Published by Joanne Surridge at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Joanne Surridge
The woman stood, staring around her at the world as it now was. The desert beyond the prison gleamed and flickered in the fast rising heat of the early morning.
‘Kay!’ a voice called her old name, and she swivelled around, scanning the barren tarmacked area. Finally, she spotted a tall woman standing beside a building at the end of the car park. She had long, grey hair tied in a loose ponytail. Wisps flew away from her head and she wore a dingy cheesecloth tunic over a pair of too short flared jeans. Rubber flip flops completed the outfit, and she rested on a walking stick. The figure waved, and Kay headed towards her.
‘Dinah, it is so good of you to come,’ Kay said, as she was enveloped in a brief hug, then shepherded towards a dilapidated van parked a few hundred yards away.
‘Of course I came, I couldn’t bear to think of you coming out on your first day without a friend,’ the woman said as they climbed into the van. ‘Had to be careful, don’t want to get you in trouble before you even get anywhere.’ Kay watched the tension in her friends face slip away as the van pulled away from the penitentiary grounds.
‘My therapist said I should avoid my old ‘associates,’ Kay sat back, and wound down the window. ‘Fuck it. Let’s hit the road,’ she said.
Dinah whooped, and put the radio on; the channel played old hits of the seventies that slipped them back in time to their recollected youth and they sang along together.
‘I wrote to the drop address I remembered,’ Kay said, ‘I didn’t really think ‘Auntie June’ would still be active after all this time.’
‘We kept the old girl going,’ Dinah winked. ‘Just in case anyone needed a safe way to contact us. When I heard on the news they were letting you out, I started checking the post office box.’
As they laboured along at forty miles an hour, Kay’s euphoria sank into exhaustion. For a little while, she rested her head back and listened to the music.
‘Is he happy that I’m out?’ she eventually asked Dinah.
‘Of course he is. He has been longing to see you, we all have. There are some new people, and they know all about you,’ Dinah said. As she spoke of him she seemed to gain energy, her face flushing like a teenager talking about her first boyfriend. ‘You can do what the beasties want for now, until we can get you home,’ Dinah was concentrating on the road, occasionally glancing across at her passenger. ‘Damn, bitch, it is so good to see you,’ she said, reaching out and gripping Kay’s hand.
Kay pulled the visor down, and bared her teeth in the mirror. ‘Well, I certainly have changed, that’s for sure,’ she said. She ran her fingers through her hair, it’s once gorgeous blondeness now dull and limp. Her eyes, always her most compelling feature, were a deep violet blue – the blue of flowers and oceans he had said when they first met –now they stared from a sallow and uncared for sixty-year-old face. She pouted into the tiny glass; lips once plump and pink were now a narrow line set in puffy jowls.
She had been invisible among the prison issue suits and the prison issue faces. Now, in the sliver of glass the years of prison food and black market pain medication were reflected back at her. Dressed in her own clothes and in the light of the sun she saw herself for the first time in years.
The pout turned into a grimace as she snapped the visor back in place.
In the late morning heat, they arrived in front of the run down halfway house. Dinah leant on her stick with one hand and linked Kay’s arm with the other as they walked up the overgrown pathway to the reception door.
‘Man, getting old is no fun,’ she said. She handed over a piece of paper with a phone number and email address on it. ‘When you can, just call or email and we will come get you.’
Kay watched the van drive off, her exhaustion and dread leaving her unable to even raise her hand in farewell.
In the quiet night she couldn’t sleep. For the first time in over twenty-five years she didn’t know what the next day would be like. The uncertainty sent her thoughts scurrying back over the past few weeks.
The hearing had been like every other; the room small and stuffy, the disinfectant and sweat smell of the prison mixed with coffee and the coal tar soap one of the board always favoured.
‘You have been a model prisoner, Carol,’ the parole board Chairman had told her. He prayed at the beginning of every meeting, and his Bible sat on the desk in front of him as he reviewed her case. He had not accepted her bids for freedom until there was almost no choice. ‘Your crime was serious, and it was only by the Grace of Our Lord that the fire did not kill anyone. However, you seem to have repented and accepted responsibility for your actions, a commendable attitude,’ he had said, as the other members of the board took notes about her that would go into her file.
