hadn’t thought much about prison life. He had thought two years in prison was a small price to pay considering a man had lost his life. He hadn’t planned to kill him, but that did not make the guilt go away. So when he was charged with manslaughter and after close to a month, earlier that day, when the presiding High Court judge sentenced him to two years in prison, he had accepted it with no qualms. A man had died, he kept telling himself, and it was only fair he pay for that. But in the face of danger, he began having second thoughts.
“Look, man, I will read the Bible if you want me to but don’t do kill me. I don’t want to die, please. I have a wife and a young boy who still needs his father, please, I am begging you.”
“No. You have already made it clear that you are not a man of faith. A man not worthy of trust. In here, you need to have a cellmate you can trust more than your lovebird who is probably sleeping with someone else already. So I will make sure I get rid of you before you become a nuisance, just like I got rid of my previous cellmate, okay? I will make it quick and painless you won’t feel a thing, trust me.”
His cellmate flashed something shiny from beneath his mattress and Tony jumped in horror, screaming his lungs out like a terrified young boy before realizing it was a nail cutter. His inmate sprawled on the bed, kicked his legs in the air as he laughed. Tony looked at him, heart racing, before smiling because it just dawned on him that he was going to have a cheeky but fun cellmate. The man still trying to contain his laughter, stood and extended his hand to Tony for a handshake.
“My name is Michael, but everyone in here refers to me as The Reverend. I am in here because I killed my wife,” he said.
“You killed your wife?”
The man stared at him in silence.
“Oh, I am sorry, I’m Tony.”
“What are you in here for?”
“Oh, so we are both killers, what a coincidence?”
“I am not a killer. It was an accident.”
“Did someone die?”
“And you are here because of his death?”
“Why are you assuming it was a he?”
“Was it a she?”
“No, it was a he, I just don’t like it when men get all the credit, even in death.”
The Reverend grinned.
“Are you in jail because of the man’s death?”
“Then you are a killer, my brother,” The Reverend said before breaking into a smile. “I am kidding. But at least you are serving for what you did.”
“Does that mean you were framed for killing your wife?”
Michael chuckled, sat on his bed, turned off the bedside lamp, and sprawled himself on the bed, facing the wall. In the darkness, Tony tucked himself in too and wondered if he should ask him who framed him. But he thought it was too soon to ask.
“Good night, Tony,” The Reverend said, and before Tony could wish him a good night too, The Reverend was already snoring.
Tony smiled. If someone had told him his first night in prison would be this scary and interesting at the same time, he would have punched them in the throat.
The thought of punching someone in the throat reminded him of the reason he was locked up. It brought back the image of the man lying in a pool of blood in a parking lot. He still couldn’t believe it. Ever since, throughout the court proceedings, he had hoped someone would gently shake him and wake him up from this nightmare. And It wasn’t until earlier that day when the judge hit the gavel on the table after reading him his sentence in the presence of his mother, wife, Clair, Eve’s sister and Danny—Clair’s husband, that it dawned on him that all this was a reality. His son wasn’t in court that day; as if they all knew what was going to happen.
He remembered standing in that court, devoid of any feelings, at first, until his eyes met Eve’s and she was teary. He remembered her watching him with silent tears as the court officers whisked him away, and asking himself what had he done? He didn’t get to say goodbye to any of his people and even if he had had the chance, he wasn’t sure he would have said anything meaningful. Though he was and had been ready to serve his time for his mistake, his lawyer, Christopher, had assured him he will not go to jail and he had believed him because a lawyer of Christopher’s repute did not promise what he couldn’t deliver. Now he wished he had allowed himself to have a little doubt, maybe then he would have prepared for his judgement day, and on what to say to his wife and mother.
“Will you visit me in prison if I get locked up?” he had once asked Eve jokingly. It was the silence of the prison at night and the absence of chaos he had expected that made him remember this question, thinking of Eve, his son, and how their first night without him was.
“No, I will find myself a man of my dreams and move on with him,” she had said, laughing. And he had laughed, too, because he knew she would, of course, visit him in prison if he got locked up.
“I thought I was the man of your dreams?”
“Not while in prison,” she had quipped before leaning in to kiss him on the lips and said, in a whisper, “So don’t make the mistake of getting locked up, okay?”
And he now wished he hadn’t replied with, “Okay, my love.”