Two Teardrops

two teardrops

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chapter one

drop-cap-tAMARA HAD SOMEHOW EXPECTED expected things to be different when she was readmitted to the juvenile detention center. She had changed during her short period of release, and she had subconsciously expected that juvie and the people there would have changed as well.

But old Eli was at the wheel of the bus that picked Tamara up from the city jail after she had recovered sufficiently to be released from hospital. He looked Tamara over as she was escorted onto the bus and chained in place. He shook his head and made a clicking sound with his tongue.

“Tamara French,” he observed. “Right back where you came from.”

Tamara gave him what she hoped was a hard stare to discourage him from further comment. She had a rep to reestablish. She couldn’t come off as sorry or embarrassed by her return to juvie.

“Saw your mug on TV,” Eli went on. “You and Glock. What are you doing hanging around with Glock Spielman? You know she’s bad news.”

Tamara gave a wordless shrug and turned her face away from him to stare out the bus window. A couple of girls were loaded onto the bus. Newbies she didn’t know. Young and green, looking terrified behind their masks of indifference. Then a girl Tamara recognized. A tall, Hispanic girl, crooked nose, face acne-pocked. Vernon. She’d been the boss of the TMJ gang in juvie when Tamara had first arrived, released around the same time as Glock.

Vernon’s eyes flicked over Tamara. “Yo, French. Saw you on the news,” she greeted, raising a shackled hand at waist-height to high-five her.

Vernon was showing her respect, acknowledging Tamara as an equal. Tamara was just able to lift her hand far enough to slap Vernon’s white-scarred palm in response. The guard escorting Vernon in gave her a jerk, pulling her away from Tamara.

“No personal contact on the bus,” he growled. Then Vernon was past Tamara and she couldn’t see the older girl’s response. She listened to the guard anchoring Vernon in place and then he headed for the door.

“That’s it for today,” he told Eli.

The guard who had been seated at the back of the bus when Tamara got on, a man Tamara didn’t recognize, walked up the aisle, checking that each girl was securely anchored by jerking on their wrist-chains. He sat at the front of the bus, in a seat that faced them, watching for any sign of trouble. Eli closed the door with a hiss and secured it. Then they were on their way home.

The same general observations were made on the other end as the guards who processed intake recognized Tamara and greeted her by name, mentioning that they had seen her on TV or heard of her pending return.

“Didn’t think I’d be seeing you again,” Bonner commented.

Tamara shrugged and started to strip, gazing up at the ceiling.

“Remove all your jewelry and put it in the tray.”

“Came from city jail,” Tamara pointed out. “They already got it all.”

“Everything?” Bonner demanded, scrutinizing Tamara’s less-visible piercing sites with brows drawn down and her head slightly cocked.

“Everything,” Tamara confirmed. She awaited further instructions, knowing there was no point in trying to move on until Bonner was convinced she wasn’t trying to smuggle in any contraband. Bonner walked her through the strip search, making Tamara display every fold and crevice where she might have something hidden, then finally nodded.

“Okay. You’re clean. Anything else I should know about?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Showers.”

Tamara walked over to the door that led to a single semi-private shower. She moved quickly. Water that never heated up properly; harsh, coarse soap; and yellow, chemical-laden anti-lice shampoo that burned for hours if she got it in her eyes. All familiar. All reasons not to linger under the spray any longer than was necessary. Hot showers were something she would miss. She shut off the water and grabbed a thin towel, rubbing her body briskly to banish the chill. Bonner, still supervising the process, handed her the orange jumper and her whites.

“Suit up.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Tamara pulled the skivvies and jumpsuit on over damp skin, her movements automatic and requiring no thought. She waited for Bonner to buzz her through the next door. When Bonner didn’t push the button immediately, Tamara looked back at her. Bonner shook her head.

“I figured that was the last we’d see of you,” Bonner repeated. “You were one we weren’t going to see back through here again.”

Tamara chewed on her lip, trying to sort through the rush of emotions Bonner’s comment brought. Anger, guilt, shame, denial. Her stomach knotted, and the feelings were all jumbled together, rocketing around her brain and refusing to be corralled.

