by Michael Botur

 

 

She put a packet of Girl Guide biscuits in her bicycle’s basket and pedalled thirty minutes through cornrows toward the prison walls that made you not be able to see anythin’ else beyond. Maw worked there; the ignoramus Justine was married to worked there; now she was gonna work there too. It was hard to ride in pumps, but they’d push her above six foot and push her chest out and her flabby butt in. Soon them walls rose higher than Justine could tilt her neck, and after she was let through the first gatepost, the walls were everythin’, the edge of the universe. They were concrete poured into iron framin’ with barbed wire on the top, hard sheer sky-high walls and square corners makin’ a stand against curvy hillocks and depressions, and these scary blocks of stone they’d trucked in from out of town to hold everythin’ in. The whole prison looked like it’d grown out of the ground. If you went to another town, you could prob’ly see the prison from there. Within the first two layers of wall was dry brown corn only good for letting the Volunteer Fire Department practice on.

Justine’s Maw’s job was to mind the front desk, check the cameras were workin’, pass on messages, after you’d been through the first two gates. She put her horoscopes down and took out the box with badges for the new guards.

‘What one’s mine?’ Justine asked, wobbling and tryin’ to stand perfectly on her giant heels.

‘Any one. Write your name on it, Jussy.’

‘How bad is it? Workin’ here, I mean.’

‘It ain’t bad. You married Mickey, that’s gotta be tonnes worse.’

‘Least he knows what he wants outta life.’

‘And what would that be? To be a big man for once, not let himself get pushed around? Didn’t he wanna be a priest, growin’ up?’

Mr Warden opened his office door a crack, saw that Justine was here to work for him, and let her in, givin’ her the chair his newspapers normally sat on. He had on a vest, and his head was bald and shiny with plentya hair on the sides and a ponytail tied neatly back so you couldn’t hardly see it. He was tryin’ to study a thick book through his spectacles while he spoke to her.

‘You didn’t have to bring the biscuits,’ he went, adjustin’ his spectacles, ‘I’d’a given you the job irregardless.’

‘Sorry, sir.’

‘By law I need to give you the tour of the place before we train you. If there’s a fire, there are fire alarms on every floor. The sprinklers, they’re still tinkerin’ with. You need to assemble in the car park. I don’t got time to test you on this, just know it, okay? I’ll introduce you to the clients after. And I understand your husband is employed at this facility?

‘Clients, sir?’

‘That’s what the Department requires us to call inmates. Your husband, he wouldn’t be the Mongoloid one would he? Mr Pink Shoes?’

She twisted the wedding ring crampin’ her finger, the one with them stupid words incised in the gold. ‘He operates a wheel barrow, light people’s smokes, stuff like that.’

‘What on earth possessed you to shack up with him?’

‘I wasn’t possessed, Sir. Hey, Mickey was rantin’ and ravin’ about, like, a celebrity inmate here – I mean client – here? Some guy with a name like a dog or somethin’?’

Mr. Warden smiled with half of his mouth and handed her a name plate which she slid into the plastic slot in the breast of the heavy woollen jersey she’d been issued. ‘D’you enjoy accounting, Justine? I love it. I’ll show you my spreadsheets sometime, if you like.’

‘I’d love that, sir. The dog man– ’

He spat in his hands and slicked the hairs alongside his shiny skull. ‘I’ll show you him, if you like.’

She recognised a number of the men in the cells. Some of them’d disappeared from school so abruptly it was like they’d been kidnapped. People said a werewolf got the ones that no one ever heard of again, on account of those skins they sometimes found out on the back-roads, yellow and see-through and dried waterproof like rain slickers. Mickey’d even tried to tell her he tasted a bit of the skin and it was like them chewy pig’s ears you give to dogs to gnaw on. Mickey wanted to be a werewolf real bad; he stayed up late and watched these movies, his mouth open, droolin’ til his tongue dried, wool jersey saggin’ on his lanky body, his adam’s apple juttin’ out of his straw-neck, tossin’ his head now and again to flick the fringe out of his eyes.

There was only one colour of man Inside– green.  The men had so many spider-webs and numbers inked on their skin you had to stare until you could work out what race they were supposed to be. The warden announced the number of each client, but not their names.

Their moustaches and sideburns and long hair and tattoos on their necks seemed like something that’d come out from within them, some rottenness that’d always been there, like a fossil that’d had the sand brushed off it, not something that had been put on from the outside. A tattooed zipper was common, comin’ up top of their necks and goin’ across their skulls. Justine reminded herself to tell Mickey at the end of the day the freak-show she’d seen, the quiet, still men with loud, moving skin that threatened you. It’s like they’ve had their normal skin stripped off and you can see all the blackness within ‘em, she’d explain to Mickey while he clipped his yellow nails on the coffee table.  No wonder there was no fellas at Bingo no more. When you signed out of school, Justine guessed, you trod down the school stairs and fell into a wormhole that took you straight here. She kinda enjoyed tellin’ Mickey the stuff that went on durin’ her day, at bingo and whatnot, though listenin’ to him made you wanna kill yourself, he’d be playin’ with her bras and forcing his long fingers inside her prettiest pink gloves, and the sex was even worse, they’d done it only a couple of times seein’ as Mickey had this gross habit of coming inside your body and getting in your blood stream and circulatin’ ’round, occupyin’ your whole body, something that made his ribbed body – all elbows and kneecaps and shoulder-blades – even more creepy.

Mr. Warden said Justine needed to know the name of only one client. That was Dog. He’d introduce her at the end of the tour.

Justine got led down a long row with cameras spaced every two metres peering down from the ceiling like bats. Her phone kept vibrating and spooking her. The concrete was heavy and crisp and unfriendly. Nothin’ was made of wood. You could hear thick red pipes whispering about you. One slab of concrete had a chessboard painted onto it, and where the hallway widened into a chamber, there was cubes of concrete to sit on. Justine could tell by one look that the cell doors must be a foot thick, each. Some of the clients looked even denser than the concrete. They stared at her. Waitin’ for them to blink was like waitin’ for a flower to wilt. You could hear a lot of talk shows in the clients’ cells playin’ quietly. Justine wondered if someone was going to biff a bag of poop against the side of her head, Gas-baggin’ they called it, you saved up all your hepatitis in a plastic bag and bombed the enemy, Mickey had all these ideas and stories. She regretted not bringin’ a hanky to wipe icky stuff up.

They rode an elevator together. It took them so far away from the livin’ part of the prison that she didn’t think she could get back if Mr Warden disappeared. He walked ahead of her down a high corridor over lookin’ these stainless steel ducts and vents that was real noisy, like vacuum cleaners. She was real far away from Maw now.

Then there was Dog, cell door painted black.

The warden pressed the buzzer on his door, and he appeared in the glass on the other side of the port hole, steamin’ it up with his wide, flat nose. She had to step on tippy-toes to look into his cell. His black eyes had hardly any white in them. He was bearded and his eyebrows looked like they’d come from the floor of a barber shop. His hair was the pale white of fishing line. She couldn’t see where his pony tail ended.

