Once a Convict

Flash of painful light, like staring into the sun on a cloudless day.

They could call it freedom if they wanted to, but the truth of the matter was that they wouldn’t be undoing Pony’s cuffs until he had made his way through the gauntlet of barbed fencing and razor wire to the last guard shack on the perimeter fence. Even a guy on parole was trusted no more or less than a lifer with a bad attitude and a sharpened toothbrush. He was a criminal, from the moment he stepped onto the grounds of the Turner Correctional Facility to the moment he stepped off. A piece of paper wasn’t going to change the way he was perceived. He imagined nothing ever would, at least not to the guards and the warden and the eight hundred other pieces of shit that he’d had to live with for the last fifteen years.

He had to walk alone for that last fifty yards, a great expanse of nothing cloistered on both sides by sharp metal, just wide enough for a man his size to tread lightly, to do everything in his power to avoid giving the ex-Marines in the guard tower a reason to put a bullet through his neck. The heat didn’t help, not that the classic Texas summer was good for anything except drought and the boiling of men’s blood. The sun hung alone in a clear sky and Pony lifted a squinting eye at it. Somehow, it felt different. Being that it was the same sun that had shone down on him throughout his term behind bars, he was confused by the sensation and idea that maybe things had changed simply by walking out that door. On this side of the wall, the sun felt like an old friend met after too long apart. He turned his whole face to it, closed his eyes, and watched his vision go red. Not even his eyelids could stop the penetrating rays.

That was the sun for you, he thought. Same as ever. He smiled at his renewed acquaintance as he approached the guard shack, blinded again by the glare coming off the plexiglass.

“Hands,” said the guard, in that same condescending sneer so prevalent among the prison’s staff. Here was a man that was supposed to be welcoming Pony back into the real world and all he could do with the opportunity was make one last effort to exert the dominance of his position. Luckily for him, he was protected behind the bulletproof plexi; if anyone were going to shoot him in retaliation for his smug expression, it would have to be through the four-inch gap at the bottom.

Pony obliged the guard and stuck his hands through the small window. He leaned forward as he did so and was able to read the man’s nametag.

“You are no longer in the custody of the State of Texas,” said Guard Kendrell. A gleam appeared in his eyes, a look that told Pony he wasn’t just making idle conversation. “Now don’t you fuck it up, boy.”

For a split-second of adopted behavior, Pony thought about spitting at the guard, making a nice slobbery line down his precious window. At the same time, he saw the final gate swing open out of the corner of his eye and the urge to fight back suddenly drained out of him. It was devastatingly clear that prison time was over. There would be no more fighting with the guards or the inmates. No more uncertain showers and frightful walks amongst the blunt weightlifting equipment in the exercise yard. The routine of fear and violence had come to an end and for the first time in forever, Pony felt good about something.

“Appreciate the reminder,” he said at last, touching his eyebrow in a casual salute. He rubbed at his wrists absently, as released prisoners were known to do, even though he hadn’t worn the cuffs for more than twenty minutes.

The first few steps outside the gate didn’t feel like anything worth writing home about, but he knew in his heart that they were the steps of a free man, and that was worth something in the final tally. As he walked into the parking lot, he noticed a deputy standing next to a taxi off to his left, beckoning him. Pony hesitated, struggling to override that subconscious directive to avoid anything with a large-brimmed cowboy hat and dark sunglasses and most importantly, a loaded weapon attached to its hip. The deputy seemed insistent though and seeing how no one had come to pick him up, he bit out of curiosity.

“You need a ride into town,” said the deputy, with no inflection that would indicate a question. His voice was thick with East Texas drawl, the same overdone sound that stereotypes were made of.

“Don’t reckon anyone would pick me up,” replied Pony, trying to match the accent. He looked towards the deserted interstate feeder and saw nothing for miles except dirt and a few brave cacti.

The deputy was holding a toothpick between his fingers and he popped it into his mouth, briefly revealing teeth stained from too many morning coffees. He clucked his tongue as if already reprimanding Pony for an uncommitted crime. “Hitching’s illegal in this state, don’t you know that?”

