Prompt: Compass


Isabel didn’t like lesbians, but that didn’t stop her allowing them to join the Union. In fact, she had developed a degree of sympathy with their rejection of men; she longed to marry and have more children, but if given a chance, would happily strangle her ex-husband to death.

In any case, the lesbians buttressed up the Union, which now stood at forty-plus girls and recruitment was still and always a priority. Before long, they might control over half the prison population.

It was necessary for Isabel to make her way through her daily routine with an entourage, not just for personal protection but because there were always errands, persistent supplicants, spontaneous ideas that needed recording; and, of course, to maintain the aura of authority among Union members and potential recruits. In this crumbling castle with plaster walls the colour of ice-crusted leaves, where the shrillness of voices was amplified by wide empty hallways and panic, and where dullness and soul-destroying monotony were dutifully embraced, the sight of Isabel with her brightly dyed red hair and completely illegal red fingernails, surrounded by hand-picked and deferential subjects, all looking well-fed and alert and alive, was memorable and aweful.

The guards tolerated her with good grace and by the convenience of bribes, usually drugs or favours, but sometimes too because they were no more immune to spectacle and the mysticism of hierarchy than the girls were.

Isabel’s first feat of magic was the curtains she negotiated/ battled for in the main toilets, a victory she insisted was successful because of the support of certain fellow inmates, the girls whom she dubbed the Union. And as she continued to serve her time, she struck a secret deal with Armando, a senior guard, for the safe and consistent import of various narcotics, the most popular of which was not cocaine or heroin but Xanax, and the siphoning of profits to an external account. She set up an inmate-controlled medical emergency system, so her girls would not die of the drugs she smuggled. She petitioned small, independent operations with the prison walls to amalgamate with her Union, less by threat than by luxurious coercion.

You would almost, Miss Fisher said of her one day to her friend Wendy, believe that Isabel had been a powerful businessperson and negotiator in the real world. Perhaps her crimes had been of the corporate variety?

Oh no, Wendy had told her. Wendy was intimate with Tricia, who was one of Isabel’s closest aides and confidantes.

Isabel was the daughter of illegal immigrants who were deported, though not before they abandoned and entrusted their child to the care of a friend, who turned out to be a notorious madame, Wendy told Miss Fisher, who raised Isabel to be a pampered and prized virgin ready for auction, until Isabel was raped by her English teacher and subsequently booted from the brothel.

Homeless for years, Isabel fell in with a pleasant and shy man who imported cocaine from Colombia. They married and had two children before he turned federal witness, at which time they were banished to a small town in Minnesota, where he continued to import cocaine with a new set of suppliers until he was arrested again. Isabel and the children moved to Miami but as homelessness loomed and she was unable to otherwise support the children, she began a short-lived career as a drug mule.

Her husband divorced her while she was in prison; and after being released again, he took custody of the children and moved them to the American Virgin Islands, where he continued to live as a roofing/ drug importer.

“Fascinating,” said Miss Fisher. “It would make quite the story, if true.”

“Even if it isn’t,” said Wendy. “Anyway she’s always had to scrabble and scrub for a living. She had nothing yet lost everything. Hardly a corporate or any kind of power.”

“She wants my blessing,” Miss Fisher said. Wendy wasn’t sure if Miss Fisher was still talking to her. Sometimes her aging mind wandered, these days.

“Your blessing?”

“Oh yes, for her Union. She imagines I have some kind of influence,” said Miss Fisher.

“She wants you to join?”

“She does, indeed. And you too. And all my little friends.”

It was a Sunday afternoon early in November, but so sun-lit and warm that they’d removed their old woolen coats and scarves and basked in the unexpected glow. Their bench backed against the stuccoed utility building and faced a tall chain-link fence, beyond which was a sparse forest of spruce and fir; the closest to a view location that was available anywhere on the grounds.

“She could probably source some pecans for you,” Wendy said. She leaned back and closed her eyes, pretending for a moment she was enjoying a supple, warm day anywhere else.

“Do you think so?” asked Miss Fisher.

