The Penitentiary

The Penitentiary

The federal police tried best to let the two detectives collect samples and take photographs while keeping the crowd at bay. But the way the dead body was laid out on the ground was eerily intriguing and no one could blame the curiosity of the onlookers gathering around it.

The victim’s head lay twisted in a strange sort of way with a small pool of dark red – maroon blood forming a halo, his arms outstretched, making 180 degrees angle to each other, left leg fully extended, right leg slightly flexed at the knee, right sole closely opposing the left ankle at the medial malleolus – creating an impression of a man on a crucifix, now lying inside a rectangle of yellow duct tapes pasted around to designate the site of mishap.

————— x ————————-

The cell must have been  6 x 8 feet with a well-scrubbed, spotlessly clean floor. A dry smell of recently used antiseptic hung in the air. The walls were painted sky blue and a starched sky blue coloured sheet stretched out on a metal stretcher like a bed that was meant to soothe the troubled inmates. The man squatting on the edge of the bed appeared bored and disinterested. His eyes dull, expressionless. His skin pale yellow. The unruly mop of hair on his head was partly white but mostly grey. Though in his early forties, he looked older. He had not left his cell for three days in a row and no amount of coaxing would bring him out of his den. The warden, his hands full with the new lot that came in four days back, thought it better to have an inmate staying in and out of trouble rather than outside and asked the staff to let him be.

A sudden movement caught the man’s eye who shifted his gaze to the old fig tree in the courtyard outside his window. There was a sudden interest in his eyes, as he saw a fringe lipped bat hanging upside down, legs clinging on to a ripe pink/ brown fig with its teeth firmly inside the fruit, attacking it, sucking out the pulp all the while moving in a circular motion. The dancing of the bat continued and the man in the bed sat star-struck, unable to peel his eyes away from this visual. Quite suddenly the bat stopped moving, the pulp sucked out, the fruit left hollow, its wings relaxed, outstretched. One leg extended, the other flexed with toes opposing the extended ankle almost in a crucifix, teeth still embedded inside the fruit!

The man’s lips twisted at the corner, his senses heightened, raggedly breathing, a trickle of saliva fell down the side of his mouth. His gaze shifted a bit and fell on Farheen, the albino adolescent who had papery thin milky white skin and gentle colourless eyes, sitting in the courtyard some distance away. Lustily gazing at the tortuous dark green prominent veins in Farheen’s neck, the man no longer inert, ran out of his room towards the courtyard. But halfway there his gait faltered. Maria, the nurse was entering the ward, wheeling in the medicine cart. She saw him almost at the same time that he came to a halt. 

Maria called out, “ David “? “Is everything alright?” 

Then, “ Oh! Do you need something?” Her voice gentle and cajoling. Maria cared about David. 

David, with his countenance, changed abruptly, bent his head and started walking over with a slight limp almost at a crawling pace, as innocent as a puppy. David liked it when Maria treated him tenderly, almost like a child. He moved his head from side to side in denial. Maria tried again, “would you like to go out for a bit? Breathe in the fresh air? God knows when you left your cell last.” 

This time David nodded in the affirmative and Maria breathing a sigh of relief helped him outside. With Maria gone, David secretly opened his fist, there lay in his hand a scroll of duct tape.

Farheen had left. A silent observer sitting under the Chestnut tree on the other side of the courtyard witnessed the entire course of events, disturbed, making a mental note to discuss the case with Dr Jonathan.

————————- x —————

The penitentiary was a medium-security one with cell housing for inmates. Dr Claire was relatively new to the facility and was Dr Jonathan’s junior. She had read David’s file and knew him to be suffering from schizophrenia. She also knew him to be a kleptomaniac. It would be a while before she would know all her patients but she had a special interest in David’s case. He seemed to be a recluse yet she had that uncanny unexplained feeling about him as if he pretended boredom. She had caught him looking at her with eyes that were everything but flat or expressionless. But with schizophrenia one never knew. It brought so many variations with it. Hell, it was difficult to differentiate reality from hallucinations sometimes. The hallucinations being so clearly described.