“Guess we were both wrong,” she said finally. “It… wasn’t like I thought it would be.”

Bonner hit the door release. Tamara turned back around, opened the door, and walked through it.

She was the first one to be processed, so it was just her and the staff in the orientation room. She moved automatically to one of the benches, then paused, looking to Rice, the highest-ranking official in the room. Rice looked back at her for a moment.

“Have a seat,” he eventually said, giving a nod.

Tamara sat down.

“We heard you were on your way back,” Rice commented.

“Here I am,” Tamara said, not sure what else to say.

“Yes. Here you are.”

Tamara sat in silence. She recognized all of the guards and staff. Her memory of her initial admission three years before was foggy. She had been so exhausted and sick and overwrought, she could remember little between the strip search and being shown to her bunk. But she knew the procedure by heart. The previous year, she had been a senior mentor, sitting up at the front where Karim and Lawson were now, shepherding the greenies through the admittance process. Showing a friendly face to the scared little newbies, helping to de-escalate the anxiety and hostility that went with being in a strange place for the first time, surrounded by intimidating adults.

One of the greenies from the bus came through the door and looked around the orientation room, eyes wide, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. Eyes flashing to Tamara, she saw where she was supposed to be and slid into the seat next to her.

“Waterson?” Rice addressed her.

Her head snapped up. “Yeah?”

“You will stand until you are given instructions and told to be seated.”

Her throat betrayed a hard swallow. Waterson looked at Tamara again, unsure what to do. Then she rose slowly to her feet again. The room was silent. Everyone waited while she stood there uncomfortably, face red.

“If you are not sure what to do, you should ask,” Rice said finally. “We are here to help you. If there is ever any question about what you are or are not allowed to do, you should ask. You will never be censured for asking permission or asking for clarification. Understood?”

Waterson nodded. “Yeah. Okay.” She swallowed again and licked her lips.

“We use ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ here.”

“Oh… yes, sir.”

Rice gave a warm smile of approval. “Have a seat.”

Waterson collapsed back into the space beside Tamara breathing fast. Hyperventilating was not uncommon with scared admittees.

“It’s okay,” Tamara whispered to her. “Try to relax.”

The other girl’s eyes widened. Relaxing was the farthest thing from her mind.

When the door opened next, it was the other greenie, and the process was repeated. Her name was Perez. Not the first Perez in the facility, she would probably end up being addressed by her first name. She was eventually seated in the other bench, and glanced over at Tamara and Waterson, looking isolated and alone.

Tamara felt a chill each time the door opened and air rushed over her wet hair and the wet spot that her hair had made on the back of her coveralls between her shoulders.

Vernon entered. Like Tamara, she was familiar with the rules and procedures at juvie. She didn’t even make her way over to the bench, but stood there as the door closed behind her, head tipped up to look at the ceiling, waiting.

“Vernon,” Rice acknowledged. “You may be seated next to Perez.”

Vernon didn’t answer, but took the two steps over to the bench and sat beside newbie Perez.

“So, two newbies and two… experienced,” Rice observed, looking them over. “Nice symmetry. Waterson and Perez, this is your orientation. French and Vernon, a refresher. Stay awake.” He gave Tamara in particular a stern look. Considering the fact that Tamara couldn’t remember her initial orientation, it was logical to assume that she may, in fact, have slept through it, and Rice remembered the fact. Rice proceeded to introduce the staff members who were present and what they were there for. Tamara’s mind wandered. He ran through policies, rules, and schedules. Most of the administrators had a set speech they followed. After attending a year’s worth of orientations, Tamara had pretty much memorized Rice’s.

Tamara looked up at Karim and Lawson, the mentors. Their expressions were blank. They had mentally checked out, waiting for Rice to get through his patter. When he reached the part where he introduced the two of them, they blinked and sat up straighter. Tamara knew Rice was drawing to a close. She rubbed her eyes and shifted in her seat, preparing to get up.

