By Michael J. Moore
Woodring was chopstick-thin and kept his head shaved to the skin because his
grey hair only grew in a cul-de-sac around the sides. It was usually covered by
a tan, prison-issued ball cap tattered at the bill from age and overuse. He
wore wire-rimmed sunglasses inside and out, but we met in the summer, so I
thought nothing of it.
most part, everyone in Snohomish Correctional Complex knew one another, yet
somehow I’d never noticed him. The concrete building was over a hundred years
old, and, aesthetically, exactly what you’d picture if you’d seen too many
movies like the Shawshank Redemption.
was an outcast by choice. He was usually at the far edge of the yard, against
the cement wall that surrounded S.C.C., standing among a crowd of
undesirables—mostly transsexuals and sex offenders—but he was no punk. He first
“fell” when he was thirteen, for the murders of both of his parents. Then,
while serving juvenile life in California, he stabbed another boy over two
hundred times, was sentenced to die in prison, and sent to Washington State to
carry out that sentence.
know any of this when I met him. In fact, I probably never would’ve noticed,
let alone talked to the guy, had I not taken an interest in Japanese comics.
seemed to be in cahoots with the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) in an effort
to make the place as miserable as possible, because during the day it always
sat in just such a way that the wall wouldn’t cast an inch of shade into the
big yard. Still, most of the population spent as much time as they could
outside, shirtless, running laps, hanging from pull up bars, slapping playing
cards on stone picnic tables, telling lies—always segregated by race or
midafternoon and probably one of the hottest we’d had all summer. I was sitting
on the bleachers that only whites sat on when a bald guy named Ozone—with one
of the most well maintained beards you’d ever encounter reaching to the middle
of his chest—pointed to the far end of the yard.
see that creep standing against the wall?”
cupped my hand to my brow, squinted, and shook my head.
said, “Come on, man. Right there. The skinny little weirdo with the hat on. To
the left of the trannies.”
of barely clothed prisoners sunbathed and chased Frisbees through the grass
inside the quarter mile track like it was a day at the beach. Past that
commotion, I caught sight of a thin figure standing alone, and if I hadn’t
known any better, I would have thought he was watching us right back.
old guy? Yeah, I see him. Is he a—”
do you think, Dom?”
given name sounded alien to me, even shortened from Dominiko to Dom, because
people on the inside rarely used it. It was too Italian for the whites. That,
combined with the fact that I had high cheekbones that should have accompanied
much darker skin, hadn’t earned me any points. I always suspected that my only
saving grace was the fact that I was still in my twenties, in great shape, and
well over six feet, so nobody was eager to trade punches with me.
in three years of incarceration, I hadn’t once admitted to being fluent in my
native tongue (not even to Ozone, who was full-blooded Sicilian), and I raised
no objection when they stereotypically nicknamed me “Rocky.”
Ozone, “What about the old guy?”
said, “You know those stupid comics you like?”
know, man. The Japanese ones.”
What about ‘em?”
that’s your guy, right there.”
ya mean, ‘my guy’?”
that’s your guy. He likes that junk too. He’s got like a library of ‘em in his
cell.” His eyes narrowed and he smirked as he said, “He’s been down a long
time, too. He’ll probably let you borrow some if you give him something in
shoved him and told him to piss off, and everyone on the white bleachers had a
good laugh, but the truth was, I had already read every manga in the library
and was yearning for more.
So I waited a week,
and made sure not to stop at the bleachers, but still felt every eye set behind
white skin burning into my back as I made my way across the grass. It was green
where we sat, but burnt yellow in ugly patches where the undesirables spent
their days. The smell of skunk cabbage roasting under the sun in a nearby field
always haunted the yard in the summertime, but it was more pungent on the far
the homos and sex offenders outnumbered those of us deemed “solid” by prison
standards in S.C.C., they were a meek bunch, quicker to run from a conflict
than to defend one another. But traversing the big yard into their territory
invoked an anxiety in me that I hadn’t even experienced the night burglary
detectives slapped cold steel around my wrists, because of what it could mean
for my reputation in an environment where reputation is all you have.
heart beat against the inside of my ribcage like a helicopter blade as I weaved
through the sea of half-naked sunbathers. Bill Woodring was at his usual post,
in his hat, glasses, and a dark-green button-up T-shirt that only a masochist
would wear in the summer, staring out into space, apparently oblivious to the
intruder approaching on alien territory.
seem to notice until I waved him down from a couple meters away as a courtesy,
letting him know I wasn’t a threat. Then he nodded, and I crossed the track to
where he stood in a patch of dandelions.
examining me a moment, he said, “Yeah,” and I found myself caught off guard
because though he must have been twice my age, he spoke with the voice and
mannerisms of somebody much younger.
