I suspected I might die this way, at the hands of another, their eyes full of murder. But I didn’t expect him to be so beautiful.
He bared his teeth, his milky fangs glistening at me in the lambent moonlight.
I fell still, my heartbeat slowing. It had only been a matter of time before I ended up here. And a small part of me was relieved. There were worse deaths than this. Much worse.
I tilted my chin up, baring my throat, my rampant pulse no doubt visible to my killer.
“Make it quick,” I panted, the adrenaline subsiding from my veins.
I’d put up a good fight. I’d never go out without one. I’d beaten a superior opponent before. But not this time.
As my killer bore down on me, I recalled the last man who had me cowering in this way, at his mercy.
After everything, here I was again.
Perhaps it was my fate to die this way after all.
Hands trembling, heart pounding, I placed one hesitant foot in front of the other.
This couldn’t be happening.
I clung to the bundle of blankets, plastic cup and plate I’d been handed by a prison guard. Every single possession I’d brought with me had been taken away. I didn’t know if I’d see my things again. That’s why they’d had to prise the photograph from my clenched fist: the sacred moment of happiness captured between my mother and I all those years ago. How could they take it from me? It was all I had left of us.
Now, the only vision I had of her was one particularly haunting expression burned into my retinas. The one she’d had at the exact moment the judge convicted me – tears rolling down her ashen cheeks, her mouth parted in an endless, silent scream. Nauseous, that was how I felt. And the type of exhausted I imagined only an insomniac knew the taste of.
Despite my sentence being handed to me mere hours ago, it already felt like days. How much longer would it feel after a month? A year? Ten?
I could still see the blood, my pale hand clamped around the hilt of the knife, the blade buried in my stepfather’s swollen gut. His expression of shock and dismay. After all my years of submission, he would never in his wildest dreams have expected me to rise up against him.
A burly guard led me down a corridor of cells. The cavernous room was monotone; metal doors ringed the grey walls which rose up to meet an equally dull ceiling. The bleak space before me was broken only by a harsh red railing that surrounded a central space, rising up two levels above me and one below. Prisoners leered at me, muttering to one another, elbowing their friends to draw attention to me.
I could see it in their expressions, what I feared. They were thinking, fresh meat.
The guard halted me in front of a cell, his broad form just a shadow in my periphery. As he slid open a hatch in the door, I couldn’t draw my eyes from the the dark hole. What would my cellmate be like? I had never worried about it until now. The trial had taken everything out of me, my courage included.
I’d promised I’d remain strong, for my mother’s sake. But now I was here and entirely alone. Whoever stood beyond that door would be my regular company from here on out.
“Stand back,” the guard barked and, like an idiot, I responded to his words, realising too late that the words weren’t meant for me.
The brick-wall of a man didn’t spare me a glance, instead rolling his shoulders and rapping a baton against the grey metal door. I was diminished beside him, my head barely grazing the breast pocket of his clean, white shirt. His chest pressed against the inside of it, all muscle. This man could break me in two, as could most of the guards I’d seen so far. What did they think of me?
A voice whispered the answer in my ear, cruel and all-knowing. Killer. Killer. Killer.
Through the hatch, I spotted a flash of red hair, then the guard snapped it shut. A harsh buzzing cut through the air and the door opened with a screech of metal.
The guard took my arm, drawing me closer, his mouth hovering by my ear, his breath so hot it left a heated patch on my skin. “Keep your head down in here.”
A warning, or a tip? I couldn’t be sure. But why would this man help me? Surely he knew what the rest of England saw me as: a vicious little killer.
He guided me inside. Two single beds sat opposite each other in a space perhaps six by eight feet. A girl stood at the foot of her bed in a grey jumper and jogging bottoms: the same clothes I’d been given to wear. Her fiery hair cascaded around her, hanging almost to her waist. Her face was pale and blemish-free, but her eyes were ringed with darkness and flecked with red veins. Guess I wasn’t alone in the exhaustion department. I wondered what kept her awake at night.
I turned back to the guard for instructions but he gave me none, swiftly exiting the room. The door clunked loudly into place and a chill fled down my spine.
I’m alone in here. No one is going to protect me but me.