Wendy nodded, hoping Miss Fisher was watching. She felt deliciously drowsy, and probably could have dozed off, if she hadn’t felt the pierce of a frozen droplet on her forehead.

She sat up. The sun still shone, but the air had turned bitterly cold. Miss Fisher was pulling on her jacket again. All around her the air was filled with ice rain— tiny sharp pellets of ice that sparkled in the sunlight like shards of tinsel.

“Amazing, isn’t it,” said Miss Fisher. “How things can change in an instant.”


A Good Man

Prompt: Denial

pot boiling over

Cleveland Russell was 58 years old, serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of one of the students in his high school chemistry class. His first two years were spent mostly in solitary, because the girl was young, pretty, and white, and Cleveland was none of these things, and that did not go down well with certain elements of the prison population.

Now his cell was part of a grouping of accommodation for non-violent offenders and aging criminals of various backgrounds, and he was taking a correspondence course in Deep Learning with Python, and alternately worked as cook and kitchen cleaner, depending on the whims of Garrett Sommerkinder, another murderer who had run the B South kitchen and passively terrorized his associates for almost three years.

Garrett Sommerkinder had taken a liking to Marcus, possibly because of his good looks and laid back demeanour, his obvious harmlessness, and his talent for acquiescing to authority without appearing to be weak or frightened. And attempted murder was not a crime to be sneered at, even among killers. So he had Marcus chop carrots and peel potatoes and cut celery into sticks and also put him in charge of the soup pot, a weighty responsibility that Marcus took very seriously.

That’s how Marcus and Cleveland found themselves working together, alone, cleaning up after Monday late meal. Cleveland was mopping the floors. Marcus was straining inedibles from the soup pot, things that couldn’t be properly blended smooth, like rinds and seeds.

Cleveland had a mop and a bucket. The bucket was full of clean, hot, soapy water. He was proud to clean the floors of the dining area and kitchen of B South. It’s how he looked at life now. There were good things in life, like hot, soapy water. There were bad things, like germs and grime. Cleveland was doing his part to do right, as best he could, and he didn’t care if it was in a small way.

“Take out the skins,” Cleveland advised Marcus. “But keep the leaves.” By “leaves” he meant herbs, if by chance the sad little garden in the clay soil by the generator ever produced a bit of thyme or parsley.

“So you got life,” Marcus said, as he picked out skins. It was a common early conversation. Never about the crime, just about the time.

“No parole,” said Cleveland, without pride, as some killers did.

“Didn’t do it though, right?”

“Well I did kill the child,” said Cleveland. He wasn’t a big man, but had a stocky, immovable frame. He moved the raggedy mop across the floor like a masseuse, with care, knowledge, and just the right amount of pressure.

“That’s too bad,” said Marcus. “I didn’t try to kill my wife.”

“No?” said Cleveland.

“No. I loved her. Still do.”

“So it’s a mistake.”

“Yes, a mistake that they thought I tried to kill her. I only wanted a bit of cash,” Marcus said. “I wouldn’t hurt her.”

“No,” said Cleveland. “But you did?”

Marcus said nothing. He ran his hands under the hot water tap, and dried them with a faded yellow striped cloth. “I didn’t think it would play out the way it did,” he said.

Cleveland was finished with the floor, and went to the sink too, and washed his hands, and dried them on the same cloth.

He said, “Nothing plays out the way you think it will.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” said Marcus.

Cleveland didn’t chuckle, or shake his head, or wonder at the denial that fuelled so many wrong-headed and futile attempts at self-understanding. He picked up the bucket and mop and moved towards the door leading to the main utility hallway.

“Marcus, is it?” he said. “Let me tell you, this place where you are at? It was your choice.”

Marcus shook his head. Obviously this Cleveland person didn’t understand. Marcus was not a criminal. Maybe he didn’t love in the conventional way. Maybe he made a few mistakes. He was a good man, really.

When Cleveland left the kitchen, a strange silence fell. Marcus could feel it. He made sure all the burners were off under the stove. He waited a few seconds for the floor to dry, then made his way to the door. He was tired.