Rocky.” I concealed my surprise, offered my hand.
shook and an unspoken agreement was passed that only a convict would recognize.
We would be allies for the duration of this encounter.
said, “I heard you like manga.”
I think someone might have mentioned it in passing.
he told me he couldn’t remember, and we both knew it was a lie, and that I
wouldn’t press him because he had done right in not throwing another inmate
under the bus. Instead, he asked what my favorite manga was.
I said, “Well, I
just finished this one about a girl who gets in trouble for fighting, so she
transfers schools. But her teacher at the new school runs this fighting gang
and she ends up joining it and getting into all kinds a shit.”
“Fight School?” he
“Yeah! You read that
“The entire series.
Pretty tame stuff. Not too graphic. Good art, though. Have you had a chance yet
to see anymore,” he made air quotes, “‘riské stuff?”
I told him I wasn’t
sure because I had only been reading manga a year.
He said, “We can’t
get the good stuff anymore because DOC has a new censorship policy. Anything
with graphic violence or nudity, or sexual content won’t come in. One guy had a
manga denied because there was a picture of a girl in a short skirt on the
“Really. I’ve been
in a long time, man, and it just seems to get worse as the years go on. Guys
can’t even tell their wives they want to make love to them in letters anymore.
There’s some good manga available, but unfortunately, we can’t have it here.
How far did you get in the ‘Fight School’ series?”
I told him I’d just
read one book, hadn’t even known it was a series.
“Then you probably
read the one in the library. That’s Volume One. I have the rest of the series
back in my cell. You can borrow it if you want, but please don’t lend it out,
and try and keep the books in nice condition. Like don’t bend the spines or
It occurred to me
that he’d known what I wanted before I even opened my mouth, and that he’d
already made up his mind to accommodate me before he’d opened his. So I
borrowed the books—six of them—and a couple weeks later, when I’d devoured the
entire series, I stood on the far end of the yard dissecting it with him—picking
apart the plot, the character development, and the dialogue.
This is how I came
to be friends with the man who planned to murder me.
He had a wisdom
that could only be acquired through age, and probably pain. But once he
ventured out of his shell, there was a certain youthfulness to him. Most of the
time, he reminded me of a teenager, which I imagined was common among people
who’d been incarcerated since childhood.
He said he’d killed
before and gotten away with it. I didn’t believe him, of course. Even when I
learned about the boy in California, whom he’d been charged for. The prison
experience I was acquainted with was one in which you couldn’t conceal a fight,
let alone a murder. Then one day I learned how old he was, and everything I
thought I knew began to fall apart like a skeleton with no joints.
Ozone was in the
hole for a fight, and I’d distanced myself from the whites as much as possible
without being considered a dropout, and so acquired a shiny target on my back. They
didn’t approve of the friendship that had developed between Bill and I, and I
had begun to value that friendship more than the camaraderie of a prison gang.
Still, I had to stop by the bleachers to pay my respects whenever I met him in
the yard, and I would always hear how much of a muck-up I was for being his
“Uh-oh. Check it out
fellas! Rocky decided to grace us with his presence before he runs off to his
But without me ever
asking, Bill swore he wasn’t a homosexual, even after I assured him that it
wouldn’t have made a difference to me if he were. It was just assumed in prison
culture that outcasts must be at least one of two things, and it was well known
that he wasn’t a sex offender.
It was a cloudy
November afternoon and we were standing at his post in the yard discussing our
mutual love of horror movies from our childhood, when I grew curious as to how
far apart our childhoods had been. I asked what year he was born, glancing down
at the green, prison-issued ID hanging from his jacket.
“That can’t be right!”
