Gripping a bouquet of peach and cream garden roses, I peeked around the hotel’s archway. Friends and family quietly filtered onto a perfectly manicured lawn, murmuring as they took their seats for the ceremony.
The sun began to set over the Pacific Ocean, fiery orange dipping into cool blue. This morning’s cloud cover had finally given way to an unblemished sky. With everything happening around us, it would’ve been easy to avoid looking at Manning, but that always had been, and always would be, impossible for me. My gaze lifted above the crowd and down the petal-scattered aisle. Manning stood under the sheer curtains of a gazebo on the edge of a cliff, his back to me as he spoke to the best man. The first time I saw Manning on that construction site, he’d been larger than life. Today, he was so much more. He commanded attention without trying. His shoulders stretched a bespoke suit, and his hands sat loosely in his pockets as if it were any other day.
He turned his head, giving me the pleasure of his profile. Strong jaw, full mouth, thick, black, recently trimmed hair. Even with the scar on his lip and the new, slight curve of his nose, he looked refined, the sum of all my dreams come to life.
Henry spoke to Manning with the air of a father figure, his hand on Manning’s shoulder. Manning just listened and rubbed his sinfully smooth jaw as he stared at the ground. Henry paused, as if waiting for an answer or acknowledgement, and his smile faded. He looked to the back of the decorated lawn, through the arches hiding the bridal party. He looked at me. Maybe Manning wasn’t as calm as I thought. Maybe he was having second thoughts.
I, on the other hand, had only one thought.
14 months earlier
With my back against a concrete wall, I stared out at the jail yard and flicked ash from my cigarette. If I could look at anything other than electric fencing, concrete, sand, and sweaty men, I would. In ten months, I’d memorized this view. California desert stretched far enough to make the mountains seem an unobtainable freedom, June heat turning the horizon into a watery mirage.
It was still better than staring at the underbelly of a top bunk. I’d be doing that later, but not for much longer. I’d gotten some good news the week before.
“You wouldn’t believe this bitch,” Wills said, clutching a handwritten letter as he paced a strip of dead grass, the bottoms of his orange pants dragging. “She’s threatening not to bring Kaya for the rest of my sentence.”
“So?” I asked through my next drag.
“Cecelia’s going to keep my baby girl from me? Fuck that.”
“She said the same thing last month. And the month before.”
“This time it’s for real. I can just tell.” He ran his hands back and forth over his buzzed scalp, crinkling the paper. “She does this just to fuck with me.”
We’d had this same conversation at least twice a month since I’d arrived. The first time my cellmate had gotten a letter and gone off the handle, I’d told him not to call his girl a bitch. That’d gotten me a riot of laughs from the guys in cells around us. The time after that, I’d asked why, if he’d cared so much about his ‘baby girl,’ he’d held up a gas station at gunpoint, knowing where it could land him?
That time, the laughter never came. “Providing for my family,” he’d said, getting in my face, his chest inflated. “Think you’re better than me, pretty boy?”
Wills was small but built. I had almost half a foot on him and most of the other guys, too. Only a few matched me in height. When I’d arrived, I’d been skinny compared to them but after ten months of lifting and a prison job in construction, I’d bulked up.
Wills’d shoved his hands into my chest, but I hadn’t budged except to raise my eyebrows. He’d backed off, raising his voice for everyone to hear. “Don’t tell me how to take care of my daughter. Respect.”
Respect. Number one rule in the yard. People my size got more passes than most, but that alone didn’t earn me respect. I had to command it. I couldn’t take any shit.
Wills used my cigarette to light his. He pointed to a spot on the page, but his hand shook so badly, I wouldn’t’ve been able to read it if I’d cared enough to try. “Right here,” he said, butt dangling from the corner of his mouth. “‘You won’t see Kaya again until she’s eighteen,’” he read aloud. “‘By then she’ll probably be two kids deep because of you, and you won’t even be there to see it.’” Wills looked up at me. “How fucked is that?”
“Fucked,” I agreed.
“Cecelia was the only woman I ever loved.” He aimed his beady eyes at me, and they flashed with excitement. “Too bad she turned out to be such a cunt.”