Dr Claire returned to her cabin and sifted through the folders in her computer, going through histories, diagnoses and treatments of inmates. She came across a newspaper clipping dated from about two years ago where a young boy committed suicide by falling from the twelfth floor of a housing complex near the penitentiary. Intrigued by the partially yellowed, dull-looking picture accompanying the article, she started reading. She discovered that the young boy’s case though closed as suicide had certain irregularities which the police could not explain. The way the body was placed when it fell on the ground and also the lack of excessive bleeding suggested ante mortem death followed by fall. But forensics found intrapleural blood which was thought to be post mortem rather than ante mortem and along with Dr Jonathan’s supporting testimony to the boy’s mentally disturbed state, the case was closed as a suicide. For the second time that day, Dr Claire felt anxious. But it was time for her rounds. Dr Jonathan would be waiting for her.  The rounds were a great learning experience and Claire enjoyed them thoroughly, enamoured by Dr Jonathan’s vast knowledge of the subject.

Post the rounds she again sat down to read inmate files. Andy was a case of bipolar manic depressive disorder well controlled with medications and due for release very soon. Dr Claire made notes where she felt necessary. A knock on the door made her look up from her files and she saw Dr Jonathan enter her room.

“Hey, doc! Anything bothering you? You looked gloomy during rounds today. “
Dr Claire took a split second longer pause than a normal person-response time but Dr Jonathan being the amazing psychiatrist that he was, caught on to the gap.

“Oh out with it Claire” he smiled gently and coaxed her. Claire proceeded to tell him her doubts about David. Dr Jonathan went up to the door to shut it behind him. The door was a little ajar and he saw Maria in the corridor. He waved a greeting to her before shutting the door. “Yes! I see you noticed it too. I have been studying this case for some months now. The man seems intelligent to me when he lets his guard down but such instances are momentary and it is difficult to record them. Any way we can both try and study him from now on. I shall share my observations about him with you but please remember they are confidential. Feeling a little unburdened, Dr Claire started working on her other cases. The night guard brought her the sealed observation file that Dr Jonathan had sent to her.  And it was way past midnight when she finally left the premises.
————————— x —————

The fire drill required everyone to evacuate their cells. The inmates were mostly indifferent to the drill, performing it almost like a routine exercise. They would be stripped, gathered into units and counted. This meant human contact, sometimes pesky questions and unwanted friendliness. David hated this. But during the chaos of ringing fire alarm and everyone gathering outside the gate, he would pick up stuff from the ERT cart, small stuff like gauze pieces, plastic syringes, latex glove (one glove at a time). Things that were of no use to him but he would enjoy tricking the ERTs (Emergency Response Team). This time he’d tricked the security guard cleverly picking his black cylindrical laser tag gun. Before the line moved in for stripping and checking, he’d cleverly hidden the tag gun in a deep hole in the sidewall and covered it with a brick. Nobody found his stash there ever. Cause nobody knew of his secret hole. The trick was that there were two loose removable bricks covering his alcove or tiny tunnel. One could be removed from inside the penitentiary common residential area and the other from outside the gate in the courtyard! These little distractions were highlights in David‘s stay in the penitentiary. At times other than these he remained reclusive, expressionless and aloof.

————————— x —————

As night fell the inmates were all securely locked in. The headaches had been troubling him for almost a year now. They were an aura for forthcoming hallucinations. Hallucinations he had been trying to ignore. To fight back. They became stronger with each attack. The voices in his head beckoned him asking him to break open the metal door of his cell. But it was no use. The security at night was really tight and there was no way to break the lock.