He was a good man, really.

  • Image: Shutterstock

Like No One’s Watching

Prompt: Construct


“Time is just a construct,” said August, at the weekly Search Inside Myself meeting. Dr Whitley was pleased to have August in the group, since she often started off the conversation before the doctor had time to officially open the session, which was good because Dr Whitley was never quite prepared for what the inmates had to say.

“Bollocks,” said Bonnie, whose new romantic pen pal was from Manchester, England.

“Language,” said Miss Fisher kindly, as if Bonnie was one of her long-ago third grade students.

“Sorry Miss Fisher,” said Bonnie, “But it really is bullshit.”

Miss Fisher sighed.

“You don’t even know what it means,” August said to Bonnie.

“I know I’m doing twelve years worth of time here, and it’s no construction. It’s real.” Bonnie put the little balsa wood dowel that substituted for a cigarette, into her mouth. She scowled and inhaled deeply.

“But it means that you don’t have to look at it like it’s twelve years,” said August. “There’s no such thing as months and years. I mean, who invented them?”

“The judge,” said Agnes. “What do you think, Miss Fisher?”

All eyes turned to the rather thin, elderly woman whose uniform hung more loosely on her frame of late. She straightened up in the grey folding chair, and pushed her glasses up from the bridge of her nose.

“Time is real enough, I think,” said Miss Fisher. “It sometimes helps to dissect it into manageable pieces, like when you eat a layer cake. It is easier to eat a slice of cake than grab a hunk with your bare hands.”

“Mmm, cake,” said Tricia, who usually only contributed once per session, so this was the one thing.

All thoughts turned to cake, and there was a pause.

“So what?” said Agnes. “So what if time is a construct? What difference does it make? I’m out in a few months, Bonnie has a decade left. How does grabbing chunks of cake in her bare hands help her?”

Dr Whitley felt the conversation was straying and cleared her throat as if to speak. She was ignored.

August said, “Well, that’s how I would eat a cake if no one was looking.”

“A chocolate cake?” asked Bonnie, tapping imaginary ash into an imaginary ashtray.

“Definitely,” said August.

Cellmates Dot Com

Prompt: Tiny


Bonnie said, “Thank you Miss Fisher, and I hate to tell you this, but you are no longer my best friend.”

“Oh dear,” said Miss Fisher, who was reading Anne of Green Gables again, and was reluctantly interrupted. She was right at the exciting part where Anne was going to save Minnie May’s life.

It was that quiet —though never really quiet— time between dinner and lights out. A number of girls, as inmates were called, had left recently, either released or transferred to other institutions, so there was a general atmosphere of luxurious space combined with a niggling fear of what was to come. The “girls”, except for the disruptors, who were entertaining distractions, liked their routine, serving their time in peace, and getting the fuck out.

Miss Fisher wasn’t the only one serving serious time. There were other murderers, Bonnie included, though no other serial killers. Most had hope of release and living with family again. Miss Fisher had no such hope, despite the recent efforts of her lawyer.

“I found someone else,” said Bonnie.

“That’s just wonderful, dear,” said Miss Fisher. “As your ex-best friend, I am extremely happy for you.”

“He is not perfect,” said Bonnie.

“Who is?” said Miss Fisher. She sighed inwardly, and set her book aside. She sat up straight and engaged Bonnie with her eyes. Perhaps this wouldn’t take too long.

“I didn’t tell you about him,” said Bonnie, “because I know you don’t like men.”

“Yes, I can see where you might think that,” said Miss Fisher.

“You didn’t notice my engagement ring,” said Bonnie. “I’ve been wearing it for a week.”

“I’m sorry, Bonnie, I’ve been distracted,” said Miss Fisher. She thought longingly of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.

Bonnie held out her left hand. “It’s white gold, with a diamond chip.”

“Lovely,” said Miss Fisher, whose aging eyes could not really make out the tiny stone in the ring. “But who is he? Why would he become engaged to someone in prison?”