‘He a biker?’

‘Nope. The man praught.’

‘He don’t look like a preacher…’

‘It’s what’s inside him that makes him what he is.’

‘His eyes… They’re pink as watermelon pie. Can they smoke up in here? Wacky-backy, I mean?’

‘Member how I said to you before there’s no such thing as a stupid question? You just contradicted me.’ A snort of mist whitened the glass. ‘Listen, Justine, Dog here’s the only client whose name you need to know at this point in time. I’d like you to watch his sermons when you’re on shift. They’re daily, they are, not on a scheduled time, what we do is to accommodate Dog when he is feelin’ inspired. They all wanna attend but we only got room for a dozen at a time, so Dog does sermons quite regularly. It benefits the other clients more than I can even express. Golly, it is an honour to have this man keepin’ the others pacified.’

‘You mean he’s allowed to preach? In handcuffs or what?’

‘Dog is not a registered preacher according to any church board, but he keeps the peace. And, if you would like to attempt to put handcuffs on this man, be my guest. Got life insurance?’ He chuckled at his joke.

‘He in a gang?’

‘He is a gang. He keeps good order in here and I won’t have you not gettin’ along with him. This is a client sent from heaven and I won’t have you disrespectin’ him.’

‘No, no, I– ‘

‘You’re sayin’ no to me already? You’ve only bin here not two hours.’

‘No, I mean yes – like, it’s good that he’s… good.’

‘I never said that. That is not something I’ve said. You need to listen better. You listen like that at home, you’re gonna end up over-cookin’ every one of your husband’s meals. No, our Dog is somethin’ of a guest. He wasn’t sent from another correctional facility, we had to write his file from scratch. I suspect it was lost by an incompetent member of my staff.’

‘But you know who he is and stuff, like his priors and whatnot?’

‘Are they important?’

Justine’s phone went off again and she gasped and took it out of her pocket. ‘Sorry, my husband won’t stop texting me…’

‘Justine, Dog has more than atoned for whatever sins brought him here and I won’t have you treatin’ him like he’s a nobody. You’ll do him the courtesy of switching off your phone.’

Justine took the battery out of her phone and blushed and smiled. ‘You asked about wacky backy before? You will remember this: in the event that you do find contraband in this man’s cell, you are to leave it untouched and tell no one but myself. I won’t have you disturbin’ the peace.’

Mr Warden spoke into his walkie talkie and the door to Dog’s cell unlatched and the stench stepped out.

*

They were in the hall of the church where Jussy spent every Sunday mornin’ growin’ up. She’d left when mosta the boys in the choir’d had her; also, she never liked how the preacher always made life into Angels & Demons, like how in the corn belts surroundin’ the town was s’posda be witches and wargs and shape-shifters and whatnot that’d gobble you up if you took the sinful route home.

Over bingo, Maw asked her what it was like being a guard. The hall was full of thumps as every white-haired, toilet paper-skinned old timer stamped their square of paper with the bingo grid on it.

‘I’m actually an Assistant Warder. Best way to think of it’s like I’m co-managing the prison. 49, did he just say? 49 Feelin’ Fine? Almost got Bingo over here. Hellooooo money.’

‘What, alimony not enough?’

‘As a matter of fact it ain’t. 49, maw, got it?

‘So what’s that when it’s at home, your job thingy? Assistant what?’

‘Combinationa things… I have one solo unaccompanied shift, a coupla accompanied shifts where I gotta walk around with a senior guard, and there’s paperwork. I’d say they’re relyin’ on me big time.’

‘What, they can’t fill out the forms themselves?’

’56, Pick Up Sticks. You got 56? Nope, guess not.’

‘But the union made him hire a woman, that’s all it is, surely you’ve cottoned onto that already. You in the union?’

‘Don’t need to be. 24, we’re onto, Maw.’

‘You have to do the forms for them? What species a forms we talkin?’

‘Dunno, different ones to you. I’ve only been there a week, remember… haven’t seen everythin’… Well, I had to take the minutes at a parole hearin’. That was hard, you gotta spell things perfectionistically.’

‘How’s things with Mickey?

‘Okay. Least he doesn’t flick pee on me. I’m pretty sure that dog guy did that the other day. Felt somethin’ wet on my hand when I was in bible class.’

‘Mickey’d drive me up the wall if I was you.’

‘He’s not as bad as people reckon. He brings home a paycheque, it’s not just work experience anymore.’

‘What, for moppin’ the floors? There’s a salary for that?’

‘Didn’t you bitch up my ass for years about how he should be ‘earnin?’

Maw sucked the last smoke out of her pack of menthols with the picture of the clear sky on it, lit it and took a fresh pack out of her purse and stripped the cellophane skin off it while she smoked. ‘Not just that.’

Justine’s phone buzzed in her pocket. It was a text from Mickey: I worship tha ground u walk on u r my goddess 4 more everlasting love letters visit www.Feb14.com.

‘Couldn’t you write the wrong thing down, keep a guy in?’

’50, fifty states in the United States. 50, he said. Yeah, I absolutely could, you wouldn’t believe how much power and author-itty I got. You can let stuff slide at the front though, can’tcha?’

Maw reached across the table and squeezed her daughter’s hand. ‘Just because you’re a big-shot, don’t make you too good to– ‘

‘Here.’ Justine slid fifty bucks across the folding plastic table. ‘Did he just say 84? 84, Needle in Straw? BINGO! OH MY GOSH, BINGO, BINGO, BINGOOOO!’

Justine won a pack of pork chops that were pressed with those pretty flowers you can eat, the orange ones, and Maw told Justine she’d better hide the chops in the vegetable bin if she didn’t want Mickey to get into them. ‘Quit actin’ like you’re Queen Bee,’ she added, as Maw got in her truck in the parking lot and Justine put the prize in the basket of her bicycle. ‘You still have to go home to him.’

‘Maybe you don’t know what Mickey’s capable of, ja ever thinka that? G’night, Maw.’

*

‘Bible time. You ready?’

‘Yes sir. Sir?’

‘Justine?’

‘It’s a pleasure to work here. Just wanted you to know– ‘

‘Naw, naw, naw, you don’t understand: It’s MY pleasure. Wanted you to be here. You are integral to his facility and I am pleased to report to our stakeholders that a woman is functioning adequately. Come lookie here.’ He pinched her sleeve and pulled her in front of his computer monitor and showed her the spreadsheet of incident reports. ‘Not a single incident in…. how many months is seven weeks? Now go fetch ‘im.’

For a moment, Justine’s skin separated from her flesh.

‘Fetch, I said. Fetch ‘im now.’

‘Ain’t I supposed to be accompanied… ?’

‘God is watching.’ He pointed towards the security camera following them. ‘Dog won’t do nothing to spite you,or I. He’s a good boy. Now. I said fetch – do I have to waste my breath repeating myself?’