Memories of the time before prison were the hardest, and she fought to avoid them. The room, though, was of the bare and cheap type that she had spent the night before her arrest in. The futility of her life seemed to be summed up in the plain walls, the empty drawers.
Her last day as Kay had started when she left the motel room and headed to the Governor’s mansion with a bag containing the things she needed to set the fire; by the end of that day she was in custody, and the most famous woman in the country.
At her trial, she had never wavered.
‘You, like the others who murdered for him, act only according to his instructions. That is the truth isn’t it?’ The prosecutor had kept her on the stand for days, trying to break her down.
‘It was my decision alone’ she said, ‘The Tribe are peaceful, he is a Saviour. I wanted to protest at the harassment we have suffered.’
With a blanket wrapped around her she dozed, travelling fitfully through her memories until the sun came through the grimy window. She needed to get to the Farm as soon as possible. The sheet of paper that Dinah had given her was propped up on the dresser and she contemplated when she should make the call that would set everything in motion.
During the drive to the Farm, she and Dinah sought the edges of their old relationship.
‘We were eighteen when we met,’ Dinah said, giving Kay a small square Polaroid from her purse. ‘Looking for something better than the boring suburbs.’
Two golden haired nearly-twins stood on a porch. They were bare breasted, their bodies pressed into the naked torso of the man standing between them. His arms rested across their shoulders, and he stared straight at the camera. He knew he had made them believe he was everything they wanted. Their faces were pressed against his neck and Dinah’s hand had snaked down the front of his low slung jeans.
It had been taken just after they had arrived. Kay traced her finger over her own face, recognising in her eyes the urgent feeling of wanting that had overtaken her. She felt a bead of desire as she remembered the sensation of her breast against the sweaty slickness of his chest.
‘We used to be hot didn’t we?’ Dinah said.
Kay looked over at her friend. Life on the Farm had aged her as much as life in prison had aged Kay. Dinah’s skin was pale and grey; wrinkles criss-crossed her papery cheeks like little origami folds. The smell from her clothes was damp and stale, and the flip flops were mouldy.
‘It meant something though, didn’t it?’ Dinah said, ‘No-one ever got that, they thought it was just about sex and drugs. But he knew what we were doing had a purpose. Man, he still knows, doesn’t he?’ she finished, with a slap on the steering wheel.
Kay stretched her neck, raising her arms and yawning. ‘It was a trip, that’s for sure,’ she said, ignoring the question.
They drove on for a while in silence. Eventually Kay spoke again. ‘The others,’ she said. Dinah’s face changed.
Her grey eyes hardened and her mouth pinched with fury. ‘They took it too far. He did not mean for them to do those dreadful things,’ she said. ‘Everything would have been fine, if they hadn’t ruined it all,’ her voice broke and tears started to come.
‘It didn’t just come of the blue though, did it…?’ Kay persisted.
Dinah shook her head, tears spilling onto her cheeks and said ‘He didn’t want any of that. Not for all those people to die.’
Kay looked away and out into the desert distance. ‘We all made our own choices,’ she said.
Dinah seemed reassured; her voice was soft again as she said ‘He is grateful for what you did. He speaks about you often, and your sacrifice.’
Kay looked straight ahead. ‘My sacrifices,’ she corrected Dinah.
The approach to the Farm was exactly the same as she remembered; bumping down the track, through the trees and turning the bend to see the collection of buildings.
The outbuildings were falling down. The wooden slats that had once been walls now stood, listing and lonely. Purposeless, without a roof to hold up. As Kay stood outside the old house, it was as if time had shifted and slipped. The past and present like the snatches of a familiar song in disarray as the needle skipped across the grooves of a record.
She looked around, pinpointing landmarks. Squinting out behind the crooked shed, she found the rocky outcrop, with the gnarly tree a few yards away. She relaxed, now she could find them. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.
‘Your old bed,’ Dinah said, as she took the cheesecloth top and dabbed at her eyes, ‘I’m an old fool, but this is the best thing to happen for a long time.’
Kay bounced on the mattress, looking up into her friend’s eyes. ‘Let me go to him, it’s time,’ she said at last.