“You will each be assigned an intake officer.” Rice’s eyes flicked over the four admittees. Tamara knew he assigned the intakes on the fly, matching the new girls to their counselors based on his first impressions of them. He was remarkably good at assessing attitudes and personalities to pair each girl with the right professional.

“French, would you see Dr. Sutherland?”

Tamara stood up and faced the facility psychologist. The other girls were assigned to other staff members. The two senior mentors approached their assigned greenies to help them through the process. Tamara worked her way across the room to Dr. Sutherland.

She looked down at his shoes, her face hot, too embarrassed to meet his eyes.

“Uh, hi, Dr. S.”

“Tamara. Nice to see you again.” Dr. Sutherland paused, reconsidering. “Well, it would have been nicer not to see you again, under the circumstances, but here we are.” He scratched at his silver goatee.

Tamara chewed on her thumbnail. “Uh-huh.”

“Let’s take a conference room, shall we?” He put his hand over hers, pushing her hand gently away from her mouth.

Tamara followed him out of the orientation room and then beside him down the hallway to a meeting room. Tamara twisted a lock of hair around her finger, fidgeting, while Sutherland sat down and opened his folder.

“Your name is Tamara French?” He looked up from the folder to her, eyes smiling.

“Yes.”

“You are currently… fifteen?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been remanded for breach of your parole conditions?”

“Yes.”

“Remind me your original charges.”

Tamara swallowed. Sutherland knew very well what Tamara’s original charges were. It was just one of their psychological tricks for getting an intake to be forthcoming and cooperative. Ask questions that would get several yeses in a row. Then ask factual questions requiring short answers. Once the intake got into the habit of answering, move into open-ended questions, and the momentum would carry them on to keep answering openly and honestly. As a senior mentor, she’d been taught how it worked.

“Two murder convictions,” she told him, trying to keep her voice calm and even.

“And you’ve served how much of your sentence?”

“Three years.” She anticipated his next question. “Of five-to-ten.”

“Your parole officer was…”

“Chad Collins.”

Sutherland jotted down answers on his intake forms.

“How are you feeling, Tamara?” He looked up at her, eyebrows raised.

“Better.”

He waited for more details, letting the silence draw her out.

“Ribs are still sore. But they’re healing. My lungs are clear. Doctor said not to do any running for a while.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“No, sir.”

He didn’t say anything for a minute, studying her. Tamara tried to keep her hands down away from her face and just to focus on her breathing. It would be a good time to practice one of the relaxation exercises Dr. Frank had given her.

“How do you feel about being back here?”

Tamara blew out her breath slowly. She hadn’t had a cigarette in two weeks, so she was past the physical withdrawal from nicotine, but she still desperately wanted one to calm her and to keep her hands still.

“It sucks.”

Sutherland chuckled.

“And it’s… a relief. I feel… like I belong here. I didn’t on the outside.”

He nodded his understanding. “Three years of institutionalization has had an effect on all areas of your life.”

“It was so hard. When Glock showed up… it was like… it was so much easier just to do what she said.”

“Even though you knew it was in breach of your parole.”

“Yeah. Making my own decisions was… really hard.”

“So now you’re back with us… at least until your case comes before the parole board again. What do you think that’s going to be like?”

“I dunno. Back to normal.”

His eyes searched her face. “Have you had any thoughts of suicide?”

“Oh.” The suggestion surprised Tamara. “No… no, not at all.”

“Good. No thoughts of self-harm? Or finding yourself taking risks you normally wouldn’t?”

“No… not since I was in hospital.”

“How do you feel about being put in the general population here? Is there any reason you feel unsafe or in need of special supervision?”

Tamara thought back to when she was first remanded. Had anyone asked her those questions then? When she had felt so scared and vulnerable? That early-morning admission was mostly a blank. They must have interviewed her, but she could remember nothing about it.

“Tamara?” Sutherland probed, eyes sharp, looking concerned.

“No. No, I’m fine. General population is fine. Everybody knows me. No problem. Really.”

“You have something else you want to talk about? You seem… distracted.”

“No. It’s just… this is weird. Sort of like deja vu. Except backwards. I’ve done this all before, right? But it doesn’t feel like it. I should be able to remember… but I can’t.”