She used Key 8 of 15 to unlatch the elevator box and rise to the third floor. Up on Dog’s level, the paint had frozen as it dribbled, creamy-white, like how she imagined the door to a morgue would look. Noticing Dog’s door gave her a heart attack. She was out of breath, as if she’d taken the stairs. She unlocked the door to the Fire Exit stairs and looked down the long cold shaft to the bottom floor, and shouted to test its echo. If things really went haywire, she would have to flee into here and hurl herself into the emptiness. She’d seen this thing on National Geographic, about how being Inside made them plunge deep within themselves and sink into black abysses and look up at your light with eyeballs like venomous tentacles. Mr. Warden thought Dog’s bible classes made the bad men swim out of their clams towards the rippling surface.

THUD.

There was a knock on Dog’s porthole. Dog etched a cross in it with his fingertip and his dark eyes looked hard at her. Then he pointed downwards, and she stuck a jittering key in the lock in his door and looked directly at the security camera, and the frozen world slowly thawed as the door fell open beneath her push.

His cell reeked like the clods she got Mickey to fish out of the u-pipe under the hand-basin, rotting, greasy, creamy hair – mouldy clothes, old popcorn, low tide. She could see the filth behind his ears. His neck was wider than his head. His biceps was so round that his arms hung out like he had a coat-hanger stuck down the backa his shirt, and his legs were thick pipes. How in God’s name did anyone stay that heavy when every day it was cornbread, noodles, potatoes and instant coffee that came with the milk powder already mixed in?

‘I’m ready,’ Dog said. ‘How ’bout you?’

His voice came booming out like thunder. She bet his lungs could shout trees down; someone like Mickey would be bowled over backwards just by being in the same room as Dog. Justine stopped starin’ at his pure white goatee and swallowed. ‘Follow me.’

No.’

She backed away and touched the pepper spray on her hip. Her legs turned to concrete. For a moment, she forgot what it was had brought here up here. ‘You’re supposed to… ‘

‘It is protocol for I to walk ahead of you. Un-cuffed.’ His words were heavy boots treading on floorboards.

‘Kayyy… You’re not gonna run, are ya?’

‘I am a shepherd, not a lamb.’ He stepped out of his cell and backed her against the railin’ overlookin’ the death-drop onto the ducts and fans, goatee in her eyes, just about. The rest of the clients were gangin’

up on her, eyeballin’ every porthole. He leaned his head into her neck and sniffed as her lanky five feet eleven folded and her toes pointed inwards. He drank her fear, suckin’ it down the back of his throat. The tip of his nose was wet and his skin had holes in it.

‘The elevator w-w-s’posda take us down. That is protocol.’

She scuttled out of his shadow and unlocked and activated the elevator. She didn’t want to know if she was actually supposed to handcuff him in case the answer was Yes. She had only used the cuffs to practice on Mickey so far, and she’d worked out you could squeeze them very tight and Mickey wouldn’t complain, the pussy. He had these stick-insect wrists and these black fingernails, like a mutt.

He stared at her as they descended, and she fiddled with her name tag, trying not to think about how round his midsection was, like the trunk of the biggest oak she’d ever climbed. Once the elevator landed, he strode out ahead of her. From his butt, to his shoulders, to his neck was a taut, flat kite of muscle holding his log of a chest up, you could tell even with his overalls on, and she could see Jesus’ head tattooed on the back of his neck, at the top of the crucifix, which was formed out of a zipper if you looked at it close enough.

Dog marched up to three sets of doors and waited for Justine to catch up each time, then he disappeared round a corner, his bulk somehow quickly vanishin’, and Justine unclipped her pepper spray and put a testy hand on a fire alarm, because she wasn’t near a lockdown alarm, then aimed her pepper spray around the corner, and peeped after it, and found herself starin’ at a dozen expectant  faces with spider-webs over their eyes and shamrocks on their necks and Dog resting his bulk on a pulpit at the front of the class.

‘You’re meant to sit by the doorway, just here,’ Dog said, and pointed at a chair just inside the class. It stank of pee-pee in there. ‘Sit.’

*

They were on a bench that the biggest client had hoisted onto the roof of the cafeteria, lookin’ down into the exercise yard. Mickey was swinging his legs, showing off the Nikes he’d chosen, a shade Justine had to admit was so light a red that it looked pink. Sometimes she didn’t have the energy to avoid Mickey, seeing as Dog had left her with an exhaustin’ comedown. Mickey musta known Dog was on Floor three, everyone durin’ breaks discussed new myths about Dog and the people he’d eaten or crushed, but Justine needed Dog to be her secret as much as poss. She would watch Mickey gnawin’ the cartilage on chicken drumsticks with his blunt teeth and when he choked she just watched and waited it out. She wasn’t lookin’ down now that she was in Dog’s presence: she was lookin’ up. She didn’t hafta walk Main Street with her head down no more on account of her husband liked to play dress-up in her clothes and underwear, and on occasion she’d been known to do the same, stretch her eyelids and put her hair in a bun and pretend she was some Oriental empress who didn’t speak tired ole English.

Sometimes she worked night shifts, and Mickey would wait in the parkin’ lot listenin’ to the greyhound races, even though no one’d asked him to pick her up, she had a bicycle, for Christ’s sake, you dummy. He’d never be anythin’ resemblin’ a guard, but he was allowed to record licence plates and entry and exit times for Maw while she was streamin’ Dr Phil over her laptop, and Mickey was allowed to check that the engineers and fire alarm testers were signin’ in as they came and went.

‘I’m thinking of goin’ to some a them sermons the Dog man runs. When’s one? What’re they like? What’s he look like? How much you reckon he weighs? He hot? You can tell me if you think he’s sexy. Would he be more than 250 you reckon?’

She helped Mickey open his thermos while he tried to make his fringe stay out of his vision. He spilled cocoa on his leg and had to squirt a bottle of water on his burn and his trousers went black. She sighed and looked around the exercise yard for trouble, but the men were mostly jogging and skipping rope. They were too scared of God now to fuck with anyone, although they didn’t hardly blink, they didn’t try to eyeball you. Mr Warden said the coloured groups hadn’t been allowed to mix for long, Dog had been pacifyin’ everythin’ and Jussy believed she had assisted in this somehow. Clients had even been spotted grindin’ their flesh against rough spots on the wall to wear their gang tattoos off, leaving red potato stamps and gravel embedded in their shoulders. Dog had them chewing the letters off their knuckles while they listened to him preaching, nodding, tapping their feet, yelling out Alleluyah.

‘What’re they like, sweetie pie? Tell me, aww c’mon, you have to tell me, you have to, you have to. Let me come, I wanna come so bad.’

‘SHUT UP, okay Mick? It’s just readin’ from the Bible’s all.’

‘What bit of the Bible? Tell me, Goddess, you hafta. What’s for tea tonight? Tell me what bits are good, you hafta.’

