The Yard King
What just happened?
In the terror of the moment, I couldn’t make sense of it. Then I could.
One of the Nazi musclemen–one of the thugs who’d been with me by the free weights–was standing before me where the wolf-faced man had been. His fist was raised, a stone was gripped in it. He had stepped up behind the Islamist assassin and clubbed him in the back of the neck.
The next instant, the two men holding me were ripped away, as if they’d been caught up in a tornado or something. Some Swastika-tatooed musclemen had grabbed them too, dragged them off me. As the men fought back, more of the Islamists were running to the scene to join the fight and more of the Nazis too. Another second and hate-filled men were battling other hate-filled men back and forth across the grass. There was the crack of fists on bone. Blood flying through the air. Grunted curses and ugly names. Men down on the ground rolling over and over one another, trying to gouge one another’s eyes or clutch one another’s throats.
It all happened in a second. I stood dazed at the center of the chaos.
I thought: This is hell. It must look just like this in hell.
Now the guards in their blue shirts seemed suddenly to reappear out of nowhere. They rushed into the melee of gray uniforms, wrapping arms around prisoners’ throats to pull them apart, hammering at their heads with the edges of their walkie-talkies, kicking at them as they rolled around in the dirt and on the asphalt.
Shouting and striking out, the guards drove the Nazis and Islamists away from each other, forcing them into opposite areas of the yard.
It was all over as quickly as it began. I hardly had time to register what had happened, to compute the fact that this prison feud had saved my life. One hate group had fought off another hate group and somehow the result was that I was still standing, still alive.
Still alive–but my troubles were far from over.
Because, now, across the grass, the Yard King was coming.
That’s what they called him: The Yard King. His real name was Chuck Dunbar. He was Corrections Officer in Charge of the Prisoner Recreation Area, the chief guard of the exercise yard. He wasn’t a big man but he packed a lot of nastiness into his thick, 5 foot seven frame. He was squat and broad and had a face like the business end of a fist, all mean and knuckly. His headquarters was a place the prisoners called The Outbuilding. It was a grim, featureless cinderblock box that stood in the furthest corner of the yard. Dunbar spent most of his time in there, doing whatever it was he did. But when there was trouble–or when he wanted to start trouble–out he came. The sight of him was always bad news for someone, because the Yard King was a man who liked hurting people.
And right now, he was coming straight at me.
He barreled forward fast with his peculiar rolling walk, his lips twisted in a snarl, his fists clenched by his sides. His eyes were pale, almost colorless, but they seemed to burn as if they were lit with white flames.
Another second or two and he was standing in front of me. The rest of the guards lined up on either side of him. The Yard King glanced to his left and to his right.
“Get this con garbage back in their cells,” he growled.
Instantly, the guards started moving, started screaming at the prisoners, striking out at them and herding them toward the prison doors. The men moved sullenly, their gray shoulders hunched. They cast wicked glances at each other, muttering threats through the gaps between the guards.
I started moving too, figuring I was supposed to go back to my cell as well.
But Dunbar stepped in close to me, blocking my way.
“Not you, lowlife,” he said. He had a voice like a rake on gravel. It seemed to rattle inside his throat as it came out at me. “You’re the one who started this.”
“Me?” I blurted out. “I was just standing here. That guy tried to kill me. He had a knife. He…”
Ther Yard King hit me in the face. He used the back of his hand, snapping it fast at my cheek. My head flew back, my thoughts rattled.
“Shut up,” Dunbar said. “Don’t lie to me.”
I rubbed my bruised cheek. It didn’t seem like a good idea to answer him, so I didn’t.
Dunbar smiled, his eyes flashing. “How could anyone have a knife in the yard?” he asked me. “If someone had a knife in the yard, that would mean they’d gotten it past one of my guards. That would mean there was something wrong with the way I run this place. You think there’s something wrong with the way I run this place, punk?”
I went on rubbing my cheek. I went on not answering. But that wasn’t good enough for the Yard King.
This time, when he struck out at me, my hand was in his way, and blocked the blow. But I still felt the jar of it.
“I asked you a question, lowlife,” Dunbar said. “You think I’m not doing my job right? You want to file a complaint with the authorities?”
I tried to think of something to say. But all I could think of was the way things used to be, the life I used to have. I flashed back on how things were when I was at home. I thought of the way my parents and pastors and teachers and my karate instructor Sensei Mike would always tell me to tell the truth no matter what. It seemed like only yesterday I was back in that world, and yet it seemed like a million years ago. Back there, back home, there weren’t any guys like Chuck Dunbar–or if there were, I didn’t know them and they didn’t have complete and total control over my life. Back home, it was easy to say “Tell the truth no matter what,” when “no matter what” didn’t include a guy who would gladly break every bone in your body and never pay a price.
Still, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Dunbar smiled again, a weird, dreamy smile full of cruelty and a sick pleasure in cruelty. “Charlie West,” he said. My name sounded pretty bad when he spoke it, like the name of some kind of slimy creature you wouldn’t want to find crawling on you. “You think you’re pretty special, don’t you, Charlie West? I watch you. I know you. You think you’re something better than the rest of us.”
He hit me again, not hard, just enough to make me shut up–and shut up is exactly what I did.
“You’re nothing,” Dunbar said, his pale eyes gleaming. “You’re not even nothing. You’re a piece of garbage blowing across the yard. I’m going to teach you that, West. I’m going to make it my special mission to teach you. I’m going to make it my hobby, my pastime. From now on, the slightest thing you do, the first wrong move, the first wrong word that comes out of your mouth, I’m taking you into the Outbuilding.”
I stood up straight when I heard that, my heart clutching with fear. The Outbuilding. Every prisoner in Abingdon knew what that meant. The Outbuilding was where the Yard King took you when he wanted to teach you a lesson, when he wanted to work you over, hard, with his fists or with a club. Tucked away in the shadow of the yard wall, the building was only partially visible from one of the guard towers. Once you were inside, no one could see what was happening to you and no one would ever tell. It was the heart of the Yard King’s sadistic kingdom.
“Now I asked you a question, garbage,” he said. How could a con in this yard have a knife when I’m in charge of keeping the place safe? You think I’m not doing my job, garbage? You think I made a mistake? Answer me.”
I know: I should have answered him. I should have just lied and said no. I should have said, “No, sir. You’re doing a great job.” I should have said, “There was no knife, sir. There couldn’t have been a knife, sir. Because you don’t make mistakes, sir.”
That’s what I should have said. But somehow… as far away from home as I was… somehow I just couldn’t forget what my Mom and Dad and Sensei Mike had taught me. I couldn’t force the lie up out of my throat. It stuck there, sour and disgusting. All I could do was stand and stare into the fist-like face of this cruel, sick little man.
Dunbar grinned. “What are you waiting for, garbage? You think someone’s gonna help you? No one’s gonna help you. Not in here. In here, you’re all alone.”
I didn’t mean to talk back to him, so help me. I meant to be smart and stay quiet. But before I could stop myself, the words just sort of came out.
“I’m not alone,” I told him. “I’m never alone.”
Dunbar’s face twisted in rage. This time, when he lifted his hand, he was holding a stun gun. I saw it only for an instant, then a teeth-jarring blast of agony went through me. My brain turned to cotton. My muscles turned to rubber.
I felt myself falling and falling.