They walked together to the very back room of the house. Once a busy kitchen, it was now dirty and neglected. Pans lay discarded on worktops and the sink was overflowing with greasy water and dirty crockery. The smell of food and milk cartons that had been left to moulder and rot seemed to cling to the walls and ragged furnishings.
The trapdoor stood open; in the past it had been hidden by rugs and a table. No need now, Kay supposed, since there hadn’t been any trouble from the Tribe for a good long time. Well, she thought, that would change soon.
As they went down the stairs, she grabbed at Dinah’s hand, ‘We were going to live down here,’ she said. ‘At the end of days, when the beasties came.’ She felt the cold and damp creep into her lungs, and her skin chilled. The smell of moist earth and the sweat of the Tribe that had suffused her dreams during the long nights in her cell was gone; a rotten, sickly stench of perished food and human decline had taken its place. Dinah didn’t seem to notice; she was urging Kay forward along the whitewashed tunnels. At the end, a door stood ajar. A glow of ruby light crept out, and a hum of music drifted from the depths of the room.
Kay traced her finger round the faded images of blonde angels and coal-eyed devils painted around the word ‘Tribe’ in the centre of the door. As she stepped in, the music stopped and a voice from the corner of the room said ’Here she is. My girl, my love,’ and she stumbled towards his outstretched hand.
‘Dinah, you can go,’ he said, ’Give us some time together.’ His voice was weak and cracked, its power to bend the group and their reality to his will faded but not entirely lost. His chest, above a pale and distended belly, heaved with the effort to breathe and he reached out to the oxygen cylinder beside him. Bald and gaunt, he held the mask to his face with thin fingers disfigured at the knuckles.
The room was as dirty as the kitchen. Incense, burning in the corner, couldn’t disguise the smell of putrid food and a decaying body. As she got closer to the bed she saw that his sweat had left dark patches on the bed sheets, and his pants were soaked with urine. She tasted the uric tang in her throat as she sank down beside him.
‘Blue like flowers and the ocean,’ he said, as he held her face, forcing her gaze to his black eyes. She tipped her head back, to release his grip.
‘Let’s celebrate,’ he said, holding up his glass. The glass, too heavy for his weak hands, tipped and the drink spilled onto his chest. ‘Welcome back, my okay girl.’
She smiled, and said, ‘Lord, I was so scared when I got here. Whenever anyone asked me anything I would say ‘Okay’. ‘Oh, Kay!’ you would say. My Tribe name,’ she shook her head, ‘It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
‘We have a lot to talk about,’ she said. She was less afraid, now she had seen him.
Later, she sat near the gnarly tree beside two small mounds hidden amongst the rocks and watched the fire she had set consume the farm. Over the years, her dreams had sent her soaring away over the desert. Drifting past the Farm towards the rocks, she had floated to the earth. Resting by the tree, she had dreamed the life she might have led without him.
As she had stood over him, she knew he didn’t believe she would do it.
‘I gave you what you wanted,’ he hissed at her, ‘You came to me. You all did what I told you to, because you wanted to. Killing those idiots, burning that mansion.’ He started to laugh, choking and hacking. ‘Retribution for the rejected; man it was beautiful!’ For all those years, right up until she closed his eyes for the last time, his delusion had held.
‘I know,’ she said to him, as she pressed the pillow over his face. ‘But you made me pay too much. Retribution is a just cause, you taught me that.’
Poor Dinah, she had screamed and begged but Kay knew she would be better off dead. She would never be able to live without him.
She had sacrificed her babies, as he had told her to. Now, she lay down beside the graves she had dug out of the earth with her bare hands. She had sneaked into the night to bury them in tiny graves marked with handmade crosses and now as she rested beside them in the freezing darkness, she felt peace at last.
Thanks to Pexels for the use of the cover image
The world of the Tribe drew a band of truth seekers into a dark and deadly place, that led to murder and arson. Kay has been in prison for twenty- five years after setting a fire to protest when her fellow Tribe members were jailed after a bloody killing spree. She reunites with her former associates and is taken back to the place where it all began. The powerful and charismatic man who directed her actions still has power despite his age and the decline of the group he commanded. And Kay must confront what happened and the impact on her life. She is back where her life changed, and she has a plan.