‘I don’t have to do shit for you, Mickey. Why are all the good men locked up, huh? Tell me that. Why are all the tyre-kickers walkin’ free, huh? God is one big fool! Damn the Bible!’

She left her cup of noodles on the bleachers, switched her walkie-talkie back on and went to see the most interesting, captivating, hypnotic man God ever put on this earth. He was always there.

*

She began to lead him down earlier and earlier, releasin’ him from captivity, relyin’ on Maw’s willinness to open each gate early, Maw who always undid the top four buttons of her shirt and leaned over her Starfinder crossword and asked guards to help find the names of stars and light her smokes for her. Maw’d been actin’ like she was on crack the past week, textin’ her all sorta encouragin’ things about Mickey, sounded like more hokum downloaded off the interweb.

When she’d take him outta his cell, she’d let him go ahead while she scratched the itchiness beneath her belt, and Dog would first go to the window and look out on the exercise quad and its green rubber floor worn low from prisoners standing on it to take their basketball jump-shots. Roofless, puddles collected in the depressions in the rubber on days like this. There used to be teeth left in the puddles most days, Mr Warden told her once. There used to be a lot of hurt clients before Dog… did that magic of his. Before Dog.

He had a habit of whizzing in a cup and dabbing the liquid on the brows of the clients, who pushed their heads up towards him and rolled their eyes into the back of their heads, and helped smear the pee-pee on their skin, and afterwards it always smelled like yellowy mothballs. She thought she’d been having a vision, the first time she saw it.

Class ended and Dog turned and put down the dry packet of noodles he was pickin’ at and said, ‘Your husband is with us in spirit.’

‘He’s not strong, he wouldn’t get it. Your words, I mean.’

‘He is with us.’ Dog’s voice was heavy enough to make the windows rattle. His words filled the room.

‘How’d you know he wanted to come? He snuck in and talked to you, didn’t he? I’M GONNA KILL HIM. HE AIN’T S’POSDA. THIS HERE’S MY THING.’

‘Then our next sermon must cover the bonds of marriage.’

Justine oinked and buried her fist in her pocket, turning her wedding ring until it eased off. U R My Goddess, it read. That was idolatry, that was a good enough reason to get ridda the ring. She kept forgetting how good it was to have Dog around her, especially compared to how anxious and awkward it was to be seen with Mickey, especially now that he’d taken to carryin’ round a bible and tryin’ to pronounce words like Deuteronomy. She fondled her pepper spray and checked that the queue of men with green-blue skin and teardrops drawn on their cheeks and raw scalps were all registered for Dog’s class. Client Sorensen, #316, a real good lookin’ kid, with lime-blue skin and black hair and cocky eyebrows that were always laughin’ at you, was holdin’ his hands out meekly, and Justine started fishing on her ring for the key to uncuff him, but he barged past her and put his hands in Dog’s paws, and Dog lowered his head and whispered, and then the prisoner – client –  took a seat at the front of the small white classroom with its glowing windows that didn’t really have a view behind ‘em.

Now she knew the guy, he used to be real mean to her back when they was freshmen, makin’ fun of how tall she was and how thick her arms was, and he was way worse to Mickey, makin’ him wear a cheerleader outfit one time. ‘Don’t you want me to uncuff you, Sorensen?’

‘Nope.’ The prisoner waggled his free hands. His eyes were misaligned, like someone had popped them inside his eye sockets in a hurry.

Justine’s skin felt like it was plummetin’ from a buildin’ on a cold day. She looked at Dog, then up at the camera watchin’ them all. She felt the makeup separate from her skin. It was silly to have put on all that foundation and lipstick for nothin’.

‘You can’t go-go doin’ th-at! You’re s’posda, uh, you’re s’posda let me uncuff the clients! Dog, please!’

Dog put on some reading glasses, and when he opened the gigantic, ancient Bible, it whumped on the lectern. He peed in a cup as he spoke and then set the cup aside like it was ordinary. ‘Why are the things we think we know, more certain than the things we really know?’

‘Just cuff him back up when it’s over,’ she mumbled, kickin’ chairs out of the way, trudgin’ to the back of the class. ‘And stop your face laughin’, Mr Sorensen. I’ll spray you if I hafta.’.

She couldn’t concentrate durin’ the sermon, actually it was ridiculous anyone expectin’ her to take her eyes off the thick, heavy, massive man with the lurchin’ legs and the forearms like pythons and these thumbs that could rip a watermelon open. His sermon began with somethin’ about the God within worki’n through us to make relationships run deeper. Same old buncha big words and bigger ideas, plus how many of these clients had ever been married? Couldn’ta been many. Dog’s class wasn’t really that different to most bible classes, or the Living Without Violence course they ran here (not that hardly anyone went to that any more), just the main difference was if you asked Dog, everythin’ in the world was a consequence of your relationship with God, and he had a proverb handy for every situation or smart-aleck comment you could think of. Justine thought about asking him why God had lumped her with someone like Mickey, a guy who tried to talk in bed about how he wanted to be black for a day and find out what it would be like.  What had she done wrong?  why had the man upstairs given her a life that was like an everlasting meal that didn’t fill you up? She’d never been mean to anyone except Mickey, and he deserved it, didn’t he? She’d never done nothin’ wrong to God. Justine needed a cigarette or a nicotine patch or just a cup of black plastic. Occasionally, the inmates turned and stared at the back of the classroom where Justine was sitting on top of the bookcase, danglin’ her legs, hummin’, not really lis’nin, tryin’ to work out how big the bulge beneath Dog’s waist was, the man looked hung like a horse. She read the tattoos on the back of inmates’ shaven heads and wondered what they were all in for, and made up scenarios for them. If they could read her mind, they’d know she was envisioning Dog in the shower, rubbing water into the hair snaking down his back, rubbing a bar of yellow soap over his golf-sized balls, veins popping on his forearms, and she was the water running over him, caressing him, exploring his the bulges and pockets and planes on his torso.

It all ended with, ‘….Forever and ever, in God’s name, Amen,’ and the inmates stood up blinkin’ like they’d just come outta bein’ hypnotised. After the applause and communion grape juice and biscuits and after every man had taken his clipboard with this week’s homework and shambled back to his cell, Dog stuck his hands out to her to receive handcuffs. ‘I don’t have a key,’ he said.

‘You musta swallowed it then. I seen you open Sorensen at the start.’

‘No, you didn’t see me.’

‘Client Sorensen, #316: you uncuffed him! I seen!’

‘Check the footage.’ With a long python growing from his shoulder, he reached up and tapped the screen of the camera. It scared her that his arms could touch the ceiling whenever he wanted.

‘Yeah, check the footage, dyke,’ Sorensen said dreamily as he drifted out of the room.

‘I’LL JUST DO THAT, THEN!’

‘Leave my sight for now. I’m still watching you, though, Screw.’