“Hi,” I muttered, figuring it was best to break the ice as soon as possible. I was going to need allies in here – a prison was no place for actual friendships. This was about survival. And if there was one thing I knew about myself now, in the aftermath of all that had happened, it was that I’d do anything it took to survive.
The girl sauntered past her bed, her olive-green eyes trained on me, scouring, assessing. She was a year or two my senior. At eighteen, I imagined I was amongst the youngest here. If I’d killed my step-dad a year sooner, I could have been looking at juvenile prison and a far reduced sentence. But hell, I never had been one for good timing.
I dropped my eyes, turning to the other bed and placing the bundle of items on the mattress. No doubt playing the submissive in here was a solid move. At least initially, until I worked out the rules. And right then, I was certain being on good terms with my cell mate was a sensible idea. But genuine trust wasn’t in my nature any more.
“You shouldn’t turn your back on anyone in here,” the girl said, making me snap around. Was she threatening me already? Christ, I’d only just walked in the door.
She was sitting on her bed, her long legs folded beneath her as she observed me. There was something cat-like about her; sweet and innocent-looking, but with a twisted look in her eye like she’d happily devour any creature smaller than her.
Blood pounded in my ears.
I perched on the edge of my bed, trying to keep my expression neutral.
Her eyes roamed over me once more. “I know you.”
I stiffened as her gaze pierced through me. “I don’t think so,” I insisted, but doubt trickled into my gut. My trial had been well televised. And from what I’d heard, prisoners were privy to the luxury of the news.
“Yeah…you’re the girl who killed her father.”
“Stepfather,” I corrected without thinking.
A satisfied smile pulled at her full lips and I gathered my thick, ebony curls into my hands, avoiding her gaze.
“Selena Grey,” she said my name, her upper lip curling back. “I saw you on Sky News.”
My heart clawed its way up into my throat. I’d been painted as a monster by the press. The abuse claims were dismissed by the court. Why didn’t I go to the police months ago? Why didn’t I show someone the bruises?
“I’m not what you think,” I insisted, knotting my hands together.
“None of us are.” She raised an eyebrow, evidently amused.
Was she mocking me?
I sucked in a slow breath, calming my erratic heartbeat. “What are you in for?”
She released a derisive snort. “Nothing as bad as you.”
I ground my teeth, irritated that I wasn’t getting anywhere with the girl. Well I wasn’t going to waste my time trying to connect with someone who had clearly made up their mind about me.
I stood, firmly turning my back on her as I started making up my bed. If she believed I was some cold-blooded murderer, maybe she wouldn’t start anything with me. I had to be stronger. Perhaps I’d be better off letting them believe what everyone else did.
My mother’s final words to me ran through my mind.“Don’t ever forget what you are, Selena. You’re a hero, baby girl. My hero.”
My chest hollowed out. Mum was the only person in the world who knew what had really happened. But perhaps that was a blessing in disguise now. The other prisoners mustn’t think I was weak. Perhaps I was basing my judgement of prison life entirely on Hollywood films and dramatic Netflix shows, but I wasn’t going to let my guard down all the same.
“Arson,” the girl said and I made the conscious decision to keep my back to her, hoping it would encourage her to keep talking.
“Oh?” I questioned vaguely.
“I’m in for arson. And my name’s Cassandra. Or Cass, if you like.”
The fiery haired girl was in prison for arson, how fitting. I wasn’t sure whether to believe her, but when I turned around, I saw the truth in her eyes. Call it a gift, but I’d always been able to see through someone’s lies. Perhaps it was the years of living under a roof with a compulsive liar that had trained me to read people so well.
Why Cass had opened up to me though, was a mystery. Didn’t she see me as some vengeful killer? The one who had taken her own stepfather’s life out of spite and jealousy? Or so they’d said.
“What did you burn?” I asked, dropping onto the bed and leaning against the wall.
“I’d have burnt down the whole god-damn world if I could have.” Light danced in her emerald eyes.
I couldn’t fight a laugh at her tone and she surprised me by joining in. Some of the tension ran out of my shoulders.
“Alright, not the whole world. But one person’s: my ex’s. I wanted to watch his life be devoured by flames. Still do actually.”