I wiped sweat from my temple with my sleeve. “Fuck off, Wills.”
“Aw, come on, Sutter. Don’t be such a pussy. Just once, I’d like to hear you rail against that blonde bitch of yours.”
I had to let his shit-talking roll off my back or it’d get me into trouble, and now that I could almost taste freedom, I had to watch my temper. Instead of beating his ass, I got him where it hurt by ripping the cigarette out of his hand and flicking it into the dirt.
He scrambled after it, popping it right back into his mouth. “Asshole.”
The guys talked a lot of shit about who they’d fucked, how, and the ways they’d been fucked over by the women in their lives, and no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, my mind always went to the same place—my sister, my aunt, my mom. Lake and Tiffany. I never spoke of them in there. The guys could be brutal. Sinister. Especially from where they stood, behind bars, already ensnared by the law.
I took my last hit of nicotine right on schedule and tossed the butt. With the hem of my shirt, I cleaned my face of dust and sweat as I went to sit outside the visitor’s room.
I waited thirty minutes to hear my name. “Sutter,” CO Jameson called. “Your blonde’s here.”
I’d stopped keeping track of time, but I always knew the first and last Friday of each month thanks to “my blonde.” Not only had she scheduled work to have those days off, but she drove three hours each way to be here, and that was about as much as anyone had done for me lately. Maybe since I’d left my aunt’s at eighteen.
When I entered the visiting room, Tiffany stood from a bench and smoothed her hands over a short, plaid skirt. I wove through the tables to her and bent for a quick kiss.
She put her arms around my neck. “How are you?” she asked in my ear.
As we hugged, her short top rode up a little to expose her lower back. I pulled away so my mind wouldn’t go where it shouldn’t and took the seat across from her. “Did Grimes call you?”
“Two more months.” She slid a few bags of M&M’s from the vending machine across the table and kept one for herself. “I can’t believe he was right. Are you relieved?”
When my public defender had presented my plea bargain, he’d said I was likely to get out early for good behavior. I’d been skeptical, but it turned out I’d only have to serve half of my two-year sentence. Overcrowding helped moved the process along. There were men shoulder-to-shoulder at every cafeteria table. Out in the yard while we worked, someone was always shoveling or pouring concrete nearby. If I wasn’t careful, they’d forklift my ass. To shower, I waited in line forty minutes to stand under a spigot for sixty seconds. Our cells were close enough to hear guys spanking it. That’d all work in my favor, though, as long as I kept to myself the next couple months.
“I won’t be relieved until I’m breathing air outside this shithole,” I said.
The air conditioner hummed to life. I’d’ve been grateful if it actually cooled the room a few degrees, but it just added another layer of noise to everyone’s conversations. “Did everything go okay with the new guy they put in your cell?” she asked.
That depended on her definition of okay. Considering she wasn’t locked up in here, it was likely different than mine. “It’s fine.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t believe you. Did someone figure out he was, you know . . .” She lowered her voice. “A snitch?”
Wills and I had been assigned a new cellmate last month. Once it got out he’d ratted on a rival gang member for a lesser sentence, it hadn’t taken long for word to spread to the wrong people. “They put it together last week,” I said. “Wasn’t any chance they wouldn’t.”
“And nothing.” I didn’t see any point in worrying her.
She put an M&M in her mouth, chewing absentmindedly, then sat up a little straighter, as if she’d come to a decision about something. “Did they beat him up?”
“Well . . . yeah.”
“How bad? You can tell me. You don’t have to protect me like you would some girls.”
Far as I knew, none of the guys in here were worried about scarring their girlfriends. Tiffany wasn’t exactly innocent, but she’d lived a pretty sheltered life. I rubbed my jaw. “Pretty bad.”
“Were you there?”
I shifted in my seat. I’d been working across the yard but close enough to see it go down. If I could’ve intervened, I would’ve, but from day one I’d had a plan, and that was to keep my head down and stay out of trouble.
An inmate a few tables away grabbed his kid’s arm. I glanced at CO Jameson, who was already heading over.
“What happened?” Tiffany asked, sneaking glances as the female guard handled a man twice her size. She escorted him out more nicely than I would’ve. “You can tell me, Manning. You should talk about it. It’s not healthy to keep it inside.”