‘You can’t uncuff people. And don’t call me that. I’m gonna tell Mr. Warden on you.’

‘No, you shall not,’ he smirked, putting pages of white A4 printouts back in his briefcase. ‘You will escort me to my next session at 3pm. You will take a lunch break now and return in 30 minutes. If you should see your husband polishing urinals and pouring sawdust on vomit, perhaps remember the sacrifices he makes for you.’

‘You don’t mean the squirrels he ties to a stick and burns, do ya?’

‘That’s his idea of a sacrifice.’

‘You need to take time to understand his ways.’

She wrapped her hand around three of his fingers. ‘Show me how, Mr. Dog.’

*

She had to bring Maw a steaming bucket of pork ribs so she could quit smoking so she could get a husband again, and they watched the footage together. Justine thought about telling Maw how she’d been getting these weird voicemails from people out of her past, telling her basically that Mickey was a catch and she should stick with him and he had unrealised talents, and it was pretty messed-up if they were prank calls cos it was their real voices, but it’d just make Maw ask more questions. Maw was already nosy enough. She always took Justine’s ring off and read what was written inside it and made jokes.

On the video, Sorensen’s back was to the camera. They had a view of Dog’s hands, but not Sorensen’s. Those hands made Justine think that her nipples were dry and needed to be wet, or needed sunlight, or just needed to be out.

Scene One: Sorensen approaches Dog with his hands together, in front of him. Two: Sorensen strolls to his seat, hands free and untied, the cuffs dangling from one wrist.

‘He’s fucking with me,’ Justine said.

‘Wish he was fucking me,’ Maw said, and they both giggled for so long that they were late getting back to work. ‘Honestly, can you imagine though?’

‘Me too. Hey, serious though Jussy: you enjoy workin’ here? You can get a little money together, get your own place, get a good divorce lawyer…’

‘I’ll answer the first part, Maw. Some days are amazing, when I get to see him… ’

‘You couldn’t get no one more different from Mickey.’

‘Ain’t that the truth.’

‘Listen, your write-up on the boys slippin’ the cuffs off durin’ Sunday school? Leave the report with me.’

‘You gonna give it to Mr. Warden?’

‘Nah. He’d disregard it, anyhow.’

Justine frowned. ‘I don’t think Client Dog should have the privileges he does… ’

‘Honeyhoneyhoney, we already got a preacher, this facility don’t need another. If Mr. Warden lets the man slip out now and again, what’s the harm? Dog’s a miracle worker and he keeps the peace more than any guard – no offence.’

‘It’s wrong and I’m’a tell somebody.’

‘It’s wrong to make eyes at a client too but does that stop you?’

‘MAW! You ought to wash your mouth out, talkin’ like that!’

‘Bingo tonight. See you there at 5.30. You off then?’

‘I hafta cook supper for Mickey and me… ’

‘Let him starve. See you at half-five. I know you won’t say jack to Mr. Warden, will ya? That’s my girl.’

*

It was an hour of the morning with numbers so low they looked wrong. Had her clock frozen in the afternoon? She peeled back the curtain – nope, it was night, heavy, sticky night, and chilly, the windows dribbling. It was the same alarm as the firemen used, AWOOOOOOOOON. AWOOOOOOON. A howl. The alarm.

There was a voice message on her phone. It was Mr. Warden. There’d been a client unaccounted for, missin’ from his cell, and a manhunt was on, and that was as good a reason as any to skip breakfast. It felt good, her burning stomach. She needed to look good and skinny for Him.

She was waiting to hear something stupid come out of Mickey’s mouth as she pulled on the thick wool that was her protection, but Mickey’s side of the bed was empty. Cheap fuck musta woken when her phone went off and not even answered it, not that he was allowed to check her messages… bastard would be outside foolin’ with that knot in the hose he’d been tryin’ to untie since last summer. She put her leather boots on. She paused before she humped her butt up on the bicycle seat, went back inside and put ruby lipstick on, eyeliner, thickened her lashes up real pretty, and she was just putting on her gloves when she noticed that her nails looked like hell, so she took the purple nail polish out, the stuff she ain’t used in years, and did all her nails, and fixed her hair just right. Everything she wore was the skin of another creature, the wool, the leather, the moleskin gloves that kept her hands from crackin’ when the temperature went under.

She shuffled and grunted through the night, wheels squeaking for company, mouth flaring steam, helmet swinging from her handlebars. She didn’t want the helmet to stuff up her hair. A little light flickered with every revolution of the wheels. Passin’ cars honked, they all knew who she was and where she was goin’ and how come she wasn’t at the 24-hour prayer-a-thon. Fuck’ em, her nipples would be nice and pointy from the cold and somebody special might notice. The guard at the front gate of the prison had two uniforms on and he was pacin’ and shiverin’ and smokin’ more than he should’ve been. AWOOOOOON. AWOOOOOOOOON.

The staff all met in the lunchroom, under a low red sprinkler pipe and hummin’ air vents. There were black windows and the frost and mist was peerin’ in. A whiteboard had been wheeled in. The voices everywhere made Justine jumpy, she had to look at everybody to make sure they weren’t a client somehow out of his cell, ready to riot and they looked back and asked her what she’d done to her face. There was murmurins about someone sittin’ down with Dog, gettin’ the man to show a little leadership, persuade the client to fess up. She wondered which client had bust out. ‘Is he still here, is he okay? Tell me.’

Mr. Warden pointed at a foldin’ chair in the front row. ‘That’s where I want you, up front so you’re safe.’ He cupped his hands and blew hot breath into them.

‘Is it a breakout, sir, like people been sayin’?’

‘I’ll get to that presently.’

Maw sat down beside her, stampin’ her feet, cupping a hot thermos mug, and leaned over and put her forehead against Justine’s ear. ‘It’s Dog, bet you a hundred bucks. He’s been keen on bustin’ out forever. He din’t even have to be in here, you know that? He’s only inside coz Mr Warden won’t let him out, see, on account of the clients would go haywire without him.’

‘What do you mean Won’t let him ou– ?’

‘THE INMATE MISSING,’ Mr Warden interrupted, spelling semaphore with his steaming coffee, ‘Is Sorensen, Number 3-1-6.’

‘The rapist’, several guards whispered to one another. There weren’t that many rapists in the prison. A lot of rural credit union robberies; men who’d broken into Coke vending machines and toll booths and donation boxes, or stolen tractors; men who’d beat up their girlfriend’s old man, that typa thing. Justine noticed for the first time that the walls were lined with sentries – she had to do a double-take – she hadn’t seen the men in her life armed before. Most of these men she’d crossed paths with as gardeners, delivery boys, lawn mowers, substitute teachers, bus conductors, tyre-fitters, and while everyone owned a gun, or could get a gun if their blood was boilin’, it was strange to see them fingerin’ their rifles like they weren’t sure what to do. She’d seen the cabinet where you got your rifle out of in case of emergency, but Mr. Warden was the only one authorised to open it. He had this big electronic swipe-key encased in white plastic.