———————- x ————————
That night the voices grew stronger than before. They seemed to be echoing, reverberating all around him. The voices pounded in his head and he felt like his eardrums would puncture. Saliva started trickling from the side of his mouth. The voices took shape. He saw Dr Claire, Farheen…… Farheen was mocking him. Shouting in his ear. David closed his ears with his palms trying to keep the noise away. Then he saw Dr Jonathan coming at him, syringe in hand, a sinister smile, ready to puncture his arm with the drug. The voices became one. They were asking him to break down the door. He saw Maria, sweet Maria. She handed him the key. She wanted him to escape! Imagination and reality were difficult to separate. He opened the cell door and walked briskly down as if guided by the devil. He reached his alcove, robotically removed the brick and peeked furtively. The laser tag gun was gone! He turned back and thought he saw someone coming out of Dr Jonathan’s room. Quickly he hid behind the deserted counter. Was it Maria? He let her pass before returning to the cell. The self-lock clicked right in. He fell asleep.

———————— x ——————
The next morning there was chaos in the penitentiary. There were police and jacketed federal detectives crawling all over the place. Claire showed her identity card and entered the clinical space only to let out a scream. Dr Jonathan’s door stood wide open. On the desktop lay the lifeless form of Dr Jonathan, his head twisted in a strange sort of an angle with a small pool of dark red – maroon blood forming a halo, his arms outstretched, making a 180 degrees angle to each other, left leg fully extended, right leg slightly flexed at the knee, right sole closely opposing the left ankle at the medial malleolus – creating an impression of a man on a crucifix. A cylindrical black laser tag gun lying on the floor near his head. The detective was pointing at the wound on the head and saying the “head has been smashed in with the laser gun.”

Claire could not believe what she saw. How in the name of God could this be? She was inconsolable. The detective chief led her out towards the warden’s room.
“Drink ?”, the chief asked pouring a stiff one for himself. 

Claire nodded in the affirmative. The chief poured her a drink and made to leave but was stopped mid-stride “David!” 

“Yes ? “ the chief asked 

“David”, Claire repeated. 

“What of him? “, asked the chief. 

“Check him. It ought to have been him. We were discussing him last night. Dr Jo ..,! (she stifled a half cry and continued) Jonathan and I. We suspected him to be not all that insane as his lawyer’s plea would have you believe. Or you could say Dr J was having second thoughts about his assessment.

Sudden understanding dawned in the chief’s eyes as he made to shut the door. A pretty woman in a nurse’s uniform and a medicine trolley greeted him outside the door in the corridor. The chief returned her greeting and was soon listening to Dr Claire’s theory.

Outside in the corridor, Maria smiled, her lips twisted in a sinister curl. She felt victorious. Her mission seemed accomplished. How hard had the past two years been? She had no time for mourning. She had so much to do. Planning, plotting, executing while all the while burning inside. Nightmares filled her dreams. Her son, her precious, precious son who they said committed suicide. Who Dr Jonathan said in his report was suicidal. How could he? The callous doctor. Her precious son with a little psychiatric problem. First, they put him in penitentiary and then they messed with his brain. Giving him injections and medicines. Then releasing him saying he had been cured. Till he died. Till he was murdered. Had she not seen Dr Jonathan drink till wee hours just a night before his report was to be submitted? How negligent of him. Now she had her revenge. Yes! She had planned it all. He would die just the way her son did. No one would suspect her. David ! Yes! David would be the scapegoat!
David the sinister soul, soul of the devil would take the fall. Yes! She knew all about him! He was no schizophrenic. She worked with these mentally ill inmates a day in and day out. She knew who was twisted and who was pretending.

This would be like killing two birds with one stone! 

A handcuffed David gave Maria a flat, expressionless stare …..


This story is also available at “Pint of a Story” by StudioCacofunny 

Studio Cacofunny


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Guncha Gupta
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4 thoughts on “The Penitentiary

  1. Guncha you’re a surprise package! From prose to poetry to thrillers. You are climbing up the ladder so well. I loved this short and smart work!

  2. A very good story, narrated well and the plot was kept taut till the end. It isn’t for everyone to tackle matters of medicine/ psychology and it shows when the writer knows what they are talking about. Well done!

  3. Wow!
    A thriller so fast paced. Never knew a short story could provide a read of a complete novel.
    A complete visual ride.
    The bat.
    The faltering of gait.
    The voices in his head.
    I almost hated the protagonist but the end saw me sympathising with him.
    What a story writer !
    What does the cover mean ? – split head

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