Bill lay awake in his bunk a long while. He pondered why he had not gotten anxious or afraid when the tough and his crew had come by. He considered where his words had come from. “No, a cop,” he had said. He hadn’t thought about it or pre-planned it. As soon as the tough had asked the question, the words had popped out from his lips.
Bill knew it was God. God had prevented him from being beaten up. Instead of being a victim, God had made him a lone wolf, an enigma that the other inmates would regard with caution and wonder. God had made him, in a strange sort of way, a super-star celebrity.
It would take him some time to realize the status he just gained. Meanwhile, no sooner had the group walked away than Bill was overcome with anxiety and fear. He got the shakes and was immediately glad he was on a top bunk so that no one could see him without actually coming up close and looking directly at him. That would have been weird for anyone to do.
The shakes stayed with him no matter what he told himself. Eventually, he had to breathe deep and calm himself with soothing thoughts and deep, controlled breathing. The thoughts he used were his regular, steadying thoughts, the ones he used to put himself to sleep on those nights when sleep was far away.
He was the number two on a huge space ship off in deep space away from earth for a long, many-year mission of exploration. He was off duty, off the bridge, on one of the lower crew decks. It was night. Actually, it was always night and so the lighting on crew decks simulated night and day. As he walked, as always in this thought, he ran into the captain. “Captain,” he said.
That was it. By this time, usually, he fell off to sleep. but not this night. This night he was painfully aware of the sounds of the forty-six men there. Those sounds were snores, farts, burps and even talking. Mostly, however, they were the harsh hacking coughs of cigarette smokers. Those coughs, this night, reminded him of his own mortality. He remembered. His mother had died from a coronary at age forty-three when he factored in the months to make the math exact. She was a heavy smoker as was his father as was he. His fate was mixed in with theirs. But he wasn’t quitting. smoking now. No way.
Several times men got up to go the commodes. In the scope of things, now, in the midst of the night, in the mostly dark of the dorm, was a good time to take a crap since there was relative privacy. Bill could actually hear the plops into the water, even a grunt or a sigh of…relief perhaps.
His sore hands did not help him fall off to sleep. In the dark, in the mostly-quiet, he was painfully aware of how much they hurt. He wondered how he would work in the morning. He wondered how much more he would rip them up. Still, he was glad he had a place to go to, glad not to be stuck in the dorm-cell all day and all night.
Eventually he slept. It was not the sleep of the dead. It was a fitful and encumbered sleep. And then it was day, all over again.