Mr. Warden pointed a remote control at heaven and a flat-screen TV woke up and he played footage of Sorensen strollin’ drunkenly to each of the gates, brushin’ or peein’ in the lock-hole, doing somethin’ funny around waist-level which they couldn’t see and calmly walkin’ out of the prison. In the film, Maw didn’t even notice his presence, he just walked right past her, and Maw leaned into Justine, cryin’ and blowin’ her nose while everyone started mutterin’ and formulatin’ ideas. Mr Warden scratched his butt for a moment and tried to hush everyone with his hands, but when there was too much commotion he yelled, ‘LISTEN IN ALTOGETHER!’ He began dispatchin’ pairs and triplets of guards to the first and second floor, showers, kitchens, mess hall, the chapel, the gym, the library, the four layers of perimeter, the exoperimeter, the highways circling the town. To the others remainin’, he announced, ‘I am sendin’ you in squadrons to search the grounds. Last confirmed sightin’ of 316-Sorensen was at evenin’ prayer time. He is known to have attended Dog’s sermon this evenin’. Assistant Guard Justine – you are to search the prayer room and then get a statement from Dog which you will pass up to your warden without delay. ROLL OUT!’

*

‘You have come to visit with me that I may mend this hole in your order.’

The door to his cell was completely open and Dog was standing on the landin’. Justine’s thighs turned to wobblin’ water and she put her Mountain Dew on the ground.

‘You’re not s’posda be out here…’

‘You seem afraid. Have I ever hurt you?’

‘I’m’a stand back in the elevator now. Could you move back in your cell for me? I’ll call the boys if I hafta.’

Dog took two large steps backwards and Justine peered around the corner before following him into the windowless box with its low ceiling and whispering pipes. She was amazed at the sparsity of his room, just a shelf on the wall, a bed with thin blanket, a toilet, a tap, a folded prison uniform capped by a pile of black underwear, and him, a wide, thick presence whose teeth you could see behind his beard, and – and pink Nikes?

‘I’ve been sent to ask you, in your capacity as spiritual advisor to the men, ah, listen, don’t get mad, but Client Sorensen’s escaped, you prob’ly heard. D’you know where he is by any chance?’

‘He is in the Lord’s hands. He is safe.’

‘I don’t trust the Lord as much as you do. Can’t you tell me? I’ll get fired if you don’t.’

‘I possess a power of sight far beyond what you can conceive of. If you truly knew the extent of my power, you would reconsider your questions. Please sit.’

‘Did he mention places he was plannin’ on runnin’ to once he got out? It’s okay, I won’t tell the others you narked. You hafta tell me, please, it’s for my job. They’ll give me a promotion. I won’t tell anyone you told, I promise.’ Justine took out a note pad and her pen hovered over it like a wasp.

‘What man would question the things I say?’

AROOOOOOON. AROOOOOON. AROOOOOONNNN

Justine tried to step backwards, feelin’ for the thick, protective door, trying to take her eyes off those shoes of his. She had no idea how quickly it could close, what if Mr Warden pressed the mains and locked every door and she was stuck inside with this animal? She suspected Dog was quicker than the door, and he could have her throat open and hiccupin’ blood in an instant.

‘He walked out of here a different person,’ Dog told her. ‘But he did not stay out there.’

‘Well where’d he go? Please, it’s critical!’ She was breathin’ into her walkie talkie, itchin’ to switch it on and report Sorensen’s location. That would be truly becomin’ of the prison’s First Female Assistant Guard.

‘He is in your home. In your bed.’

Justine dropped her eye contact and remembered where she was. She’d been driftin’ in the realm that his low, commandin’ voice described. ‘Is he still there?’ She flipped on the walkie talkie. ‘You have to tell me – you have to.’

‘You go many days without hearing my voice – what makes today so different?’

‘I HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW IF HE’S IN MY HOUSE! AND HOW HE FOUND ME!’

‘The man is a rapist. The man holds people down and hurts them for pleasure.’ AROOOOOOON. AROOOOOON. AROOOOOONNNN.

‘MR. WARDEN! MR. WARDEN!’

Go ahead. What’d he say?

‘Sir, inmate Sorensen is in MY HOME, according to Dog – 415 Highway West. Please send somebody – can’t you call the police? Why is -‘

‘STOP HOLLERIN’ AT ME, JUSTINE. We’ve located the client. We’ll get our incident reports down to nil in not too long.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We have located Sorensen in the prayer room. If you’d had your RT switched on, you would have already been aware. He ain’t at your house. Is Dog givin’ bad information?’

Dog snatched the walkie-talkie out of Justine’s hand and held it out of her grasp, and as she tried to snatch it back, he stole a sniff of her armpit.

‘Dirty animal! Give that! You said he was at my place!’

Dog tipped his head back and let the scent trickle up his nostrils and into his brain, then reached behind her and pushed the heavy door closed. He squeezed her shoulders and almost lifted her from the ground. She let him lay her on her back, and closed her eyes tight as fists and listened to the flap and tinkle of her belt buckle followed by the unzipping of the fly on her pants and the stink of him around her mouth and lips, rotten flesh, blowflies, grease, scars. He stank like a bag of nappies and apple cores baking in a dumpster in a summer alleyway, raw, horrible. The weight of him on her was like being squashed between two mattresses.

‘Stop stop STOP! STOP!’ She heard herself breathin’, but from inside Dog was only the purr of a great cat. ‘Cover the camera, Jeeeesus.’ She rolled onto one elbow, scurried over to the toilet and wet a fistful of toilet paper and biffed nuggets at the camera until it was covered, then crawled back onto the flat, hard cot and forced her eyelids shut. He poured inside her, heavy as a flood, and flowed into her extremities like a hand rummaging inside a new glove and finally when she awoke from dreaming of Dog getting inside her and filling her up, there he was, handing her a Coke bottle full of whizz and telling her to spread it for her. It was God’s will.

AROOOOOOON. AROOOOOON. AROOOOOOOOO –

The siren ended and she squirmed out from under him and put her undies on backwards and told her walkie-talkie she’d gathered the intelligence and was on her way. A thicket of guards huddled around the prayer room, and guards were comin’ out with trickles of bile leaking through their fingers, two at a time, or pattin’ their heads with handkerchiefs, spontaneously throwin’ up in their fingers. Justine had to wait her turn, even though she was a special assistant guard.

Even this deep inside the prison, flies had managed to find the fresh meat. They were drinkin’ the juice which dripped out of the glowing red cracks beneath Sorensen’s skin, which wasn’t sittin’ right on him. There were crinkles all over his skin, and she could see his white ribs and steak-coloured heart where the seam on his chest didn’t fit quite together.