“Why?” My heart stumbled at her expression; there was a wildness in her I was instinctively wary of.
No friends, I reminded myself. Just allies.
The light in her eyes extinguished. “Payback.”
I nodded, unsure if I should question her further, but curious to learn more.
She wound a finger around a crimson lock of hair, glancing away. Guess that was all the answers I was getting for now.
The door buzzed harshly and I stood, feeling safer on my feet as I prepared to face whoever was beyond it. Cass watched, clearly amused by me again.
“I better show you the ropes, little killer.” She stood, moving to my side.
I muttered my thanks, letting her take the lead as the door swung open. She was tall, but then I was pretty small myself so everyone seemed tall to me. Her limbs had a litheness to them that seemed almost model-worthy, even her hands belonged to a pianist. How did a girl like this end up in a maximum security prison? Arson alone surely wouldn’t have been enough to land her here amongst the worst of womankind?
The other inmates were emptying out of their cells, all filing towards a metal staircase that led to the lower level. The monotonous clang of a hundred footsteps rang through the air as the women descended.
“Where are we going?” I moved closer to Cass. Ally or not, she was the nearest thing I had to one right now.
“Food,” she said in explanation, her mouth barely moving. Her eyes were trained on the women ahead of us, specifically one with a short ponytail of ebony hair, as dark as mine. There was a delicate tattoo of a spiderweb on her neck. The group seemed at ease, laughing and chatting together. It reminded me of school, the cool girls banding together, making a scene as they talked loudly, dominating the space. But the problem with popular girls in prison, probably meant they were dangerous too.
One of them glanced over her shoulder, her pale blue eyes falling on me. She was large, nearly three times as wide as I was, her grey hair scraped back into a messy bun.
She nudged the girl with the tattoo who turned to look my way. She was younger than the rest of the group, perhaps a year or so older than me, I’d guess. A single black teardrop was tattooed next to her left eye.
As her amber irises trailed over me, a violent tremor ran down my spine. I knew that look all too well and it made me horribly uneasy. I was being sized up. A lamb assessed by a butcher.
We turned down a staircase, saving me from the girl’s probing eyes and leaving me wondering whether I’d made the cut.
“Who is that?” I whispered to Cass.
“Kite. Don’t trust her.”
“Kite,” I echoed, memorising the name. Whether Cass was trustworthy or not, I had no idea. But my instincts told me I’d rather be sharing a cell with her than someone like Kite or her companions. And my instincts had served me well in the past.
“She’s boss around here, or likes to think so anyway. Calls herself Top Bitch, which is pretty fitting seeing as she runs around with a pack of mutts.” Cass chuckled to herself and perhaps I’d have joined in under any other circumstances. But not then, not on my first day in prison where I was facing what felt like a lifetime under said ‘Top Bitch’.
We arrived in a canteen filled with bright blue benches attached to dull grey tables, running the length of the room. The last thing I was at that moment was hungry, but I followed Cass to the queue anyway and grabbed a tray like everyone else. Despite not having been far ahead of us, Kite and her friends were somehow fronting the line. That was no coincidence, so I guessed Cass was right. That lot ran the place, which meant I was probably of interest. They’d want to make sure I wasn’t trouble.
My gut twisted as a dark, Netflix-induced thought crawled into my mind. What if they wanted to put me in my place? What if they had some screwed up initiation test to make sure I was under the thumb, like ironing my hands or cutting my hair off? I gathered my raven hair into my fists, pulling it over one shoulder and running my fingers through it.
“Tray,” a woman barked at me from behind the counter. She wore a frilly white apron and had more chins than I could count in the few seconds it took me to grab the tray and shuffle along the line.
Another woman ladled gravy over the meat and veg in the largest compartment on my tray. I mumbled a thank you before following Cass across the room.
“There’s no place for manners in here,” Cass snipped as we took a seat at the back of the room. I sat beside her, taking advantage of the view we had across the canteen.
Kite and her crew took up centre stage, resting their feet on the surrounding benches to make sure no one sat near them – not that I suspected anyone would try.
There seemed to be some unspoken code hanging in the air that everyone was abiding to without question. I was betting my survival banked on me knowing that code, so vowed to learn it. And fast.
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