I didn’t know about all that, but truth was, watching a defenseless man get the shit beat out of him had stuck with me. A man I’d talked to, had shared a cell with, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. “Slock,” I said. “He’s been in the infirmary a week.”
It was a common enough weapon in here. Tiffany really didn’t know shit about this place if she’d never heard the term. “Lock in a sock.”
“Like the kind I used on my high school locker?”
“Exactly.” I demonstrated winding up a sock, pausing to gauge her reaction. She worried her lip between her teeth but nodded me on. “Then you swing it,” I said. “He lost an eye.”
She sucked in a breath. “Could that happen to you?” she asked. “You’re a big guy.”
She wasn’t even going to comment on the eyeball? I almost laughed. She got points for that. I could think of a few people I’d never burden that image with, but I didn’t want to go there, so I kept talking. “Nobody’s too big to go down,” I answered. “But you don’t need to worry about me. I don’t get involved with anyone’s business. It’s not like you see in the movies. I leave them alone, they leave me alone, and if I do come up against something, I stand my ground.”
“Like that fight a few months ago? Over the M&M’s . . .”
“It wasn’t a fight, and it wasn’t about candy. That fucker stole cigarettes and orange soda from my bunk.” I kept my head down, but there were some things I couldn’t let slide. We had limited access to the commissary store—I couldn’t just replace what he’d stolen. And I couldn’t let it go. Not in here. Respect, Wills would say. So far, it was the only altercation I’d shared with Tiffany.
“You punched a guy over candy and cigarettes,” Tiffany said.
I had to smile at how ridiculous it sounded. “You make it sound like we’re a bunch of toddlers.”
Her posture relaxed a little and she laughed. “Well, then I probably shouldn’t show you what I brought. None of it’s suitable for children.” She picked up some books from the bench and stacked them on the table. “They’re from a thrift store,” she added quickly, “so don’t wig out on me. They were cheap. You like that author, right?”
I flipped through the one on top, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, grateful to have something good to read. Books were the one thing I’d even consider trading cigarettes for. “Yeah.”
“The clerk recommended the other ones. He said if you like Hunter S. Thompson to try Tom Wolfe and . . .” She checked the spine of Slaughterhouse-Five. “Kurt Vonnegut. I read a little of it. It was weird, but I remember you telling me about that cockroach book, and probably not much is weirder than that.”
This time, I did laugh, the rumble in my chest a foreign feeling. A good one. “These are perfect. But . . .” I pulled the next in the pile in front of me—a Webster’s dictionary that looked heavy enough to knock out Wills. “How the fuck did you get this in here?” I asked. “And what’s it for, protection?” I curled it like a weight, but it was surprisingly light.
“Open it, but not all the way.”
I snuck a look under the cover. The first half of the book was intact, but she’d cut a square in the center, about two-thirds of the way in, stuffed it full of loose cigarettes, then lined the rest with books of stamps. I rarely sent outgoing letters, but guys like Wills could send two a day and postage wasn’t cheap. “Tiffany.”
The air conditioner cut out. “I know, I know.”
I’d told her plenty of times not to waste her money on me. She sold clothing on commission, so her paycheck depended on her hustle, and I kept telling her to put extra money in the bank. But she did stuff like this each visit, bringing me things I could use or sell, greasing the guards, adding to my commissary account. “How much did this cost you?”
“A couple Esprit tops with my Nordstrom discount.” She lifted her hair off her neck, resettling it over her shoulders. My eyes automatically dropped to her chest. “Don’t worry about it. The guards like me.”
“Is that how you get by them in those outfits?” I asked. She dressed to the nines for every visit, from her earrings to her shoes. At first I’d asked her to stop. The guys gave me shit for it, and according to visitation regulations, she wasn’t supposed to dress sexy. Somehow, she always managed to get by with a little cleavage or leg or midriff or something.
“What’s wrong with my outfit?” she asked. “You don’t like it?”
“You look good.” Today, her white t-shirt was tight enough that I could see the outline of her bra. It was definitely padded, her tits big and round, inviting my hands to curve around them, my cock to slide between them. I licked my lips. “Too good.”