“And a fine law it is,” said Pony, squinting in the sunlight. He could see his own reflection in the deputy’s glasses, a skewed view of the person he thought he was. “Though I suppose if’n you tried to take me in for it, I’d say I was just walkin’ into town, swinging my arms to the Haggard in my head, and givin’ the world a thumbs up.” He wanted to sing a few bars, but the sudden scowl on the deputy’s face made him switch back to cautious defiance.

“This here cab is for you, compliments of the State of Texas. Haji’ll take you thirty dollars in any direction, so long as you keep your ass as far away from this facility as you can. Your room in general pop won’t exactly be available if you decide to come back. Do we have an understanding?”

Yeah, thought Pony, eying the Middle Eastern driver nodding his head behind the rolled-up windows, I understand you’re a bigoted piece of East Texas shit with a shiny badge and bad teeth. He chuckled at himself and said, “That is downright generous of you. I feel I should thank someone.”

“You should thank your God,” said the deputy, opening the rear door. “And if you don’t have one, you’d better check the fucking wants ads if you catch my drift.”

“Single Hispanic male seeks Jesus,” recited Pony. He swung his rucksack inside the car and sat down on the worn seats. The cab smelled terrible and he was given to a moment of temporary hypocrisy, but in all honesty, there was only so much you could blame on the Texas heat.

“Hey,” barked the deputy, leaning towards the door, “this ain’t no game, son. You mind your shit, you hear me?”

Pony tried to read the man, but his eyes were obscured by the faux aviator glasses. He played to the religious advice and said, “So shall you purge evil from your midst.”

The deputy said nothing in return, but closed the door with enough force to rattle the window and elicit a mangled what the fuck from the driver.

Of the main habits of Ramon “Pony” Quintana, quoting scripture was just above daily flossing and just below engaging in sociopolitical discussions with rapists and murderers. It wasn’t really a surprise that those lines of the Bible had become ingrained in his memory, since the only real books on the nightly library cart were fifteen copies of said King James, three tattered copies of the Koran that been more abused than read, and one dilapidated first edition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There was really no use reading the Koran, not unless he wanted to catch shit from both sides of the color wheel, and he had already been through Things twice before he finally decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. In the end, he was overcome with curiosity and maybe even envy for the pious Latinos that managed to avoid violence through the strength of their faith-based numbers. For months, nothing about the story of gardens and floods really stuck out at him until he reached Deuteronomy twenty-one, in which a passage described the stoning of a child that was not only allowed, but encouraged. It probably all went back to his own childhood, to lingering issues with his father that years of therapy might have cured had he the inclination and financial resources.

“Where you want to go, Mac?” The way the driver said the words was unnatural, like he was reading them phonetically off a cue card.

Before Pony could answer, his stomach rumbled something fierce and in that moment he remembered the night before when he had stayed up trying to list all the things he would do when he got out. There was family to see and friends to reunite with, an entire life to get back to. But all of that would have to wait. “Have you ever heard of Southside Market in Elgin?”

“What you think, man, I come here yesterday?” The driver gave him a dismissive stare over his shoulder. “Think I don’t know barbeque.” He turned around and guided the car off the rocky shoulder and onto the smooth asphalt. Obviously offended, he kept glaring at Pony in the rearview mirror. Finally, he stubbed at his chest and said proudly, “I’m American! I know barbeque!”

Pony sat back, amused at the driver’s insistence. He didn’t want to start a fight with an immigrant, not with prison still within spitting distance. Instead, he looked away, outside to the landscape speeding past, arid land dotted with the occasional brush. The view was broken up by large white signs informing people that Turner was close by and that they shouldn’t deign to offer a weary soul a ride, especially not one wearing an orange jumpsuit. The thought made him look down at his own clothes, to the torn blue jeans and faded Cowboys shirt that barely fit anymore. After lunch, he’d have to pick up something more modern.

Something on the back of the driver’s seat caught Pony’s attention. It was a little white card sewn into the headrest with a Texas Department of Criminal Justice logo and text that read simply we are watching.