Sutherland wrote a note on Tamara’s file.

“Jamais vu,” he said.

“What?”

“Jamais vu is when something that should be familiar seems new and foreign. But I don’t know if that applies here… It’s been three years since you were admitted. It’s not like something that happened daily. It was a long time ago for you.”

“I guess. Do you remember? Who did my intake then?”

Sutherland considered. “I’d have to look back at your file,” he said. “You were in pretty bad shape when you came to us. It wouldn’t have been a routine intake.”

Tamara nodded. “It’s all foggy. Like bad dream.”

“You weren’t… yourself. Physically and emotionally, you were very sick…”

“But you put me in the general population then.”

Sutherland shook his head. “No. Not for several weeks.”

“Really?”

He nodded.

Tamara gave her head a little shake. “I don’t remember.”

“Let’s try to stay focused on today.”

“Oh. Yeah, okay.”

“Maybe that’s something we could talk about in regular sessions.”

Tamara nodded. Before her release, they had been working on transitioning to life on the outside. That had obviously not worked out so well.

“You’re feeling strong?” Sutherland asked. “Ready and willing to resume your normal activities here?”

Tamara frowned, considering. Not the words that she would have chosen. Was she prepared to be dropped back into the maximum-security block? Prepared to defend herself and reestablish her rep if she needed to? Mentally prepared for constant vigilance? While she craved the strict routine she’d been conditioned to and not having to make her own decisions again, she would also have to face the familiar violence and high-pressure politics.

“I… I guess I gotta be.”

 

On completion of her intake interview with Dr. Sutherland, Tamara was passed off to Zobel, one of the guards, a familiar stocky figure Tamara had grown used to seeing over the previous three years. Sutherland nodded at him and didn’t give him any instructions on Tamara’s ‘housing’ situation. Which meant they had already figured on her being placed in the general population and no changes needed to be made to her anticipated assignment.

“Didn’t think we’d see you back here again so soon,” Zobel remarked, taking Tamara by the arm to escort her to her new cell.

“Wasn’t exactly my plan.” Tamara sighed.

“Hear you put Glock Spielman back behind bars.”

Tamara turned this over in her mind. She supposed that technically it was true; but it wasn’t like she had informed on Glock. All she had done was try to talk Glock out of killing her and Chad Collins. The fact that she was successful, and Glock had ended up being arrested didn’t make Tamara a snitch. Glock had done it to herself.

“Wasn’t my doing,” she said. “I was just there.”

“I told you a long time ago that girl was trouble. You should have just stayed away from her from the start.”

“Yeah.”

She didn’t remind him that Glock had been her cellmate. Sort of hard not to associate with your own cellie. Or that Glock had been her protector, keeping Tamara from being beaten up by the gangs. He was right. They had gotten too close. And Tamara should have stayed away from Glock while on parole. She should have reported contact with her right from the start and saved herself several weeks of misery.

They walked past Tamara’s previous cell. It was going to take a while to adjust to a new cell. She’d be walking back into her old one and wondering what the hell the other girls were doing there. They passed a couple of inmates walking down the hall. Nothing was said, but Tamara felt their eyes on her.

“Relax,” Zobel told her, feeling her tense. “Nobody starting any fights today.”

“Who am I bunking with?” Tamara’s anxiety ratcheted up another notch as she considered all of the unknowns.

“New girl. Blacksnake.”

“Who’s she with?”

Zobel gave her a sideways look. Tamara wasn’t sure if he was going to try to tell her that he didn’t know which gang the girl was affiliated with, or to take the party line that there were no gangs inside the facility. He apparently decided against this approach and gave her the straight goods.

“Sharks.”

Tamara bit her lip. “And Vernon’s back.” The leadership of TMJ had been unstable since Vernon’s release. A good thing for those who didn’t want to be forced into a gang, but something that caused the guards no end of grief as they tried to stay on top of the changing political climate and keep all-out war from breaking out. “Who’s heading TMJ? Still Rosie?”

“For now.”

