Twisted Mercy (Red Team #4) 


Ten years ago

Colorado’s Callum Penitentiary

Special Housing Unit

Max watched the thin puddle of sewage twitch beneath the edge of his cell door. Like a wave, it advanced and retreated, powered not by the moon but by the rage of the other animals. They’d flooded their toilets, spilling the contents through their cells. It seeped out into the hallway and into the other cells.

He stared at it without blinking. The stink burned his nose. It was the only thing that ever changed in his six-by-nine foot box. He couldn’t look away.

He’d known the tide was coming tonight. The animals had been screaming and shouting and clanging more than usual. He usually played along, flooding his cell too. Why not? He was never getting out of his box. It was the only way he could rebel, the only thing he could control.

It didn’t take the guards long to discover the flood. They added their roars to those of the animals until the volume in and out of his cell rose to a deafening level. The animals were charging their doors, slamming their bodies against the steel.

One of the guards opened the window in Max’s door, then he opened the bean-port. It wasn’t mealtime, so Max didn’t know what shit he was up to.

“Hey, Mad Dog, got some news for you.” Max didn’t get up, didn’t react. He was numb to the taunts. “I’m fucking talking to you, boy.”

The guard tossed a letter inside Max’s cell. It fell next to the piss puddle. “That’s the last letter you’re ever going to get. Know why? There ain’t no one left to write you. Your momma died last week. Come over here and cry me a river.”

Max watched the puddle lick at the edge of the envelope. He ignored the guard. There was nothing more they could do to him, nothing else they could take from him. He had no clothes but his white boxers. No sheets. No mattress. No peace from the screams and wailing and metal clanging of the other caged animals. They weren’t human anymore.

Nor was he.

The light in his cell was never turned off, so even when his eyes were closed, he saw the shiny gray walls, floor, and ceiling. They’d taken his days and nights. He didn’t know what sunlight looked like; he had no window and hadn’t been out of his cell in a month. He hadn’t been outside in a year. Color had become a figment of his imagination, like all of the outside world. He tried to remember it, but it was more abstract than real.

In the world where humans lived, the sky was blue, the clouds were white, and the sun was yellow and warm. 

It was a legend. A fairytale. It was not real. Maybe it had never been real.

He watched the water reach for the envelope. It would pull it into its wet stink, take it as it moved farther down the hall.

“C’mon, Mad Dog. I was saving the letter for your birthday last week, but I forgot about it. And then I went on vacation. Didn’t get back until tonight.” The guard banged his nightstick on the bean-port, then laughed and walked away.

The puddle had consumed half the envelope. Last week was his birthday? For real, or was the guard just fucking with him?

Max lunged to his feet and grabbed the piss-soaked envelope. It had his mom’s return address. It had already been opened, as all of them were.

“My Son—” it started and ended “—you.” Everything in between was lost, morphed into a blue wash by the puddle. Max dropped to his knees. The stink pooled around him, cold on his cold skin.

There was another document in the envelope, a copy of a death certificate. His mom’s. The guard had added it to her envelope—it was folded too large to fit. The puddle hadn’t erased any of these words. Not even the ones that needed softening.

“Cause of Death: Suicide.”

She’d been dependent on painkillers for years. Even before his world went to hell.

His sister had written him, once. She’d mentioned how she was caring for their mom, learning to cook, moving Mom to the chair by the window before she went to school. She said he’d be proud of her, doing all the chores.

He was proud of her. If he hadn’t done what he’d done, he would have been there to help her. He’d have been there to stop her from going to that party. Or if she’d sneaked out and went anyway, he’d could have been the one to drive her home. She’d never have gotten in her car drunk if he’d been there.

Max didn’t have the strength to hold the paper any longer. He lowered his hand, surrendering the paper to the puddle. It sank into the shallow pool, then became weightless and shimmied away. He watched it disappear.

The guards were shouting at the others to settle down. As if words could stop the animals from trying to be humans.

He dug his fingernail into the soft flesh of his inner arm and felt pain rush through him. Like a drug, it made him dizzy. He was glad he could still feel. Animals couldn’t feel, could they?

He’d lost three members of his family in the five years he’d been locked up. His whole fucking family. His father first from shame. His sister from a night of rebellion. And now his mom. From a broken heart.

He dug his fingernail deeper into his arm. It hurt so good. He etched away at the skin, carving a thick horizontal line. As long as it hurt, he was human. Too soon, the line ended. The pain started to fade. He panicked.

What if the gray he lived in, the gray that was in his eyes when he was awake and asleep, the gray that was eating his mind, made him forget them? Already, he couldn’t remember their faces.

There was only one way he knew he would never forget them. He had to make a line for each of his family members.

The pain was intense. He stared at the bright red color that seeped down his arm and dripped into the puddle. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The gray hadn’t taken his blood yet. He bled red; he felt pain. He was alive, still.

The gray hadn’t won. Yet.

He was never going to get out of the box he was in. These lines, they would scar. When he could no longer see, when he could no longer think, he could still touch them. And remember.

He’d once had a thing called a heart.


(C) Elaine Levine  TWISTED MERCY (Red Team Book 4)