Bill peered at me
through tinted lenses that must’ve made it difficult to see in the fall. “What
would you say, Dominiko, if I told you I was cursed?”
But his words hardly
registered, because I was trying to do the math in my head. “It says you were
born in—hold on a sec. That can’t be—”
“I was born in
“And you came to
prison when you were thirteen?”
He nodded. “I fell
“But that would make
“Quit playing, Bill.
Did they even have juvenile prisons back then?”
“Sure they did.
Where else would they put kids who kill? The one I was in was a ranch.” Using
air quotes, he said, “‘Hypothetically,’ I could’ve gotten out, too, if I hadn’t
killed that guy there.”
“I thought he was
your cellmate. You had cells at a ranch?”
“Of course we didn’t
have cells, dude. That’s just the way the gossipers twist the story. We lived
in dorms, though, so technically, we were all cellmates.” He shrugged, inviting
me to concur with his logic.
“There’s no way you’re
seventy,” I said.
“Whatever. I’ve seen
you do pull ups, run laps. You’re in better shape than half a these guys. You
gotta be what? Fifty-something?”
Bill just shook his
“Then I don’t get
He said, “Dude, I
told you. I’m cursed.”
“How the hell is
that a curse? Most people would kill to not age.”
“I don’t think you
get it, Dominiko. I can’t die. I
mean, I will someday, but it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Everyone I’ve
ever cared about does though, and I just keep living in this hell. I can’t even
kill myself. Believe me, I’ve tried—not just little cry-for-help attempts,
either. I’ve really tried, and, every time, something goes wrong. And it’s
because of the curse. I have to live this thing out.”
I was taken by an
almost overwhelming inclination to laugh, because the glitch on his ID made for
a brilliant prank. But either Bill possessed the most awe-worthy poker-face in
the big-yard, or he actually believed what he was telling me. So, instead, I
glanced once more at the date on his tag, just to insure I hadn’t spilled my
marbles somewhere on the track. Then, seeing that it clearly still announced
that he was born in 1944, and overtaken by curiosity, I invited him to
He was silent for a
long moment, as if considering a difficult decision. Then, without blinking, he
looked down at the plastic watch hugging his wrist and asked if I was going in
when they opened the gate in five minutes?
“I didn’t plan on
“Because the story
takes a while to tell.”
So I said I’d stay,
and I asked what story?
said, “The story of what really happened the day I was arrested.”
“I grew up in
Anderson,” he said. “That’s Northern California—by Mount Shasta.”
nodded, because he’d told me this before. He paused, as if he thought I might
interrupt him, then went on.
wasn’t very big back then. Neither was Redding, really, but I’ve heard it’s
grown. Anderson wasn’t much more than a few neighborhoods and dirt roads,
though, with the closest grocery store in the next town over. We lived in this
neighborhood, Fallen Cedars, but everyone just called it the new development.
They’d be like, ‘you live in the new development, right?’”
I think I’ve told you this, but you might not remember. I was an only child, so
I had to make friends with the kids on my street if I didn’t wanna be bored out
of my mind all the time. Behind the fence in our backyard there was this field
that we all played in. It was so big, you’d have thought it went on forever. I
mean it didn’t, but the grass grew so high that you couldn’t see into the
middle, let alone where it ended. Especially if you were twelve and short for
trails and forts all over. I even tongue-kissed this girl, Tina, back there.
But that same summer, Carl Bowen went door to door telling everybody his two
boys stumbled upon a hobo passed out in the middle of the afternoon, and the
whole block went bananas. You’d have thought there was a portal to hell back
there or something.
turned out, there was, but we’ll get to that. My dad and a bunch of guys from
church marched out there with rifles and lanterns that night. The transient
heard them coming and got away, but as far as I know, the only ones who were
ever allowed to play in the field again were the Shafer kids. Their dad owned
the scrapyard a couple blocks up, and he was always drunk, so they got to do
whatever they wanted.