“I suppose we just fell in love,” said Bonnie. “After corresponding via Cellmates-dot-com, you know, where people write to inmates.”

“Uh huh,” said Miss Fisher, though she had never heard of it.

“We spoke on the phone, and he’s visited twice.”

“And he knows you poisoned your boyfriend?” asked Miss Fisher.

“No secrets,” said Bonnie. “You taught me that.” Bonnie gazed at her white gold and diamond chip ring. She rubbed it against the sleeve of her tunic, as if to polish it. “He is not exactly handsome, but very clean. He says I make him feel important. He tells his friends about me. They think he is crazy. Will we have conjugal rights, Miss Fisher, do you know? Gregory has asked.”

“Oh, I should think so,” said Miss Fisher. “Now Bonnie, you won’t go giving your heart away again, and be disappointed, and want to slowly murder Gregory as you did with Norman?”

“Oh no, Miss Fisher. I know killing is not the best solution,” said Bonnie.

Not the best solution, thought Miss Fisher. But often a good one.

Writing the Script

Prompt: Original


Dear Lily-Rose,

I visited Miss Fisher on Wednesday and have some good news: She is allowed visits in the low security area, i.e. there is no more plexiglas and a guard listening to every word. She sat directly across the table from me, and I risked discreetly touching her hand, just to confirm this was all real.

She looks surprisingly fit; well-rested and as plump as I have ever seen her. She tells me that she eats well, even on the odd days when she sent to the “cave”, as they call solitary confinement here. Some of her former students are guards and administrators, apparently, and they treat her well despite her convictions.

She does seem a little pale, and her brow was furrowed. She says she misses being outdoors as much as she wants, and later on told me some of the stories of her fellow inmates, which I am thinking contribute to the world-weary expression that she wears.

Miss Fisher’s parole hearing is coming up, and though it is mostly a formality (she will most certainly be denied), I think it is time she and I and all her friends start sharing ideas and strategies for getting her home and into the sunlight for the last few years of her life. If not at this hearing, then the next.

The main problem is that she is not very cooperative with the prison therapist, whom, she tells me, she doesn’t respect, and who believes that she has somehow unravelled the mysteries of Miss Fisher’s past and motives, despite Miss Fisher’s reticence about anything regarding her upbringing, teaching career, and the multiple murders. We aren’t even sure how many men she killed— not even I am sure. The parole board will demand a full confession, all relevant details, expressions of regret, and assurances that Miss Fisher no longer poses a threat to society.

Miss Fisher refuses to be forthcoming. She doesn’t like it in prison. She longs to be free. But she puts a high value on her privacy, and if she feels remorse about the murders she committed, she hides it well. She is not a psychopath, I know she feels deeply, but she simply refuses to share details about her life even though it is against her best interests.

So I am contacting all her friends and supporters, most by form letter, but I send this original, heartfelt letter to you because I know how much you cherish her, and how much you mean to her. You are like family to Miss Fisher, and the one most likely to get through to her.

How is it that we can forgive this woman, who committed such brutal, seemingly random murders? Somehow we do. It is like the crimes were committed in another dimension, by a Miss Fisher who is a righteous defender of the weak and helpless. She is such a defender. But who was she defending by murdering say, a young college student? A man whose wife was pregnant for the first time? A elderly grandfather to seven children?

I want to know, I’m sure you do, and the parole board certainly does. But she does not have to confess to the parole board (or to us). It is completely unethical of me to say this, but she has to tell them what they want to hear. Ironically she is the most ethical of us all, so it will take some convincing. She needs to help me write the script. The goal is Miss Fisher’s freedom. She is old. She has served time, and will do no more harm.

So, in your next correspondence, or during your next visit, could you please discuss the parole hearing with her? It is scheduled for October 14, so there is not much time. If you would like to meet with me and talk about this further, and about the possibility of your testifying at the hearing, I am available most Thursdays after four PM.

Warm wishes,

64 Thousand Dollar Question

Prompt: Frail


“Misandry isn’t a ‘thing’,” said August. “It’s a reaction to misogyny.”