The message elicited a mock frown from Pony and he wondered whether it was just an empty threat or an actual indication that he was under surveillance. With a casual glance around the cab, he searched the interior for cameras, but none were obvious. He considered the possibility that they were just trying to mess with his head, make him look over his shoulder for the rest of his life to see if Warden Hayden was bearing down on him with her piercing eyes and shrill voice. That was the entire point of prison anyway; it was a deterrent against future crimes. He didn’t so much pay for the sins of the past as invest against the ones not yet committed. Not that he didn’t think about the past often, on nights when the cool air blew in through the windows, before the cacophony of snoring took over. Then, he would think about what his life would have been like had he not followed that girl to the club, then to her home, and—

“Mr. Quintana,” said the woman with the turn-of-the-century haircut, “we’re here today to establish the status of your rehabilitation.” She pushed her glasses up her nose and looked at Pony. “Can you give me a reason to believe that you would be a productive member of society if we were to release you?”

Pony laughed inside, seeing how it was his productive member that got him in trouble to begin with. “Maybe not productive,” he replied, not really looking at the woman but at the statue of lady justice sitting on the mantle behind her. It was the only exposed breast in the whole compound. He refocused and said earnestly, “But I certainly won’t get in anyone’s way.”

“Your candor is appreciated, Mr. Quintana, but this committee cannot approve your parole unless you demonstrate that you will not take up your old pursuits again.”

Pony wiped the sweat from the sides of his temples. “Begging your pardon, Warden, but I don’t think I can rightly justify the way I behaved when I was younger, except to say that I was eighteen years old and what boy that age can say he’s got it all figured out? I strayed from the path, I admit that, but I don’t think there’s a man or woman in here that would much approve of themselves at that age. A boy like that doesn’t need rehabilitating.”

“No?” Mrs. Hayden looked at him, intrigued.

“No. What he needs is a swift kick to the rear and to grow up. And that’s what I’ve done.”

The deceleration of the cab broke Pony of his daydream and the tension of his parole hearing faded away as they rolled to a stop in front of Southside Market. He clawed at the door handle and when it swung open, he caught a whiff of barbeque so fresh that it made his heart dance in his chest. Grunting a hollow thanks at the driver, Pony pulled his bag along the seat and let it drop to the ground. He shut the door behind him and savored the moment.

“Hey, Barbeque,” said the driver. He had rolled down his window and was hanging one hairy arm out the side.

Pony stopped mid-step and looked back, anger growing on his face. “What,” he demanded, “don’t say I owe you money. You weren’t supposed to take me farther than thirty bucks.”

“No, I want to tell you something.”

Not moving from his spot, he asked, “Tell me what?”

“We have saying in my country.” The driver cast a quick glance in each direction before saying in a whisper, “They are watching.”

“Thanks Haji,” said Pony, nodding patronizingly, “but I can read.” He motioned to the driver’s headrest.

“Then go with God!” He spun his tires in the loose dirt and swerved back onto the road. In less time than it took for the dust to settle, he was already an indeterminate speck in the distance.

Grumbling to himself, Pony hitched his bag over his shoulder and started towards the door. He passed several large trucks parked at the curb and he wondered whether his old one-fifty was still running or not. It didn’t really matter; his mom had probably sold it long ago or worse, given it to his younger brother Memo. He would need to call both of them, of course, though it was anyone’s guess as to whether they’d be happy to see him. Family blood ran deep, but some things were just too…

She was the first thing he saw as he passed through the double doors leading into Southside. He had been scoping around for a payphone, but those ancient conveniences had been rare even before he got put in the box. Other things had changed since last he visited too. Where there should have been a row of tables, there was now a bar, and behind that bar, was a living, breathing, embodiment of female perfection. He was faintly aware of other women in the room, but none had her shiny black hair, dipping eyebrows, or shiny nose stud that glinted from the spotlights in the ceiling. They were supposed to be highlighting the liquor on the shelves behind her, but she seemed right at home in their glare, as if she were the prime attraction.

He caught her eyes briefly as he stood awkwardly in the doorway and right at that moment he decided that there was nothing else he wanted more out of life than to sit at the bar and have a drink.

“What’ll you have, sugar?” Unlike the deputy, this girl sported a mix of Spanish rolls and West Texas slur, which told Pony she was a transplant.

“Whereabouts in West Texas are you from?” He let his own drawl play out a little smoother than usual, rolling off his tongue with a subtle arrogance. Dropping his bag onto the stool next to him, he settled into his seat.

She eyed him suspiciously but then turned playful. “How about you venture a guess? Get it right and the first drink’s on me.” Her eyelashes were long and discreetly splayed; she batted them with practiced precision, knowing the half-second gesture usually garnered another buck in tips.