my window overlooked the backyard, and sometimes I’d wake up and peek out into
the field, thinking I might catch the grass rustling because some hobo was
walking through it. It grew so high, that it had begun to reach over the fence,
and the moon always cast this shadow that it looked like dancing flames when it
swayed in the wind. I think the field became a bit mystical to me, and I always
kinda wanted to spot a bum so I could yell and scare him out of our
a good kid, dude. I got good grades. I kept my shirt tucked in. I never talked
during church. I even combed my hair to the side like my dad—it was dishwater
blond, believe it or not. My parents trusted me, so when I turned thirteen, I
was allowed to go into Redding with my friend, Tobias, to see movies during the
summer. You see back then, you had to have money to have a TV in your house,
and my dad worked at a tire shop, so we weren’t rich.
good thing is that it only cost sixty-two cents to get into the cinema, and
sometimes you’d even get two movies. So Toby and I would mow lawns till we had
a buck-fifty between us and then ride our bikes to the Redding Theater.
one week, they were doing a double feature of Body Snatchers and Tarantula.
My dad had weekends off, and my mom must’ve put him in a good mood, because he
offered to pay me for a chore. Ha! My dad never paid me to work around the
house. I was lucky to get a second serving of meatloaf sometimes.
there were these blackberry bushes growing in the field, and they were pressing
up against the outside of our fence. He said he’d give me a whole dollar to
root them out, and I could do that in half the time it took to mow a lawn, so
what do you think I did?”
The gate opened,
and the yard began to clear out as people made their ways into the living
“Hold on. The sticker bushes were growing on the other side of the fence?”
glanced at me curiously, then said, “Yeah.”
Well the field was on the other side of the fence.”
thought your parents didn’t let you go into the field.”
man. They didn’t let me play in the field. This was work. And to tell you the
truth, if I hadn’t agreed, he probably would’ve made me do it anyway, for free.
said, ‘yes, sir’, and got a pair of hedge trimmers and a shovel from the
toolshed. I spotted a trail leading into the field on my way out, but it was
too hot to even think straight. I mean Anderson got up to a hundred and fifteen
sometimes, and this was one of those days.
wearing these tan, leather work gloves and my hands were all sweaty and
slipping around inside of them before I even started. The bushes were thicker
than I remembered, but then again it had been a year since I’d been back there,
so who knows?
here I was, looking at this mess of tangled thorns, and thinking about eating a
couple blackberries when I finally turned around and did a double take, because
that trail shouldn’t have been there.
the ones we’d made led to places we could’ve entered into the field, not right
up to someone’s fence. Plus, ours would’ve been overgrown already, and this one
was freshly blazed. The grass was flattened in a line that was about two feet
first I thought it must’ve been the Shafer kids, spying on our house, but the
trail was just too perfect. I mean it was geometrical. You could only see a few
feet, because it went in at an angle, then just curved around like the letter
C. And the grass on either side seemed to form these flat surfaces—kinda like
walls. You know the way crop circles look?”
said, “Anyway, what do you think I did? Of course, like a thirteen-year-old
dingdong, I dropped my gloves and tools and headed in.”
“The trail just
kept going and going and it curved the whole way. It only took a minute for me
to realize I was walking a spiral, right into the middle of the field. That
should’ve been my first indication that something was way off, right? But my
curiosity was piqued, I guess like yours, in wanting to hear this story. So I
kept on, until finally I reached what I’d already figured out I was gonna find
in the center.
this perfectly circular clearing—about ten feet from one side to the other.
What I hadn’t expected, was the man lying on his side, passed out, with a dark
green wine bottle next to his face.
wearing a pair of dirty blue jeans, and a long-sleeved work shirt, the same
color as my dad’s fire-engine-red pickup, and he was facing away from me, so
all I could see was a shaved head. At first I thought he had dark skin—which
wasn’t a favorable thing to have in Anderson—but it became apparent pretty
quick that he was as white as me, only every inch of his head was covered in
tattoos. You gotta understand, in nineteen-fifty-seven nobody did that, so this
guy looked like some kind of a circus freak.
played this scenario out in my imagination a hundred times, and it always
consisted of me being some kind of hero, chasing the transient out of our
neighborhood. But now that I had my opportunity, my hands were shaking and my
heart was beating like a drummer boy doing the paradiddle. So what did I do? I
turned back the way I came, ready to run home and tell my dad to get his rifle.
the trail was gone. I know how crazy this sounds, but it really was gone. I
scanned every inch of that circle for an opening, and there was nothing. Just
me and the hobo. I had to just cut through the grass. The problem was, I’d
walked in circles and now I had no clue which way my house was.