*

It was the longest week in history, or maybe more time passed, or less. She thought she’d remember every time they did it, but she started losing count. Makin’ love with the man of her dreams was her right, somethin’ she’d suffered her whole life to get towards and she didn’t have to thank no man or God for it. Counsellors came from Victim Support Services in the big city, yet all Justine wanted to do was hit Bingo and smoke Maw’s menthols and talk about boys and gossip until they closed the Sorensen file and forgot about it. She’d had the biggest boy, and it was her secret. It was like under his clothes, he was covered in her graffiti that no pesky warden would ever see. She hadn’t had a chance to pour Dog’s musk into Mr Warden’s uniform. She knew she’d chicken out.

She got in the habit of sneakin’ out of the caravan without wakin’ Mickey, and spottin’ him around the prison before he spotted her, and scorin’ lunch breaks at times he’d never find her. Mickey was such a fuck-up, any day now he’d get a broken jaw for doing somethin’ stupid in front of a guard or a client, or he’d think she was bangin’ Mr Warden and pick a fight with him and get sent packin’ and she’d live secure inside Dog’s cell, Queen of the Meanest, safely armoured with his tattoos and hairy pig skin cloakin’ her.

She was glad she’d let another man lay with her. She could picture the next time, too. It was her right. It was her day off from Mickey.

She sipped instant coffees with two spoonfuls of crystals in ’em, that stank of plastic, and she and Maw sat in the Main Entry Booth and watched the video footage, and Maw kept grillin’ her about whether things were better at home with Mickey, and whether Mickey was getting a promotion, and whether he was satisfying her, and if she thought Mickey looked buffer. Maw was real worked up – almost drunk, her eyes didn’t belong in her head and she’d been excited enough to pinch Justine’s uniform and tug her into the booth with her, ‘Look at this, you gotta see this, you have to see this, lookylooky lookitthis.’ Word had it that Maw didn’t need to worry about her job: the Sorensen thing hadn’t put any guards’ health and safety at risk. Sorensen didn’t have no family to sue the Departmenta Corrections. They sipped their coffee and winced and watched it over and over.

‘Ain’t that impress you?’

‘It’s just gross, Maw.’

Sorensen had shambled outta the prison, each gate miraculously openin’ for him at a touch. His walkin’ had been strange, and he seemed taller and thinner than he was known to be. It was the boxy shape of the monitor screen, most likely. They were lookin’ from a God’s-eye-view anyway, lookin’ down, and it was hard for anythin’ to look normal, everythin’ was stretched and the colours were all wrong. After several hours, 5am, Sorensen had walked in off the highway inexplicably. He’d approached the main entrance guard booth and walked right past it. Maw had been at the end of her shift, her nose a few centimetres above the jumbo Sudoku she was strugglin’ with. She didn’t stop him or contact anyone or even notice his comin’ and goin’. Then Sorensen walked past four guards, securin’ the bible studies room, right through them, unstopped, apparently unseen, and through layers of security doors that opened for him before he jerked down a corridor and reached up and tampered with a camera outside the clients’ locker room, tippin’ it so that it faced the wall and everythin’ went dark.

‘He worships you, you know,’ Maw went.

Jussy knew exactly what who she was talkin’ about – why, no one else on earth was lowly enough to look up at Justine.  ‘Why you gotta say that now? You been hatin’ on him for years.’

‘I’ve given pause my judgement of Mickey. We should all recognise him for what he is.’

‘Now you’re scarin’ me. Oi, what d’you reckon happened next?’

Maw’s head turned slowly and her boggly eyes, like golf balls, stopped spinnin’ and began to settle. ‘Someone’s assaulted him. Gutted and filleted him and didn’t even biff the skin. You should see people inside, it’s wonderful. Fat turns yellow when oxygen falls on it. Muscles squirt water all over –’

‘Maw, you’re a pig. No one could smuggle a knife… I don’t think, at least.’

‘Up the anus, swallowin’ it and pukin’ it back up later, all possible. You ain’t been here in the days before Dog calmed everyone down, mind, you ain’t seen. They can even lift up a flap of skin and sew a nice, flat blade under there.’

‘You sound like you’re enjoyin’ the incident a little too much for my taste. Blergh. Can’t we get a fine of like a hundred thousand dollars for letting clients get injured inside?’

Justine crunched noisy pretzels as the video displayed Mr. Warden, surrounded by two scientists in lab coats, and a couple more eager guards, and photographers, and forensics men, graspin’ the scalp of Sorensen’s body, and pullin’, and Sorensen’s entire skin comin’ off in one drippin’ wetsuit. Maw didn’t want any pretzels, but she still seemed hungry.

*

‘I’m glad you chose to meet with me and not skulk away like that cowardly little mouse you’re married to.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Don’t sit down.’ Mr. Warden kicked his vast chair back and laced his fingers behind his skull. ‘I intend to close one file tonight, that of client #00316, and if I have to terminate another client’s placement here at this facility, I won’t hesitate to do so. What if I put it to you that you’ve been carefree with your keys? Indication is Sorensen must have used your swipe key to come ‘n go that night. I’m concerned that an audit would indicate there are keys unaccounted for.’

Justine fiddled with her walkie-talkie and didn’t say nothin’.

‘You realise that would be impossible unless he had your keys? Have you given him your keys to come and go as he pleases? You do know it’s against prison policy to release prisoners into society whenever you deem fit. You think you’re God or somethin’?’

Justine shifted on her feet. She felt like her tits were dragging her down. She felt like her uniform was soaking wet and cumbersome.

‘Shall we go visit him? I daresay Dog has some feedback about you, Missy.’

They sombrely rode the elevator to the third floor. The coroner from the big smoke had been in and ascertained a thing or two, Mr. Warden said. He told her when she was gone, kicked outta here, she’d get the pants sued offa her if she spoke about this to anyone. Sorensen couldn’t possibly have killed himself. Man was murdered.

Mr Warden stood back while Justine eyeballed the porthole. Dog was sittin’ on his bed and facing the porthole and noddin’ distantly. He touched his forehead, belly, left and right nipples, making the sign of the cross. She wondered how much water you could fit inside Dog’s chest: gallons and gallons, likely.

‘That apple juice?’ he asked, nodding at the little bottle she dangled.

‘Sir, d’you think, um, sir, was he, like, murdered before or after he walked out of prison and back?’

Mr. Warden cleared his throat. ‘I like to tell all my boys there ain’t no such thing as a stupid question. Well now, you ain’t a boy.’

The door swung open and Mr. Warden walked up and stared into Dog’s eyes. The men were the same height, both titans to Justine. As Mr. Warden prepared to speak, Dog pushed the cell door closed and Justine opened her bottle and poured Dog’s liquid down the warden’s shirt.