They both knew it probably wouldn’t last. She was lucky to have retained power for as long as she had. With Vernon back on the inside, that wasn’t likely to continue.

Tamara thought about the two new inmates. Perez and Waterson. While neither one was an obvious asset, they both looked tough and streetwise. If TMJ could recruit two more bodies and Vernon regained her position at their head, it might be enough to throw the balance of power. TMJ could take control of the block.

Zobel stopped abruptly and Tamara jerked to a halt. She looked at him, wondering what she had done. He indicated the cell.

“This is it.”

“Oh. Right. Thanks.”

She slipped into the cell. Blacksnake had only been there a few weeks at most and hadn’t collected any personal items in that time. So there was little in the cell other than her bedding and hygiene items. The bottom bunk was made, and a stack of new bedding was neatly folded on the thin, worn mattress of the top bunk. Tamara’s hygiene kit was tucked into the pillowcase. They used to pass them out to inmates in large, zip-seal plastic bags, until someone had discovered they were large enough and had just enough stretch to pull over someone’s head. It took only one suffocation for every plastic bag in the place to instantly disappear.

Tamara stretched her sheet over the mattress and tucked it neatly. The rules didn’t say she had to do it immediately, but it would earn her points with the staff and she wouldn’t have to do it at lights-out, when she was too tired.

There was no reason to stay in her cell any longer except to delay the inevitable, so Tamara went back into the corridor. Gomez was taking Vernon to her new cell. Unlike Tamara, Vernon had been handcuffed; she stood waiting for Gomez to unlock her.

“Don’t cause any trouble,” Gomez warned as he removed the cuffs.

Vernon sent an amused look in Tamara’s direction. “What trouble?” she asked with mock innocence.

“Just behave yourself. Don’t know what they’re doing, putting you straight into general.”

“I was good for my intake,” Vernon sneered.

Gomez shook his head and walked away. With no desire to be left in the corridor with Vernon, Tamara headed toward the common room.

“Frenchie!” Vernon hadn’t entered her cell. She fell in quickly beside Tamara. Her smile was more like a sneer. Tamara remembered what Glock had said about her in the early days of Tamara’s incarceration. Vernon’s a sly one, always sneaking around; she’d just as soon stab you in the back as smile at you. Tamara had no intention of getting stabbed in the back. Vernon already knew that Tamara was the enemy, intent on staying out of the gangs. She wasn’t going to waste any time courting Tamara. “Where’s the Glock? I thought they got you both together.”

“Didn’t come here. Sent her upstate, I think. Didn’t want us mixing.”

“Not after putting that teacher in ICU,” Vernon agreed with a snort. “Though why they care about scum bashing scum, I don’t know.”

“Who can figure it out?” Tamara agreed. While she was trying to appear casual, she was watching Vernon like a hawk, evaluating every movement and expression. Vernon had just been searched by Bonner, who was very conscientious and knew her business. She had been handcuffed and she hadn’t had time to make or acquire a weapon. She hadn’t had a chance to talk to her gang yet, so she didn’t know where she stood or what she was going to have to do to take over control of TMJ again. She wouldn’t want to waste any energy on Tamara. Vernon was unarmed and had more important things to do than fight Tamara.

Unless she were looking for an easy warm-up to loosen up her muscles. Then Tamara was the perfect target.

“You get either of those newbs for a cell mate?” Vernon asked.

“No. Some other girl who’s been here a few weeks.”

Vernon grunted. “Me neither. Listen…” She grabbed Tamara’s shoulder before they entered the common room, stopping her. Tamara froze. She stood there staring at Vernon, not pulling out of her grip or fighting back. Either reaction was likely to provoke violence. Vernon pulled Tamara a little closer, lifting her chin slightly in a gesture of defiance and dropping her voice to a hoarse whisper. “You have contact with either one of them, give them a little nudge my way. Make sure they know TMJ rules the block. And anyone who’s smart,” she gave Tamara a hard stare, “knows to sign on with us.”