the ground rustled behind me, and I turned and saw the hobo sitting upright,
yawning and stretching his arms. His face was covered in tattoos, just like his
head. They looked like scales—like a fish or something. His mouth was wide
open, and I got this perfect view of his teeth and I just froze up like a
statue because every one of them was pointed like they’d been filed at the
finished yawning, rubbed his eyes, and looked into mine, and even under the
blinding California sun, I saw that his were glowing red. I screamed so loud
that my own ears rang and I prayed to the Lord that my dad would hear. But my
feet still wouldn’t move. All I could do was stand there and tremble like a wet
dog, until tears started pouring down my face.
hobo stood up as casually as if he’d been expecting me and undressed till he
was standing there completely nude. Every inch of him was covered in those
crazy scale tattoos, and there was no hair on his body. He picked up the wine
bottle, and looked at it closely. But it was empty, so he tossed it into the
field, walked over and looked down at me. I screamed again and finally turned
to run, but he caught me around my waist with one arm, lifted me into the air
and carried me to the center of the circle.
said, ‘Seriously? Come on, kid. Cut it out already.’
couldn’t stop kicking and screaming because I knew for sure he was gonna rape
and kill me. He pinned me on my back and straddled my waist and I saw that he
had claws instead of fingernails. They looked like a dog’s, only bigger. He put
both of his hands over my mouth and said, ‘Relax, man. I don’t eat the flesh of
little boys,” and to this day, I’ve never known fear like I felt in that
moment. There was nothing unusual about his voice—I mean, he sounded like any
other guy—and somehow that made him even scarier.
he said, ‘But you know you can’t just wander into a spider’s web, and back out.
If you’re here, there’s a reason, and I am hungry. I think I’ll have a
go at your soul.’
tongue shot out, and it was forked like a snake’s tongue. I closed my eyes as
tight as I could and screamed though my nose and kicked and kicked and pressed
on his face, trying to get him off of me, but he was too strong. He kept one
hand over my mouth, but used the other to pry one of my eyes open with the claw
on his thumb. Then he licked my eyeball and came back up coughing and hacking.
glared down at me disgusted and said, ‘Ugh! I should’ve known. They keep
sending me these—ugh!”
dragged a claw over the skin on my neck and made a tiny cut. Then he leaned
down, sniffed it, and nodded.
said, ‘Calm down, man. Turns out, your soul’s rotten anyway. Well—technically,
the decay’s in your blood…I mean, your bloodline. What I’m trying to say is,
you’re defective, kid. Not to have to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re
gonna get sick when you’re older: a skin condition, that’ll start on your foot,
then infect your bloodstream and poison your organs. You’ll die before you’re
thirty. Damn, that’s a bummer. Sorry about your luck, man.’
“Then, like he’d just said it was gonna rain
next week, he
took his hand off of my mouth, stood, and got dressed. And me? I just sat up
and thought about what he’d said, because somehow I knew it was true.
my face, and asked who he was? He looked at me like that was real funny and
just shook his head. He said, ‘You don’t wanna die, do you?’
him, ‘No, sir,’—
he laughed and said, ‘Kid, don’t call me sir. It doesn’t really jive with my
personality. Tell you what, you seem nice enough, and it’s kinda my job anyway,
so I’ll make you a deal.’
reached into his breast-pocket, found a hand-rolled cigarette, and lit it with
a match. He asked if I smoked. I shook my head, so he said, ‘What’s your name,
said, ‘Billy,’ and he pointed his cigarette at me.