“It’s tough,” said Pony, feigning deep concentration. “I would hate to be wrong and not just on account of the drink.”

“Why’s that,” she asked, wiping an invisible spot on the bar.

“It’s just plain rude to say someone is from Odessa when they’re really from Midland. Or Midland when they’re from Odessa. And I hate to even think what you’d say if I referred to them as the same place.”

There was the tiniest bit of recognition behind her eyes, a flare that gave her away.

“Midland,” he said confidently, “Coors, in the bottle.”

For a moment, she didn’t say anything.

“Please,” he added, noticing the way her eyes were scanning back and forth on his face. He guessed she was looking for a familiar marker, something that would match up against her memory and tell her whether he’d been in the bar before.

“Why do I get the feeling you tricked me,” she asked, fishing a bottle from below the counter. She placed it on a napkin in front of him. “My name’s Sierra, what’s yours?”

He took a swig of the cold beer and felt the world fade away into a freezing nothing. Smacking his lips, he replied, “Pony.”

Sierra smirked, bending her red lips seductively. “Kind of an odd name for a man such as yourself.”

The beer tasted good, better than the toilet juice passed around by the inmates in Turner. He swished the liquid in his mouth, let it run over his teeth and gums until it got too warm to enjoy. “It’s Irish,” he finally replied, acutely aware of how dark his skin was.

“Is that so?”

He nodded emphatically, stifling a burp. “It means little horse.”

Sierra laughed as she floated down the bar to help another customer. Meanwhile, Pony examined himself in the mirror behind the bar and wondered if a girl as attractive as Sierra could ever fall for a guy who had been hit by the ugly bus as many times as he had. Prison life wasn’t about looking good; it was about projecting the meanest and most psychotic demeanor that he could manage. Looking ugly and dangerous kept him from having to wrestle with the other inmates, violently or otherwise. Now, on the outside, he looked out of place, too angry and defensive for such a relatively safe world.

“You planning on helping yourself to our barbeque?” Sierra dropped a plastic menu onto the bar and opened it for him. Pointing the lunch menu, she tapped with her pink fingernail. “I recommend the combo.”

Pony reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, hoping that the guards hadn’t given him one last shot to the pills by stealing what little cash he had. Luckily, he found a ten and two singles. Flattening them on the bar in a line, he asked politely, “I’d like twelve dollars worth of sausage.”

“Wouldn’t we all,” asked Sierra, rhetorically. She scooped up Pony’s money and typed his order into her register, frowning at the various screens that popped up. “One El Grande platter, coming right up.” She smiled knowingly at Pony and then walked down the bar again to fill drinks for one of her servers.

This time, Pony kept his eyes glued to her rear, enticed by the swinging straps of her apron as they crisscrossed her jeans. They had a strange pattern on the back, highlighted by the bright stitching that curled and bent in an effort to attract attention. Whatever it was doing, thought Pony, it was working.

“Given the nature of your crime, Mr. Quintana, you can understand my reluctance to grant your parole, both on a professional and personal level.” Mrs. Hayden passed a paper to the man on her right and he nodded in agreement.

Pony bit his lip; that guy had been avoiding his gaze all morning. “I’d be speaking false if I said I didn’t want to get out of this… this fine establishment, but I think my reasoning behind it is different from most people’s.”

“And what would that reasoning be?”

He shrugged and spread his hands wide. “I just don’t feel like I’m doing anything in here. Like there’s no purpose to it.”

“May I remind you that that purpose of your incarceration is rehabilitation?”

“I understand that, Warden, I really do. But when you say it like that, it’s supposed to mean that there’s something wrong inside me that wants fixin’. Truth of it is, at eighteen, yeah, I needed it. But now, it just doesn’t work. I may not be the most honorable man in this room, but I’m a sight better than what I used to be. There’s no doubt in my simple mind that my time here has changed my outlook, but I believe that’s just the natural way of things. Getting’ older, eyes change, the way we see things changes. You ask me whether I would do again what I did before? I haven’t the slightest trouble telling you that no, I would not. And I don’t just say that on account of more time or the deep sleep. It just comes from inside, from knowing right from wrong.”