“Well, I won’t apologize for that.”
The clock behind my head ticked on, a reminder that time was limited. I forced my eyes back to the contraband in front of me. Nothing killed the threat of a boner like a musty dictionary. “You know you can bring stamps in, right?” I teased her. “Don’t need to get all cagey about it.”
“It’s more fun this way. Speaking of fun.” She slipped a Playboy from the bottom of the pile. I was one of the lucky bastards whose girlfriend brought him porn and probably the only guy who didn’t care about it.
I took the magazine. A naked blonde I recognized from MTV looked back at me from the cover. Her knowing blue eyes and smile-smirk were familiar. “She looks a little like you,” I said. “Maybe in a few years.”
She vaulted forward to see better as I checked for the centerfold. “Jenny McCarthy?” she asked. “I think her boobs are fake. Do you like that?”
“No.” I closed it. “Thanks, but I told you, I don’t read these.”
“And I told you, I don’t believe you. But if that’s true, just trade it for whatever you need. But,” she lowered her voice to a breathy whisper, “not before you check pages eighteen and nineteen. Don’t trade it until you do that.”
“What’ll I find on pages eighteen and nineteen?” I asked, watching her fingers twist her hair into one, big golden curl.
She smiled with her lips closed, like she had a secret, and I knew what I’d find on pages eighteen and nineteen—or more like stuck between them. The female correctional officer on duty, Jameson, was all right, so I peeked inside at two Polaroids of Tiffany in black lingerie. As I followed the line of her curves, my balls tightened. This, the possibility of one day having it, got me off way more than glossy chicks I didn’t know. “Who took these?”
“Sarah. She did it for her boyfriend, too.”
“You know CO Ludwig might ‘confiscate these,’” I said. He’d cleaned me out of cigarettes, porno, and chewing tobacco during the last shakedown, and that fucker would delight in violating any inmate by taking his girl’s photos.
“So you’ll have them until he does.” She shrugged. “He’s pathetic. That fat idiot has to take them because unlike you, he has nobody to give him any.”
I didn’t like the idea of it, but Tiffany took it in stride. She knew how little control I had in here. I didn’t know many girls who wouldn’t freak out about a “fat idiot” drooling over their photo. Behind the Polaroids, she’d folded up a page torn from a magazine. I opened it. Tiffany smiled brightly on the page in khakis and a navy polo, her arms crossed as she leaned her shoulder against a man wearing the same outfit.
“My second catalogue,” she said. “It’s for this company that sells uniforms. I know the clothing is hideous, but I wanted you to see—”
“I don’t care what you’re wearing.” I smoothed out the creases. “You look happy. Even prettier than Jenny what’s-her-name.”
She nudged my leg with her foot. “Thank you.”
“Any more news from that agent lady?”
Her blue eyes lit up. “I have a go-see for a swimsuit company this weekend. My agent thinks I’ll get it. They’re looking for a beach babe.”
“You’re a beach babe if I ever saw one.”
“I need this job, Manning. I can’t wait to quit Nordstrom. My manager has been so obnoxious this week. She made me vacuum the fitting rooms twice in one day. As if anyone could tell the difference.”
Outside this space, I would’ve stopped her there. I couldn’t fake interest in overpriced clothing, the women Tiffany constantly had to compliment, or sales floor brawls over commission. But my life was about routines now, and this was part of ours. Hearing about her day-to-day life, it wasn’t much, but it was something I looked forward to anyway.
Tiffany’d gotten a modeling agent after I’d been locked up, and almost right away, she’d been in a catalogue. Paid pretty well, too, though she’d blown most of the money already. “It’s just temporary,” I reminded her.
“I know. I’ll feel better after I pick up my paycheck.” She put her hands in her lap. “Which is something I wanted to talk about. I’ve been thinking.”
“Yeah?” I sat back in my seat. “What about?”
“I’ve been saving a little each pay period like you said.”
Before this, I’d been pretty good about setting extra money aside. It was all gone now, mostly on fines and restitution, but I’d been going over savings accounts and compound interest with Tiffany during our visits. Apparently, her dad had tried and given up, but I figured she had to see the light sooner or later. Maybe she finally had. “Good,” I said.
