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Stern Agony---Excerpt

Guardsteps in the corridor. The jangle of keys. I stiffen, my face flush against the padded wall as if to crawl inside it.
“Shower,” says the guard, working the lock. 
Like some hemmed rodent, my eyes widen as I suck at my own foul breath.
“Move it, Fish, get the fuck up.” The guard whacks the butt of his flashlight on the bed frame. I turn, look up. Dust motes meandering in beams of light. The guard, his bulk framed in silhouette, says: “You got to the count of three.” 
I rise, shaking. I extend my arms, my hands clasped as if in prayer. The guard cuffs me, clamping the ill-fitted tackle over my wrists. Wincing, I slip into my sandals. Expecting a blow, I duck toward the floor beneath the bunk for my glasses.
“Leave ‘em.” 
The guard shackles my legs, tethers my waist with a chain, and leads me out of the cell, goading me like some zookeeper. Caged inmates, having come awake in the commotion, pelt me with warnings.
“Marching off to get laid. Oh, honey.”
“Fresh meat so sweet. Don’t squeal now.”
Slowing, turning, we enter a narrow passage. We stop at a door. Fumbling with his flashlight, dropping it, cursing, jamming it under the pit of his arm, the guard digs three keys from his belt ring: masterkey, passkey, padlock key. The guard’s hands fidget along the door, his fingers working, mishandling, groping. He curses. The clatter and clank of metal on metal. 
The locks give way.
Two deadbolts. One chain.
The guard shoulders the door and nods for me to pass. 
“But I,” I say, faltering. “I thought you said shower. Why are…? Why did…?”
“Shut up.”
I enter the room. A rush of chilled air, like a meat locker. The faint odor of antiseptic soured by piss. 
The guard flicks the light-switch to some disused lavatory, the only illumination from a droplight hung from the ceiling like a noose, radiant in the darkness—a moon. The guard shields his eyes with his arm. My gaze slides away from the light. Dazzle abates. Vision acclimates. 
Strewn among the shadows on the floor, lie a welter of dismantled stalls, porcelain urinals, commodes and sinks. A pipe with a shower-head cranes from a wall. The corners of the room are dark, but near the center, a prison cot gathers light like a stage. The walls, once white, have yellowed. They’ve been patched here and there, blotched with black to cover graffiti, inky paint stains reminiscent of Rorschach.
The guard unshackles my legs, my hands, and removes the chain from my waist. He levels his nightstick toward the shower head in the corner, and speaks with a remnant echo into the darkness.
“Get naked. No, strip right here, under the light. Toss your clothes on the cot.”
The wriggle out of my jumpsuit, kick off my sandals, edge down my underwear.
 “Cold,” I want to say, to plead for return to my cell, but the words die behind my teeth. Instead, I wrap my arms and cower, shivering.
The guard re-shackles my naked legs, my hands, and aims his nightstick toward something on the floor. A sliver of soap and a hand-towel.
I stoop and cradle the soap. 
“Over there, we’ll get you showered. You’ll be alright.”
At the softer tenor of the guard’s voice, this trace of compassion, perhaps pity, the room seems suddenly smaller, and I feel tiny, the way a rabbit must when beset by the wolf—naked, caught in open space, petrified. I sense an urge, in the shame of my defenselessness, my weakness, to lie on the floor and capitulate, to expose the softness of my underbelly as an animal would for its master, to submit as a coward would. 
I do not lie down. I do not submit. Instead, I weep, not only for my self, but for the girl, the girl and her parents, for she too must have felt small, fragile, helpless.
And in that moment, I know.
“Quit sniveling. They told me you was crazy. Nut-job, rams his head.”
The guard reaches and turns the one handle. I bend under the shower head, and grimace as if waiting for gas. Pipes belch and hiss. Off-colored water, smelling of rust, streams frigid. I hop sideways to escape the stream.
“Hurry up. It don’t get no better. Get back in there. Wash your balls.” 
My face contorted in expectancy of numbing cold, I edge my back under the shower.  My breath catches. I hop to the side again. As the single stream pounds the concrete, I lather. Eyes closed, holding my breath, I ease back under the arctic flow. 
The guard turns off the water. I stand, goose-fleshed. My teeth chatter. The guard shrinks back into the darkness toward the door. I bend and scoop the towel from the floor and wipe my head, my face.
When I move the towel down to dry my neck and chest, I open my eyes.
Three naked men surround me. One smiles. The others, it seems, are panting.
I stumble backward to the wall, the chains at my ankles cutting flesh. I lower the towel to cover my crotch.
The door clangs shut. 
Two deadbolts. One chain.


  1. Can't wait to see Stern Agony in print. Have read everything here and want to read it all. Read some of this to my girl friend, who teaches English and her response was, "excellent writing," "great metaphors."

  2. I love this intro. Amazing how you are able to convey the look and feel of a place and the workings of a mind in such few but powerful words. I am anxious to get the full story, to know what choices/actions led Shaw Pence to that place. Not being a writer, I have given little thought to your craft until I began reading your blog, but I have read books that left me feeling like "what a waste of time" as opposed to those where I felt privileged to get to know the characters and enlightened by the reading. Your writing does the latter for me. Thank you.