Seven women sat in a circle on grey folding chairs for their weekly “Search Inside Myself” session with Dr Whitley, who named the program without much thought to the sense of humour of incarcerated women. Some were there solely because of the name, and had no interest in exploring personal or sexuality issues. Their attendance was noted, and they looked upon Dr Whitley as naive, unintelligent, and laughable. These were incentive enough to encourage their weekly attendance.

“What do you mean, August?” asked Dr Whitley. She wore a cream coloured skirt and a black jacket. She always looked well-pressed. The rest of the women were clad in slightly rumpled charcoal grey two-piece uniforms, stamped with the institution’s initials on the back in sunny yellow, and with their names on badges stuck with velcro to the front of their uniforms.

“There aren’t women who hate men. Women hate what men do sometimes, but not the men.”

“Amen,” said Agnes. She was thinking of her husband, Armand, whom she didn’t realize was cheating on her at that very moment.

Miss Fisher spoke up. “There are women who hate men.” She had lost a few pounds in prison for the multiple murders, but still looked well for a woman of her age, and was far from frail. “For example,” she said, “I feel I am a misandrist. I am afraid, and regretful, that I truly do hate men. I honestly didn’t know there was a word for it until I attended this, um, group meeting.”

Search Inside Myself,” said Bonnie helpfully.

“How could you hate half the population?” August asked. She was approximately half Miss Fisher’s age. “You have reason to hate some men, but not all men.”

“I can because I do,” said Miss Fisher. “I didn’t always feel this way, but circumstances, life experiences, observations, and research have led me to conclude that the world would be a better place without men.”

“Amen,” said Bonnie, who was serving twelve years for poisoning her boyfriend.

“You hate little boys? Toddlers? Gandhi?”

“Of course I don’t hate little boys,” said Miss Fisher, smiling benignly. “But I do hate what they become. I never hated the young men in my classes, and it is tragic that they grew into men.”

“As opposed to what?” August asked.

“Decent people.”

“Many decent people are men.”

“I respectfully and regretfully disagree.”

“Do you,” said Dr Whitley, “regret the murders you committed? Are you sorry for the men you killed, and their families?”

Miss Fisher paused. “That is the 64 thousand dollar question, isn’t it?” she said amiably. She would hardly confess to any deed or feeling to a prison doctor with both a smart phone and a ballpoint pen, without careful consideration.

“What’s that?” asked Bonnie. “The 64 thousand dollar question?”

“It means a question at the gist of a matter,” said Miss Fisher. “It refers to a game show popular in the 50s, called The 64 Thousand Dollar Question, in which the contestants had the chance to win prize money by answering a series of questions.”

“Before your time, Bonnie,” said Agnes. “It’s like Trivial Pursuit.”

“What’s that?” asked Bonnie.

“Can we please get back to the discussion at hand?” said Dr Whitley in what she perceived was an kindly yet authoritative tone of voice.

“Let’s continue Searching Inside Ourselves,” said a woman named Tricia. Dr Whitley looked at her sharply. She had never spoken in group before.

Miss Fisher smiled.


Prompt: Glass


“Let’s move here,” Marcus said.

They sat on a wide, granite-clad balcony overlooking dry hills spotted with green, and sinewy rows of vineyards, and mist-covered lakes far in the distance.

“Everyone says that,” Envy said.

“But we could do it,” said Marcus. He took the bottle of Pino Gris out of the ice and topped up their glasses with cold wine. He pushed the plate of food away from him.

“We have a home and commitments,” Envy reminded him, feeling stodgy and old. She wasn’t sure why she was compelled to remind him of what he already knew. It was a habit, a bad one. And the sun was behind him, and illuminated all the stray blonde hairs on his head, and he looked beautiful and saintly, and she wondered why they could not simply indulge themselves.

Envy sank into this memory, as she rode home alone, in the back of a taxi. Marcus would go to prison for what he’d done.

Envy wanted to travel back in time, and stay on that balcony, in the shade, in the heat, with the cold wine, forever.