“And, well, things have been really tense at home, so I might . . . I might try to get my own place.”
“Can you afford the rent?”
“I can if I cut back shopping at the store. I just save so much with the discount.”
“Not more than you’d save if you didn’t buy anything,” I pointed out.
She considered that a second. “I never thought of it that way. Anyway, what do you think? About the apartment?”
As long as Tiffany lived at home, she’d be under her dad’s thumb. I didn’t see how that had helped her up to this point. “I like the idea.”
“Really?” she asked. “My dad says I can’t afford it.”
“Well, that’s because he hasn’t seen you try. Prove him wrong. Get a roommate if you need to. Move inland. Stop eating out. You can do it if you set your mind to it.”
“You really think so? Because I’ve looked into it, and I do think I can do it, but when he said that, I started to doubt myself.”
“I know you can make it happen,” I said. “You just have to stay focused.”
“Okay. I will.” Her smile fell into a frown when she checked the clock over my head. “I have to go in a minute. If I don’t run the errands Mom gave me for tonight, I’ll be dead meat.”
“What’s tonight?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s . . .” She glanced away.
She always looked left when she was exaggerating or stretching the truth. Wherever she had to be tonight, she didn’t want to tell me. I couldn’t think of any reason why that might be except one—another guy. We’d never really made things official, her and I—she called me her boyfriend, but I suspected she hadn’t gone almost a year waiting for me. Nor did I expect her to. We’d never slept together, so it seemed like a fair arrangement.
Tiffany came around more often than anyone. Every couple months, Henry, the officer who’d looked out for me after Maddy’s death, drove my aunt almost four hours to Blythe for a visit, but they couldn’t make it out as much as they wanted to.
Tiff was consistent and affectionate, reminding me she cared, touching me the way nobody had in almost a year. I wouldn’t be happy to hear she was seeing another guy tonight, but I wouldn’t make her talk about it. I opened my hand across the table, and she put hers in it. “You don’t have to tell me. But everything’s all right?”
“I’m just stressed with work and my dad and hearing about USC nonstop—it’s her birthday. That’s why I can’t stay long. Mom ordered this fancy cake, and I have to go pick it up.”
I tensed. Tiffany hadn’t even said her name, but I knew. It was an interruption to our routine. Tiffany rarely brought up her sister, and when she did, I shut down the conversation. I wanted to know everything, but Lake belonged outside these dismal walls, away from this dusty town off the freeway, and far from my mind. So I knew nothing. I never asked about her, and except in moments of extreme weakness, never thought about her, either. Just the mention of her felt like a sucker punch. “It’s today?” I asked. “Her birthday?”
“As if every other day isn’t about Lake, now we have to throw her a stupid party.” She fidgeted with one of the paperbacks’ creased covers, folding up the corner. “It’s obnoxious.”
“What’s the date today?” I asked her.
“Why do you care?”
I took a breath. “Never mind.”
Ten months. That was how long I’d gone without a fix. Lake’s letters came every couple weeks. I’d opened the first one, but that was it. I’d known right then that if I was going to make it through this, I couldn’t think of her. Couldn’t be inside her head that way, and she definitely couldn’t be inside mine.
A year from today, she’d be eighteen, but that didn’t matter anymore, not when I’d turned into this. Standing in that courtroom last August, hearing Lake’s voice in the same moment I was falsely charged with burglary, I’d turned and seen something no man ever should. One way or another, the pain and confusion on her face all led back to me. I’d exposed her to this life and chipped away some of her innocence, and I’d never forgive myself for it. I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.
I hoped that Lake never thought of me, never worried about me. That I was far from her mind. At the same time, it killed me that I might be.
Fuck. She didn’t belong in here. I pushed thoughts of Lake out of my mind and focused on Tiffany. She’d been loyal and deserved my attention. Not only for sticking by me, but for stepping up when I’d needed her. After my sentencing, Tiffany had taken my lease to Dexter Grimes, who’d told her there was no way to break it without a fee. She’d set her mind to it anyway and had convinced the landlord to reduce it. All I’d lost was a couple hundred bucks and last-month’s rent. Then, she’d sold my furniture and car. Part of that money went to student loans that hadn’t amounted to anything, and the rest went to the victim or my commissary.