Listen Billy, here’s what I’m gonna do for you—that is, if you want it. I’m
gonna let you live a long time—more than a hundred years. I can do that,
because sickness and death are kinda my thing. All you gotta do is say you
wanna make a deal with me. How’s that sound?’
even at thirteen, I wasn’t stupid, so I asked what was in it for him?
said, ‘You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you? Listen, man, I’m a pretty
easygoing fella. It doesn’t take much to appease me. All I want is for people
to know I’m alive and well. Guys like you, well, you’re something of a
billboard, you know? I help you out, and you tell people what I did for you. It’s
a win-win, get it? You can even keep your filthy soul. Yuk! Would’ve had the
squirts for a week off that thing, anyway. So what’d ya say? Wanna make a deal,
asked if that was really all he wanted, and he said, ‘Of course. That and a
small sacrifice. You know, just a token of good faith to prove you’re serious
about doing business. It’s gotta be important to you, but don’t worry about
that part. I’ll figure something out.’
he was in kind of a rush and I needed to make a decision. So I told him I’d
make a deal, and we shook on it. Then, like it had all been a dream, I was
standing in front of the sticker bushes again with work gloves over my hands
and a shovel and a set of trimmers hanging at my sides.
hobo was gone, and so was the trail, but I could smell cigarette smoke and the
cut on my neck still stung. Then I heard three gunshots come from inside of my
house. I ran around the bushes and hopped the fence, and what d’ya think I
found inside, Dominiko?”
I said. “Your folks.”
were my sacrifice. They were both dead in the kitchen. My father’s revolver lay
between them in a puddle of blood. So I threw off the gloves, picked up the
gun, and ran back out, firing shots into the field, even though I knew there
was no way the hobo was still there. I think you can pretty much piece together
The yard was almost
deserted now, and the grey clouds seemed to have grown thicker. A gust of wind
made my eyes water, as Bill finished his story.
convicted for both of my parents and sentenced to double juvenile life, run
concurrently. ‘Technically,’ I could’ve gotten out in a few years if it hadn’t
been for the guy I stabbed at the ranch.
I’ve gotten close to since then has died for some reason or another. I guess
that’s part of the curse. Or—” he made air quotes again, “‘the deal.’ So I don’t
make friends anymore, except for one very specific purpose, which you might not
like when I tell you, but I can only hope you’ll believe me.
cancer appeared on my foot when I was in my twenties. Then, I told this story
to a cellmate and it went away. At least that’s what I thought, till I learned
he had it instead. Not long after, it spread to his other organs and he died.
Then, it came back to me until I told the story again. Apparently, that’s to
ensure I hold up my end of the bargain, and tell of what the hobo did for me.
tried to let the cancer kill me once, but like I said, I couldn’t die. I was
bedridden for years in the medical wing, till finally I broke down and told the
story to this real pretty nurse who used to stop and talk to me for hours on
the years, I’ve learned that merely telling it isn’t enough. I need whoever
hears to actually believe. And even I know how unbelievable it is. I have to
earn their trust first, make them my friend, and, frankly, Dominiko, I wouldn’t
do that to people I actually like.”
He glanced out over the field, where a group of undesirables were sitting in a
circle, playing some variation of D and D.
these supposed ‘convicts’ call each other ‘solid’ and they deem everyone who
doesn’t wanna join a gang, an ‘undesirable.’ It makes me sick. It always has.
Those undesirables are my people. I can’t be their friend, or they’ll die, but
there is something I can do for them. I can choose the most tolerable of the
people who mistreat them, and make him my friend for a while. I can tell him my
story. It’s worth it, because it gets rid of the cancer and I get to kill
people I don’t like, and get away with it.”
that, we shared a laugh, even though laughing was the last thing I felt like doing.
We both pretended he’d just made some kind of a sick joke. We talked about
which manga I wanted to borrow next, and when they opened the gate again, I
went inside for a shower.
peeled off my socks, I spotted a red patch on my right foot. I tried to tell
myself it was nothing, that my shoes had just irritated the skin somehow. I
even prayed silently for just a shred of doubt, so I didn’t have to believe
Bill’s story. But in the past three months we’d developed a deep friendship,
and I trusted him not to lie to me.
Michael J. Moore, email@example.com,
who wrote BP #90’s “1957,” lives with his wife, author Cait Moore, in Seattle, Washington.
His books include the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the
Change, and his soon
to be published novel, Highway Twenty. His work has appeared in Blood Moon
Rising Magazine, Horrorzine Magazine, Minutes
Before Six, Schlock Magazine,
and Rainfall Books. Horror Tree –
Trembling with Fear has
been adapted for theater and produced in the Seattle area by various
organizations, is used as curriculum at the University of Washington, and has
received an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future
contest. Follow him at www.facebook.com/michaeljmoorewriting