The old man’s head tonked like an empty coconut as Dog tipped him upside down and crushed him into the floor. His belt had to be undone first, and the warden writhed like a stunned eel as his pants and underpants bunched around his ankles while they wrestled his shoes off. Dog grabbed a fistful of Mr. Warden’s hair and slammed his head against the ground until the sound became splattery, like stomping on a lemon, and Mr. Warden’s eyes turned completely white, and spit collected around his lips and you could see all his front teeth as he ate his bottom lip. They lost a lotta buttons as they were pullin’ his shirt off, and then there was no more clothes to strip off him. When they let him go for a moment, Mr Warden pulled his knees up into his belly and moaned like a baby. Dog stood on Mr Warden’s hands, splaying them out like Jesus’s. Dog unzipped his prison overalls and Justine was sure that he was gonna pee on Mr Warden, or fuck him up the butt or somethin’, she was too scared to ask. Instead, Dog crouched down, licked the fingers on his right hand, and stuck a finger up Mr Warden’s bum-hole. The man gasped and flailed and Justine kneeled on his head. Dog’s hand disappeared and returned with a twist of guts, and then he was pulling strips of Mr. Warden off him, pulling his skin off like wallpaper, taking the wrapping off a man-sized present, and with a slippery fapping wet glop a red, raw, embarrassed face was staring at Justine, bulging white cue balls, a pointy model’s nose like a tiny shark fin, big empty cheekbones caked in muscle and these bleached dentures bobbing in a red bowl of gazpacho. Below, sashes and strips of yellow fat circled his armpits and breasts and hips.

Dog was sittin’ on the bed, empty, slumped, nothin’ inside his eye sockets or lips, just a suit of skin padded with squares and cones of muscle.

A skinny, pink skeleton, gawky, lanky, striped with hollow ribs was pulling the skin over its head like a soggy dress, stretching the tighter parts with its angular shoulders and smoothing Mr Warden’s skin down over its guts and thighs. The skeletal thing had a fringe of bloody hair that it kept slicking back with blood. ‘Help me,’ it said in Mickey’s voice.

Together they lifted Mr Warden’s skin and pulled it over Mickey’s head, and then he towelled the blood off the leaking seams of the skin-suit, stepped into Mr Warden’s crumpled pants and shrugged Mr Warden’s shirt on, fixed his necktie, stood beside the door with his arms stretched and his back loose and said ‘Zip me up.’

*

Out in the exercise yard was the slightest dab of rain. Moths settled in her hair. There were some men, who had all had the same gang tattoo bitten off their cheek, walking in circles, not fightin’ or yellin’, just strollin’ through the night, disappearin’ outside the range of the single electric light. They saw what looked like Mr Warden, stretched tall, cheekbones tight, and stopped and squinted at him, probably thinking he’d been in a fight and gotten messed up. They didn’t go over to greet him, but they didn’t run, either. They sensed that inside Mr Warden was a calmer man who had no intention of hurtin’ them.

She watched, feeling sickened, exhilarated, giddy, fizzy, as the man-wolf, the creature, wearing Mr Warden’s skin, went over to them and blessed and forgave and encouraged them and told them they’d be free soon enough, the gates would open when the spirit had decided the time was right. The spirit of Dog, see, lived in him now, it had moved on and occupied another body, see, God had reached through chain link fences and coils of razor wire and stone and concrete and rebars and wormed through his veins and gushed into his heart.

When the spirit had finished speaking through Mr. Warden, it sopped up its nosebleed with its handkerchief and left the clients on their knees sobbin’, humbled witnesses to Jehovah.

Maw would have been impressed that Justine was bein’ personally escorted by Mr Warden, but Maw wasn’t watchin’ the vid, not really. Maw’d be a skin crumpled on the bottom of her walk-in wardrobe, Justine knew it.

Wearin’ the seamless suit of Mr Warden, the being tapped into his computer, and looked through his drawers, pulled out documents and schedules and papers. He guessed the password for the computer.

‘You have to tell me who else you’ve…. Been,’ she whispered. ‘Who else you are.

‘You would know whose skin I have slipped into, because they would never seem the same. I am that which refreshes and rejuvenates.’

‘Why don’t you just slip into my skin and take me with you? Why am I special?’

The body turned its head. Its mantis insect-eyes boggled in different directions, but its mouth spoke to her. ‘I would never misuse your body. You are a goddess to me,  Justine. I’ve liked you since school.’

Justine couldn’t find anythin’ else to blow her nose into and wipe her eyes on, so she used Mr. Warden’s newspaper, smearin’ the crossword. She’d be in big shit for doin’ that.

‘What are you even lookin’ for in here? This ain’t really your – what if he –

‘He will never disrespect you again, Justine. He will worship you.’

He brought up Justine’s employment file on the computer, everything – police check, reference checks, career plan, indictment and incident reports. A physical health inspection – something about her eyesight and family history of diabetes and even her hairy nipples and…

And a request – no, a legal insistence, an order – from the Guards Union that one woman be hired per a hundred male workers.

No special privileges – a special position was set up instead. Assistant Guard, with fewer risks and therefore lower life insurance while maintaining the legally required number of guards per prisoner.

‘They hired you cheap,’ said the growl through the lips of Mr. Warden, ‘You are half the cost of a man worker. They must have a woman.’

She rested her chin on her collar bone. She wanted to crawl into bed and nail the covers shut.

‘No one respects me,’ she mumbled.

‘And yet you are a goddess to me.’

She snorted into her fingers and he thrust a box of tissues at her. She sopped up snot and tried to still her lungs. The wedding ring on her finger was bulgin’ so badly she could sense the gold slowly stretchin’. Inside was the inscription.

‘That wasn’t really my Maw, was it. When she was all nice about Mickey and stuff.’ He reached across the desk, took her hand, and a pulse of warmth came through. ‘So everyone’s dead? After you wear them?’

Without saying anything, he opened up the programme on the computer, the one that set the clients’ release dates, and they played around with it, and saved and submitted their changes.

In the skin of the Dog, all the gates would open for him. He was a wrestler, and everyone was a ballerina. They were about to leave the concrete confines, about to bend the world at his touch; trees would become anemones, walls – paper, concrete – marshmallow, people would be Play-Doh. Sheathed in thick clay-flesh, heavy, impenetrable.  He’d be God, and he’d take her to her old school, her bowling alleys, her salons, everywhere. They would drive to Mr. Warden’s house, play tug-of-war with his wife until they each had half of her. They would shoot baskets with her ex-husband’s head, cheerin’ drunkenly. They’d find her stepdad and take a foot each in their mouths and halve him like a wishbone, and knock on the preacher’s door and worm into his body ’til his eyeballs burst out, and free the dogs in the pound and push every guard’s stupid fat head down into his chest and twist th––––––––––––––––

The creature held Mr Warden’s eyelids in the right spot until he was lookin’ directly at her. With one hand, he fished the keys to Mr. Warden’s truck out of his pocket; with the other, he pushed a sequence of buttons, opening the gates.

‘I l-love you now, Mickey,’ she gushed, ‘Now I love you. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIlove.’ AROOOOOOOON. AROOOOOOOOOON.

‘We have work to do,’ said Mickey’s voice, and they both stood up and pushed their chairs in.