Brutal Fiction

HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.

Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…

Two Prisons

Ron Riekki

I was teaching in prison.
Already this story has started off pretty brutal – and by that I’m talking about teaching.  Nothing is more of a horror story than standing in front of a group of people who feel they already know everything.
Prisons are easy.
They call them prisons because it’s filled with sons.  I didn’t know what the pri- means.  I just looked it up.  According to the internet, the pris- part means “taken.”  Like the horrible Liam Neeson film.  The taking of sons.  Eating them.  And their bodies do look eaten.
I asked the inmates to write about fear.  They were writing boring stories.  They were writing stories that were trying to sound like boring white people who had never been in prison.  I asked them if they were boring.  No.  White?  Noyeahnohalfnoyeahnono.  Have you never been in prison?  We’re in it now.  Well, get it on the page.  They did.  The stories on fear were about having their fathers shoot at them while they were watching TV on the couch.  Or at least one of the fathers.  The bullet going through the wall.  Missing his head by – no, actually not missing his head.  The bullet actually going through his hair so that he felt it.  And another story about shooting up a church.  Why did you shoot up a church?  Because they told me I wasn’t crazy enough to do it.  And then one of the guys says he wants to rap what he wrote.  I say go ahead.  He says he needs a beat.  A dude in for kidnapping tries to do a beatbox.  It’s shit.  Says he can’t rap to that.  So someone beats on their desk.  Others join in.  Before you know it, everyone’s beating on desks.  There are no guards in the room, none in the hall.  They told me when I took the job that I could get killed if I turned my back.  I didn’t turn my back.  I started pounding on the chalkboard.  There was no chalk, just board.  He tells us not to do it so loud and we do it a bit more softly and he stands and raps about being thrown into a trunk by a drug dealer but the trunk opening up on the freeway and him in the back looking at the traffic looking at him, a family confused by the man in the trunk and it all fucking rhymed and he ended it and we clapped and stomped and they all got let out of class to go eat, but things got put on lockdown and I had to stand there in the empty room waiting for a guard to OK me to leave.
Three years later.  Another prison.  Another state.  I’m working as a nurse now.  I was a bad nursing student, barely passed.  Graduated from a bad school, not even a college.  An institute.  In a strip mall.  A mall for strippers.  Where a student got murdered in the back parking lot so there’s no longer a back parking lot.  We could only use the front parking lot.  I was working the psych ward.  I found you can find a prison job if you already have prison experience.  Be careful what you do in this life, because you just end up doing more of it.  Everything’s caught in a loop.  It was near Christmas.  Well, not near.  December.  The beginning.  The prison cold as hell, if that isn’t the worst way of putting it.  Cold as heaven.  I dunno.  It was fucking cold.  And the winter was just starting.  It would get worse and worse and worse so that they’d shiver forever, issued one blanket that looked like it was made out of ghost.  And so the prisoners started pounding on their cell walls for warmth.  All of them.  It caught on like a disease.  The pounding.  No rhythm to it.  I stayed in the nursing station so the sound would at least be muffled a bit.  The echo in the prison gave me headaches, nightly.  I worried about their hands.  They pounded like they wanted to break the glass, break their hands.  The glass meant nothing but I was responsible for their hands.  I was responsible for their hands, for their bodies.  I had to log every injury, explain them to the morning shift.  Tons of paperwork for a broken bone.  We had to prove we didn’t do it, had to prove we’d treated it, even though we had no functioning equipment, everything broken, the blood pressure cuff leaking, the thermometer stolen, the pulse ox crushed.  The pounding turned manic, every single inmate at their door, even the ones who typically never moved, the ones who’d stay curled on their cell floor day and night.  And then, at the same time, as if this was all orchestrated (and it was, by someone), they took the shivs they had hidden, had made, from room corners, from inside their belt, from a hiding spot under their shelf, and some of them began cutting their veins, arteries, chopping at their bodies with the dedication to mutilation that is prison, doing this in cells at opposite sides of the wards, so that it was impossible for me to choose who to save, the guards waking up, the guards coming to their senses and asking me what to do, and me telling them to get the nurses on the second floor down here to help, but finding out that there were even more suicide attempts happening on the second floor, so that I picked the closest cell and told the guards to secure the patient so that I could try to stop the blood flow, but they told me they needed face shields, needed gloves to protect them from the blood, and so I waited for them to get their PPE, with the arterial spurts so bad that you could see blood hitting the ceiling, just me and the howling of those who were helping the inmates who wanted to commit suicide, as if there was joy in leaving Hell.


RON RIEKKI wrote U.P.: a novel (Great Michigan Read nominated) and edited The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017).