Tamara swallowed. She didn’t say she would; she didn’t say she wouldn’t. She didn’t acknowledge TMJ’s rule over the block or which gang she would recommend if someone were so stupid as to ask her opinion. She stared into middle distance, past Vernon. Not at Vernon’s face. And not at her own feet. Showing respect, but not agreeing nor arguing. She didn’t flinch under Vernon’s close scrutiny and eventually Vernon pushed her away.

Tamara breathed a long, slow sigh of relief, which made her ribs ache.

She entered the common room. It was just exactly the same as it had been when she had left. It hadn’t been long. It seemed like an eternity. Like a lifetime. But it had only been a few weeks. The room was exactly the same. The faces were exactly the same, with very few exceptions. The temperature and the smell and the sound of the circulation fans were all exactly the same. It was as if she’d never left.

No one jumped up to meet her. Tamara didn’t have any close friends in the block. A few people that she could talk to if she ended up standing next to them in the canteen or bathroom sinks, but no one that she could confide in or who told her all of their secrets. Tamara suddenly missed Sybil. As annoying as Syb’s fascination with Tamara’s criminal past had been, it had been nice to have a friend again. Like going back to her childhood.

And then there was Glock. She didn’t miss Glock’s closeness.

Everyone looked past Tamara to Vernon. Tamara was a nobody. She didn’t get in the way. She wasn’t in the gangs. She wasn’t worth looking at or talking to. But Vernon was going to be making some waves.

There was a spurt of curses from the corner of the room. Tamara’s eyes darted over to the source. Rosie jumped up from her seat and was pushing her lieutenants out of the way as she bee-lined toward Vernon. Tamara was caught right between the two girls.

Of course, the guards had been expecting just that kind of trouble, and immediately moved in, larger numbers than usual in the common room. They split between Rosie and her girls and Vernon, as if everything had been arranged ahead of time, assignments made to A team and B team, with A team surrounding Rosie and B team surrounding Vernon. It was as neat and polished as if they had been practicing on the parade grounds all week.

Rosie was spitting and cursing and didn’t go quietly. She was easily overcome by the guards, but still struggled against them to show her strength and determination to fight Vernon at the earliest opportunity. She cat-called and smack-talked while they hauled her out of the room and to isolation. Her lieutenants and a couple of other TMJs too eager to take up the fight were escorted out as well. The isolation unit was going to be busy. Some of them would probably end up locked down in their own cells instead.

Vernon, meanwhile, had not reacted to Rosie with her own threats and gestures. The guards were left surrounding a single girl who was just standing there, watching the whole operation with amusement. They looked at each other for guidance. The plan had obviously been to take both girls to isolation. If the administration was smart, they had already made applications to have one or the other of the girls transferred to a different facility. But with Vernon standing there calmly, there was nothing the guards could do without violating her rights. They had no reason to lay hands on her or write her up.

“Nice job,” Vernon said coolly. “Now if you’d back off, I’d like to go watch some TV.”

More confused looks, and then the guards gave her some space, going back to their previous positions or leaving the common room. Vernon looked at Tamara and raised an eyebrow.

“Doesn’t look like there’s going to be any more excitement today.”

Tamara unclenched her fists and tried to relax all of her muscles. There was a shot of pain through her broken ribs that she hadn’t been aware of until the danger was past.

“Yeah. Right,” she agreed in a voice that sounded too weak and vulnerable.

“I appreciate the sentiment, and all,” Vernon said, chuckling.

“Oh—I wasn’t—” Tamara fumbled her words.

Of course Vernon knew Tamara hadn’t been prepared to fight to protect Vernon. Only herself. Vernon knew that; she was just teasing Tamara. Poking fun at her reflex reaction.

Vernon ignored Tamara’s babble and walked toward the TV. Directly to the space that Rosie had previously occupied. The remaining TMJ members looked at Vernon and at each other anxiously. Vernon had moved in and usurped Rosie’s place just like she had planned. TMJ was going to be forced to take action against Vernon or to accept her without relying on the results of a show-down fight between the two potential leaders. All of the powerful TMJs had been removed from the equation and only the rank and file remained. Or those who had been reluctant to ally themselves with Rosie’s cause.