“That twelve bucks is going to waste.” Sierra was smiling and Pony couldn’t recall the last time he had seen so friendly an expression on a woman’s face. Sure, there had been dreams, countless fantasies that were always trying to unhinge his sanity, but nothing like this.

“I’m just, you know, basking in the ambience,” said Pony, mispronouncing the word. He waved his hands above the plate to waft the smell towards him. “It’s been a while for me.”

She crossed her arms under breasts, made the Southside logo stretch as she pulled the fabric down. There was amusement on her face as she watched Pony’s eyes dart to her chest, as if he were noticing it for the first time. “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

He shook his head. “No,” he replied, between bites of sausage, “but then neither are you.”

“Where’d a boy like you come up?”

“South, a little town below Sonora, near the border. You ever been down that way?”

“Is it anywhere near South Padre,” asked Sierra, dating herself. There was a distinct possibility that she was only a few years out of high school.

“Not even close,” said Pony, having a good chuckle. He suddenly became aware that both his beer and his wallet were empty, a bad state to be in with half a plate of food left. An idea came to him and he found himself smiling again. “Don’t suppose there’s anything else I can guess for another beer?”

Her eyes didn’t take any bullshit and the way she looked at him made him feel almost guilty for asking, but then she said, “I like you, Pony. Not many guys can pull off the rugged bum act, but you, you’re something special.”

“I’m not a bum.” He tried to keep his tone light, but so many years in a constant defensive posture had made the habit heard to break. “I happen to be a fine upstanding citizen, if you believe it.”

“Now I know you’re givin’ my chain a yank. You’ve got trouble written all over that smug face.” At that, she leaned on the bar and looked as if she wanted to reach out and tap him on the nose.

“I might say the same for you.” As close as she was, he had to move his eyes around wildly to take in her entire face.

Sierra laughed at his little display.

“How about this,” he continued, “I’ll guess your greatest vice and you’ll give me another Coors.”

“I have several vices,” admitted Sierra. She continued to stare, as if to challenge him.

“Drug of choice.”

“Name it,” she almost whispered.

Pony tapped his fingers against the stubble on his chin. His face felt slick and oily. They hadn’t really let him clean up much before they let him out and if it was between a shower and getting out a few minutes earlier, he’d choose freedom every time. Now, sitting in front of the prettiest girl north of the Grande, he wasn’t so sure. “Grass would be too easy,” he started. “Liquor’s too unsophisticated for a girl of your stature.”

Sierra spread her hands and arms in a taunt that revealed the breadth of her stature.

He motioned to her inner elbows. “That pretty much rules out the needle.”

The blush was slight, but there.

“I’m going to bet cents to pesos that you’re a virtual girl, synthetics only.”

“Dammit,” said Sierra, shaking her head in bemused anger. “How do you do that?”

“Just a thing between me and the mind of a woman. Works really well up until I start datin’ them and then…” He trailed off.

Another beer appeared on the counter as Sierra retired the empty bottle. She waited for Pony to take his celebratory swig before saying, “That’ll be three-fifty.”

“But I thought—”

She leaned in close again after eyeing the couple seated at the end of the bar. Whispering softly, she said, “I never said that was my greatest vice.”

Pony heard the words, but his eyes were focused on her lips. They were just too inviting to ignore.

“Mr. Quintana, it says here that you have been participating in behavioral modification classes.”

“Yes, Warden,” said Pony, recalling the sessions of female enlightenment that just went on and on.

“And how would you characterize your response to them?”

“I can’t right say,” he replied, considering the question. “I mean they’re supposed to be teaching us how to interact with women but the only woman around here is you, and class or no class, I try to do polite by you.”

Mrs. Hayden made a sour face as she turned a page in his folder. “What about the women who don’t decide your fate? Will you be as accommodating to them?”

“I’d like to believe so and I have every intention of treating a woman right.”

“There’s treating women right and then there’s doing what you did, Mr. Quintana. Some people say that you don’t come back from beyond the boundaries of decency, no matter how many classes you take.”

Sierra smelled like a cross between brisket and sweat, but Pony couldn’t help but press his nose further into her neck and drink in the exotic aroma. Although the air conditioner in the window was running at full blast, it was little match for the hot Texas afternoon. Sierra’s apartment felt like an oven, even as Pony removed his clothes piece by piece while rolling around the bed with her. He managed to strip her down without tearing her clothes to shreds, though he did hear the fabric of her underwear give a little as he pulled them off. With her body naked and inviting, he dove into her flesh with little to no coordination. It had been so long and yet he felt no trace of the earlier urge to simply bask in the ambience.

