Samuel slips the knife to Rex.
Wilkins rocks forward onto his toes, to get a clear look at Ben, who sits in reverence with his head dropped forward, exposing the pale smooth nape of his vulnerable neck. The air is rank with odor from damp armpits, oily hair, and decaying gums. It’s the smell of rot. When Wilkins has guard duty on Sunday mornings, he watches Ben Burne, because it makes him feel hopeful here among the human scrap meat. He is drawn to the devotion on Ben’s face, and so he doesn’t notice the jagged-edged homemade blade as it is passed from one inmate’s hand to the next, underneath the lip of the stainless steel pew.
Rex hands the knife to Heto.
This ascetic chapel with a plastic altar is populated every Sunday by lifers who, if given the chance, would slash God’s throat. They attend services as an alternative to sitting in their cells. Wilkins thinks about how no one wants to be here, no one except Ben. Ben is enraptured. He communes with the hanging wooden crucifix lost in a personal reverie: Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. The lime paint of the prison’s cinder block wall doesn’t tint Ben’s face in the same ghoulish way it colors the skin of the other inmates. Wilkins wonders if this is a sign. Yes, he thinks it is. Yes, God is trying to tell him something. He has cast the glory of His forgiveness on Ben Burne.
Ben nods his head in prayer. He has lost a lot of hair for only fifty-three years old; the penitentiary food and harsh soap are hard on the body. Ben has managed to stay muscular by lifting weights in his cell and using the window bars for chin-ups. He raises his face. Real tears swim in his eyes as he swells with piety.
Ben, with his reputation, is a celebrity here; as long as Ben is around with his superior air and his attention grabbing ways, well, it pisses off some of the others who feel just as deserving, just as tough. And they are just as tough — they just aren’t as smart. In any room, in every room, Ben is the puppet master.
Heto passes the knife to Leon.
Leon is an obelisk of a man: tall, thick, and sitting directly behind Ben. A grisly anticipation ripples through the room, knowing glances are exchanged and eyes light up, giddy with expectation. Wilkins tilts his head, sensing a palpable shift in the room. His eyes narrow; where is it coming from? He scans the pews up and down. He peers underneath at the shoes solidly on the floor. What is it? He can’t place it. At the altar, the chaplain prays fervently for each of these men’s souls. He feels some solace in knowing that at least he has saved one man. He has saved the soul of Ben Burne.
The inmates in Leon’s row shudder eagerly. Leon likes holding everyone’s attention this way. They are waiting for his move. He tenses first. Then, his jaw drops slightly open. Saliva moistens his mouth and a drop of spit forms on his canine tooth. Right next to him, the skinny hollow-eyed inmate giggles in a small sharp burst - the sound of caged madness. Leon’s fingers clench around the knife. Ready. He springs up! The chaplain looks. Leon’s knife hand juts up and then powers down toward Ben’s bare neck. Miraculously, Ben’s hand jerks up and grabs the blade. It sinks deep into his palm. He makes no sign of pain. He closes his fist around it and the two men stand in a struggle of power and will. The room erupts. They are animals sprung loose - clawing and fighting. Wilkins battles through the melee to get to Ben and Leon who are locked eye-to-eye and motionless as blood gushes from Ben’s closed fist. Wilkins is almost there when an inmate jumps him from behind reaching for his weapon. With eyes in the back of his head, Ben uses his other hand to karate chop the inmate, breaking his neck and sending him to the floor without even a scream. Wilkins regains himself, grateful to Ben, who has not taken his eyes off Leon. Wilkins pulls his gun out and shoots four rounds into the ceiling. The fighting stops at the sound of the gunshots. Other guards burst in. Wilkins moves in next to Leon where he and Ben are frozen in inert combat with the blade closed into Ben’s fist. Wilkins levels his weapon at Leon’s head.
Ben scolds, “Leon, this is a place of worship.”
Flooded with adrenaline, Wilkins rests his weapon on Leon’s temple and adds, “And I hope you’ve been praying.”
Ben turns his eyes calmly to Wilkins, “Not in God’s house.”
A tremulous silence, they all wait for Wilkins’ decision: life or death. He has the choice. He could pull the trigger and no one would care. One less animal to feed and cage. Society might shake its head, but it would be grateful to be rid of him. At this moment, with the muzzle of the gun at Leon’s temple, and with everyone waiting, the choice is his. He could take this life. He wants to take this worthless life. The muscles in his face give a little. His blood calms. Two other guards sense it and step forward grabbing Leon. They slam him to the cement floor breaking his jaw and his nose. They pull his arms behind his back and cuff him. Other guards have taken charge of the rioting rabble and order is harshly restored. Ben opens his hand. Wilkins carefully pulls the embedded knife from Ben’s palm.
“I’ll take you to the infirmary,” Wilkins says.
Ben nods, turns to leave with him, but then stops and asks the chaplain, “Father, are you all right?”
The shaken chaplain nods. He drops to his knees and says a prayer for Ben’s soul. Wilkins leads Ben out of the chapel and down the hall toward the infirmary.
Wilkins is amazed at Ben’s ability to withstand the pain and asks, “How did you do that?”
“God did that - saved us both - you and me. But evidently he has turned his attention to other things because it hurts like a motherfucker now.” These two men almost smile at each other. How strange, Wilkins thinks, to see the budding of humanity in a man with this kind of history. What was it that turned Ben Burne?
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Genre – Thriller
Rating – R
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