Vernon really was brilliant, Tamara realized. She was going to be able to position herself without ever lifting a finger.

Vernon leaned back in her chair nodded at Alicia Brett, one of her old sidekicks. “’Sup, Brett?”

Everyone was watching and listening, waiting to see what happened.

Brett nodded. “Vernon.”

“Fill me in. What’s been happening around here lately?”

Brett reluctantly drew up one of the other vacated chairs so that she and Vernon could talk in lower voices and not be overheard by the guards and other girls. Brett looked at the other TMJ members, but there was no one there who ranked high enough to tell her what to do or who was confident enough to advise her. Brett leaned in toward Vernon.

The conversation was too quiet for Tamara to hear. She didn’t try to get closer to listen in, but kept an eye on the little knot of girls as she found a seat of her own and pretended to be watching the TV. Most of the others were also watching to see the outcome of the convo. The TMJ girls started to relax, and it was obvious from their body language that they had made the decision, conscious or not, that Vernon was the new leader of the TMJ.

Without one punch being thrown, Vernon had placed herself as the de facto leader of the TMJ. Tamara wasn’t sure what was going to happen when Rosie got out of iso, but she wouldn’t be resuming leadership of TMJ as she expected.

 

It seemed like so long since Tamara had eaten breakfast, and so much had happened since then, that she was surprised when the meal bell rang that it was only lunch and not supper. She had lost track of the days, but decided it must be the weekend, since most of the girls had been in the common areas and not in classes.

Her brain was so imprinted with the mealtime routine after three meals a day for three years that her hands and feet moved of their own accord, with no conscious direction on her part.

The canteen was the same. The food was the same. The faces around the room were mostly the same. Tamara got in line, picked up her tray and dishes, and moved along the serving counter, oblivious to what they were putting on her plate. Instead, her mind was on the rest of the room, radar active for any potential problems. The canteen was one place that problems happened. The guards couldn’t keep track of every fork, every bowl of hot soup, and every potential for contamination or poisoning. There were no knives, but it was less restricted than isolation, where there was no cutlery and food was served cold in lightweight paper bowls.

“Thought you weren’t coming back here.”

Tamara swiveled to look at the girl behind her. Tabitha Smith. Tabby. When she had arrived at juvie, she’d had fine, bleach-blond hair which, together with her delicate, almost translucent skin, made her look as fragile as a china doll.

She wasn’t.

“Yeah. Things didn’t go according to plan,” Tamara agreed.

“What happened?”

“Assault. Breach of parole. Associating with a felon.”

Tabby snorted. “So much for being a good girl.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s always the quiet ones,” Tabby said. “People think you’re such a sweet little thing, cuddly little kitten. Until you show your fangs.”

Tabby liked cat metaphors and Tamara had heard this one before. She didn’t bother to answer, hoping the conversation would terminate.

“You’re looking piqued there. You been sick?”

Tamara turned around to face Tabby fully. If Tabby or any of the others thought Tamara was weak, she would be an instant target. She shoved Tabby, making her topple backward into the girls behind her in line before she could regain her balance. A plate went sliding across her tray and crashed to the floor. The hum of conversation in the room was instantly silenced. Tamara waited, ready to throw her tray down and fight Tabby if necessary. She certainly didn’t want to with her injured ribs, but she had to show them she was strong before there could be any question of it.

“Chill!” Tabby protested. “What’s your problem?”

Millican was there, stepping between them, giving both girls an angry scowl. “Break it up. You both know how to behave in the canteen. What’s going on here?”

“I don’t know what her problem is,” Tabby growled. “I didn’t do anything, she just shoved me, out of nowhere!”

“Uh-huh. Go to the back of the line and get a new plate. Put some space between you.”

Tabby protested against having to wait longer for her lunch, but obeyed and went back to the end of the counter to pick up a new plate. Millican stared at Tamara. “What’s up with you, French? Forget how to behave while you were gone?”