“You’re an eager beaver, aren’t you,” whispered Sierra into his ear, barely audible over the hum of the AC. She thrust her hands between his legs and tugged at his growing excitement.

“It’s been a while for me,” he rasped. The strength left his arms and his face fell into her shoulder. He kissed a small depression and then moved up the side of her neck to her cheek.

They rolled in the sheets, changing position every so often until finally Sierra sat atop him. He put his hands on her hips, but she grabbed them and pinned them behind his head with one hand. The aggression in her eyes was plain, but Pony knew that he didn’t have to fear it. He relaxed, let their frenzy of new discovery slow to a crawl as she rocked gently back and forth. She closed her eyes and put her free hand to her own breast.

The sweat beaded.

Just like that, it seemed to Pony that decades had gone by since the day he had walked out of prison. The memories of that place were too distant to be meaningful, too fleeting to be worth recalling at a time like this. Even the stern image of Mrs. Hayden seemed to hold no power over him. That room of inquiry was a million miles away, a side note to a life he had longer wanted any part of.

Once a convict, now a man.

Sierra opened her eyes to find Pony staring up at her, a look of wonder on his face. And why not, she asked herself. He should feel privileged. He could have been the type of guy that was used to picking up women so easily, seeing how he wasn’t bad-looking or fat around the middle. She’d been serious earlier about the rugged comment. His chest had more definition than was typical of guys his age and they were topped off with broad shoulders and thick arms like the trunks of teenage trees. Forearms that—

A marking on Pony’s wrist made the bed stop rocking. Sierra leaned in closer, barely noticing as he grabbed at her nipple with his mouth.

“What is that,” she asked.

“What?”

She pulled his wrist from behind his head so she could get a better look at it. The bed sheet hung on the window made the room dark and she struggled to make out the pattern. “Is this a… barcode?”

“No,” he lied, automatically.

“Are you a convict?” Her voice pitched in disbelief.

Pony let out a breath, tried to run all of the possibilities, but none of them came out shiny. “Yes,” he admitted.

“How… how long ago was this?”

He hesitated again and braced against the backlash. “Noon.”

“Today?!” Sierra recoiled to a corner of the bed, hugging a pillow to hide her body.

Pony nodded, couldn’t help but find the image slightly erotic. Her hair was damp and clinging to her shoulders, the pillow barely covering her breasts. The allure of the unknown pulled at him, despite having had a full view just moments before.

“Oh my God,” said Sierra, dragging out the final word. She stepped off the bed and grabbed at a towel that was hanging on the back of a chair.

“Come on,” pleaded Pony, “it’s not a big deal.”

She wrapped the towel around her body and turned away. “I’m going to be sick.”

“I’m not a bad—”

“I don’t care what you think you are! You were in prison!” Now there was real anger behind her eyes. “God knows what kind of diseases you got in there and Jesus Christ we didn’t even use a condom!” She slapped herself on the side of her head in admonishment.

Pony clambered off the bed, ignoring his own nudity. He reached out for her shoulder, but she felt it coming.

“Don’t fucking touch me, don’t you dare!”

“I will only ask you this question one time, Mr. Quintana. It would behoove you to answer me truthfully, considering what is at stake.” Mrs. Hayden cleared her throat. “Do you believe that if faced with the same circumstances as occurred that night fifteen years ago, you would be able to walk away? Or would you submit to prurient desires once more?”

Pony swallowed, but answered quickly and evenly, “I absolutely would not behave as I did then. I’m a changed man.”

The first blow didn’t draw any blood, but the subsequent hit caught Sierra on the bridge of her nose and her face suddenly turned bright red. Pony’s fist had jarred something loose inside and she gasped against the blood now dripping down her throat. She tried to scream, tried to protest, but she was already choking. When she collapsed to her knees, Pony threw another left cross, striking her on the side of her head. The protests, along with all movement, stopped.