My chest tightened just thinking about. Having Lake on my mind again, I already needed another cigarette. If I could smoke two at a time, I probably would. Nothing brought me pure pleasure like smoking. Tiff’s visits were a highlight of my stay. Cigarettes, though, they made life in here worth living.
I turned in my seat to check the clock. Ten more minutes.
I started when Tiffany touched the back of my neck, her finger slipping down my skin, under the edge of my collar. “Is this new?”
“Young lady,” a voice came over the intercom. Ludwig. I hadn’t even seen him come in. “You want to touch a man in this room, go right ahead—just make sure he ain’t in orange. First and final warning.”
Tiffany took her hand back as I sat forward again. Ludwig was the only man in the room not wearing prison scrubs. “Don’t do that,” I said under my breath. “They’ll restrict us to non-contact visits.”
“Sorry. What is it?”
I rubbed the back of my neck, the hairs on end where her fingers had been. “Tattoo.”
“But of what? All I saw was a thin line.”
I wasn’t sure how she’d seen anything at all. It was simple, black tracings on the back of my right shoulder. “It’s nothing. Dumb. One of the lifers used to be a tattoo artist and I was bored.”
The ghost of her fingers lingered. It felt good to be touched. Tiffany wasn’t scared, didn’t hesitate, just reached out and did it. As if it were normal.
As if I wasn’t a convicted felon.
“Don’t go getting my name in ink or anything,” she said, smiling a little. “A friend of mine’s boyfriend did that inside. Now they’re broken up.”
“You breaking up with me?” I asked.
“Who of your friends has a boyfriend inside?”
“You don’t know her. Anyway, he’s out now.”
“Time’s up,” Jameson called.
Tiffany stood, tugging down her skirt in a way that was almost cute, a little self-conscious. To me, Tiffany and Lake were complete opposites, but they looked alike to the rest of the world. Sometimes, I’d catch glimpses of Lake in her sister. An expression she’d made before, a gesture, the way she pronounced a word. Blonde hair, blue eyes, smooth skin. It made forgetting Lake even harder and left me worrying about Tiffany driving up here alone, being around the facility when I was incapacitated.
“You really shouldn’t wear that stuff around here,” I told her.
“I want to look good for you.”
“Yeah, well, you look good to the other guys, too.” I stood. “They see you in that skirt and I get shit for it.”
She cocked a hip, leaning her thigh against the edge of the metal table. “Really? I heard it gives you street cred to have a hot girlfriend,” she said.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I’ve been asking around. Reading some stuff.”
Truth was, at some point, I’d started to look forward to seeing what she’d wear—it was a sweet kind of torture—but the guys baited me with it all the time. “I’ve got the best-looking girl in the joint,” I said. “They go crazy over you.”
She tucked her chin into her shoulder, her cheeks reddening. “That’s so sweet—”
“It’s not a good thing.” I shook my head. “If you heard what these guys said . . . what they called women . . . there’s nothing sweet about it.”
“You sound like my dad. He hates that I come here. He thinks it’s dangerous. I told him—it’s a prison. Everyone’s already locked up. It’s probably the safest place I could be.”
Charles was right to be concerned. They’d called Tiffany and other women lots of things. Bitch, sexy, walking pussy. It was true what I’d said—I got it worse than most because Tiffany was ten times better looking than their visitors, but that wasn’t the only reason. The guys knew it was the only thing that got to me. After Tiffany’s first visit, a few weeks after the arraignment, one of the guys had gone as far as to mimic bending her over the cafeteria table. Stressed from getting shoved into this new life, I’d flown off the handle and sent him to the infirmary. I’d almost caught more charges. Rumor had spread about how fast I’d put him down, but I’d also shown them exactly how to get to me.
Now, I kept it inside. It was counterintuitive to take a calming breath when they called her names, but it wouldn’t do anybody any good if I got myself in more trouble. I stopped giving a fuck. In here, women were bitches, even though we’d give our left nuts for a few hours alone with one. In here, justification was a rampant disease. Men killed and stole for their families. For their brothers. For their bitches. Out of respect. Or a debt to pay. Everyone was guilty of something.