Tamara didn’t answer. She just stood there stone-faced. Millican stooped to pick up the dropped plate and its contents. When he grabbed the edge, they both saw what had been camouflaged by the food Tabby had been dishing up. The plastic plate, supposed to be unbreakable, had shattered. The piece that he picked up was a long, sharp dagger of plastic. Millican’s knuckles whitened. His eyes widened in alarm. He met Tamara’s eyes and his other hand shot to his panic button. Tamara winced at the loud shrill of the siren.

Guards shot across the room to Millican’s assistance. More were summoned by a remote alarm, every spare security staffer pouring into the canteen.

“Get your hands up,” Millican ordered.

Tamara stared back at him. Her hands were occupied, both holding her lunch tray. She didn’t move. Other guards cleared nearby inmates away, creating a perimeter.

“Put your tray on the counter.” Millican spoke through clenched teeth. “Put it down gently. Do not drop it.”

Maybe they had a whole shipment of defective dishes. Maybe every plate in the room could be broken to produce multiple weapons. If Tamara felt threatened, she could arm herself. She wouldn’t win against his taser and service weapon and all the rest of the security staff surrounding them, of course. But that hadn’t stopped juvies from trying in the past and injuring themselves or the security staff before they could be subdued.

Smaller shards than the one Millican held could be tucked in a pocket, underarm, or braid to be used later. They wouldn’t be turned up by x-rays or metal detectors. If the staff didn’t identify every splinter of plastic that had come from Tabby’s plate, the whole block would be on general lockdown.

Tamara didn’t move immediately. She let Millican sweat it. Reminded him and everyone else in the room that she wasn’t any shrinking violet to be bullied or ignored. Asserted her position.

“French!” Millican barked.

Tamara startled at his shout and let the dinnerware slide to the edge of her tray. She balanced it there, right at the edge, looking Millican in the eye. Then she moved slowly to lay it flat on the counter and raised her hands to shoulder height.

One of the guards behind her grabbed her hands and pressed them together to handcuff her. There was a collective sigh of relief. Millican turned around to spot Tabby.

“Her too. Tabitha Smith.” He pointed a finger at her and made sure that Tabby was handcuffed as well.

“What happened?” Weiler, one of the administrators, hurried into the canteen, her sharp eyes darting around the room.

Millican showed Weiler the knifelike shard of plate. “It broke. We have to be sure she didn’t get a piece of it.” He indicated Tabby with a hooked thumb.

They both crouched down by the broken plate. Millican pushed the spilled food out of the way and fitted his shard of plastic into its place in the plate. They adjusted the now-visible triangles, looking for any gaps that would indicate a missing piece that could be used as a weapon. Weiler shook her head.

“I don’t think so. It’s all here.”

Millican nodded his agreement. “I couldn’t stop to check. If she or someone else had already grabbed a piece…”

Weiler nodded. “You did what you had to. Let’s get this cleared away, then we can resume lunch.” She looked at Tamara. “What about French? Already in trouble?”

Tamara gave a shrug, looking away from her.

“She and Tabby were scrapping. That’s how the plate got broken.”

Weiler shook her head at Tamara. “You’re only back a few hours, and you’re causing trouble? You were always one of the good girls.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tamara agreed.

If Weiler knew she was a model inmate, then why was she assuming Tamara had done anything wrong?

“You can’t be causing me grief! Leave that to the gangs. Fly straight and behave yourself.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Weiler stared at her for a long moment.

“I’d say you miss your lunch today over this little scene, if I didn’t know how little you eat.” She glanced aside at the tray Tamara had put down.

Tamara didn’t care if they sent her straight to her bunk for the rest of the day. The food looked so thoroughly unappetizing, she didn’t know how she would get any of it down anyway.

Weiler sighed. “She can eat after this is cleaned up. Nobody has to miss lunch.”

A couple of guards scooped the wreckage of Tabby’s lunch into a dustpan and took it out of the room rather than throwing it in the garbage in the canteen. The guards allowed everyone to return to the counter to finished dishing up and to the tables to eat. Millican unlocked Tamara’s handcuffs. She centered her dishes on her tray before picking it back up. She could still feel his gaze on her as she walked along the remainder of the counter and sat down to eat.

 

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Two Teardrops

By P.D. Workman

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