Breathing heavily, enjoying the adrenaline rush, Pony bent over and picked up Sierra’s limp body. He could see the bubbles popping in her nose, knew she was still alive. He tossed her onto the bed face down and she landed with a soft thud. His eyes wandered the length of her body and he used the image to work himself back into the mood.

Kneeling on the bed, he slid back into his rightful place, felt the gentle pull of Sierra’s still-willing—

Flash of painful light, like staring into the sun on a cloudless day.

It was unbearable, the feeling coursing through his body, like all the muscles under his command had suddenly seized up and pulled in on themselves. He felt his body contort, felt the sharp tear of bones breaking and pushing through flesh. Something was crushing him, collapsing in from all sides to deliver his death in the most violent way possible.

The entire room shuddered and broke down, revealing a bright white that stung at his already destroyed eyes. He tried to turn away from it, but it seemed to shine from every possible direction. Around him, the noise of the AC became garbled, turned into a high-pitched shriek that started winding down, lost in a spiral of degrading modulation. It settled into a low hum as, miraculously, the pain began to lessen.

Little by little, he felt his vision coming back to him. The numbness in his extremities abated and he found them responsive again. His eyes picked out shapes in front of him. There was a large mechanical arm pulling away, dragging with it a mask of some kind, with electrodes hanging from it like exposed entrails. The room was a bland silver color, the kind that pervaded the halls of the place he had called home for the last fifteen years.

Reality quivered into stability and Pony knew he was once again within the walls of the Turner Correctional Facility.

So they had caught him. How many hours was that, he asked himself. Two? Maybe three?

“Welcome back, Mr. Quintana,” said a voice from his right. Mrs. Hayden’s disappointed face popped into view, obviously displeased with his behavior.

“What the hell, Warden?”

“How did you like our new parole simulation,” she asked, patting the rig that was hanging from the arm. “The finest in Vinestead technology for the worst of human society.”

“Simulation?”

“Yes. I had concerns about your answers at your parole hearing, so I thought why not use you as a trial run? You see, it’s all well and good to try to evaluate your behavior with questions and tests, but even I know that you don’t get by in here without being able to pretend and deceive, skills you seemed to have developed quite handily. There is an old saying in my field that states that you should never take a convict at his word. If you want to see how he’ll behave, you have to set the mouse free in the maze. Then you’ll see whether he goes right for the cheddar.”

“It wasn’t real,” he asked, thinking back on all the memories marinating in his head. There was nothing that differentiated the false from the true, the Sierras from the Haydens. How was he supposed to make informed decisions if the world was one giant simulation?

“Real enough for our purposes,” replied Mrs. Hayden. She nodded to the guard standing off to the side. “Take him back to his cell.”

“What?!” Pony struggled against the restraints, but they were agonizingly solid.

“That’s right, Mr. Quintana.” There was a satisfied gleam in Mrs. Hayden’s eyes. “Request for parole denied.”

* * *

He had to walk alone for that last fifty yards, a great expanse of nothing cloistered on both sides by sharp metal, just wide enough for a man his size to tread lightly, to do everything in his power to not give the ex-Marines in the guard tower a reason to put a bullet through his neck. The heat didn’t help, not that the classic Texas summer was good for anything except drought and the boiling of men’s blood. Somehow, the sun felt different. Being that it was the same sun that had shone down on him throughout his thirty-year term behind bars, he was confused by the sensation and idea that maybe things had changed simply by walking out that door. On this side of the wall, it felt like an old friend met after too long apart. He turned his whole face to it, closed his eyes, and watched his vision go red.

That was the sun for you, he thought. Same as ever.

“Hands,” said the guard, in that same condescending sneer so prevalent among the prison’s staff.

Pony obliged, caught the guard’s nametag despite the glare on the window.

“Are we really doing this shit again,” asked Pony.

“Doing what?” The guard pulled roughly at the metal on his wrists and released the cuffs.

“Isn’t this just another simulation? Aren’t you just waiting for me to fuck up so you can pull me out and deny my parole again?” He waved his hands around wildly, forgetting about the snipers.

“I don’t know anything about no simulation, boy,” said Guard Ramirez.

Pony did his best to recollect that day from fifteen years prior, but his mind had latched onto the silky image of Sierra’s breasts hanging in the air in front of him. He shook his head, tried to escape the trap being laid out for him.

“So this is real then?”

“Real enough,” replied the guard.