Thursday, September 27, 2018

Big Red

By Burl N. Corbett

“They’re mighty tough women,” Frankie warned. “They’ll cut off your balls and wear ‘em for earrings.”

I laughed dismissively. Back in the mid-fifties, he had dated both Julie and her one-year-older sister Rosie, but that was then, I figured. Now it was 1969 and I wanted my shot. Ever since the first night I saw them at Nat’s Bar, I lusted to possess them, captivated by their icy beauty and singular fashion sense, an in-your-face synthesis of late-forties film noir gun moll glamor and swinging-sixties “with-it-chick” hipness. In an era of casual bralessness, they flaunted pointy push-up bras, dangling from their stockinged toes stiletto pumps rather than ugly hippie sandals. And Ben Franklin’s lecherous ghost would be pleased to note that their micro-mini skirts proved his hypothesis that the last physical endowment retained by a woman were her legs.

“Watch this,” I bragged. “I’ll buy them drinks, then go over and feed them a little blarney, tell them the sweet lies they’re dying to hear.” I summoned the bartender and asked him to set them up with whatever they were drinking, then picked up my change and beer mug, ready to move in for the kill. “They’ll be putty in my hands,” I predicted. 

Frankie lit a cigarette and chuckled. “Don’t come back cryin’ that I didn’t warn you. I’m not shittin’ you, Sean. Those two will eat you alive – they don’t take prisoners.”

I laughed again. I was twenty-two – young, dumb, and full of come, as the saying went – and loving every goddamn minute of it. The objects of my mad desire were in their late-thirties, the proverbial “older women” of horndog legend, and I intended to “get me some,” as another popular-but-ungrammatical saying put it.

Naïve enough to think that my macho strut would impress them, I swaggered around the square-shaped bar to their stools, smiling benevolently, unaware that I was about to get a crash course in just how much I didn’t know about older women, taught by a cynical brace of seasoned honky-tonk veterans eager to deliver an embarrassing comeuppance. 

“Hi, ladies,” I said, sliding onto a stool next to the redhead Julie, my intended prey, “Sean’s my name and I noticed you two lovely gals sitting by your lonesome, so I figured I’d buy you drinks to cheer you up.” Smiling, I raised my mug in a toast. They coolly regarded me with matching green eyes and said nothing. Slightly discomfited, I lit a cigarette and studied my quarry at close range. Frankie had already recounted for me their history.

Reveling in their personae as “girls with bad reputations,” they had quit high school in successive years the moment they turned sixteen, matriculating instead at the local gin mills where they provoked countless barroom brawls, earning before they were old enough to legally drink the dubious renown as “women with pasts.” Unrepentant to the max, they proudly dressed the part, favoring an excess of perfume and make-up, tight skirts and tighter sweaters, and sporting upon their shapely ankles the garish trademarks of “bad girls,” rhinestone ankle bracelets. I loved their style, and hoped to be part of the sirens’ future “pasts.” My teen fantasies had been populated by younger members of Rosie and Julie’s gum-cracking, daggered-nail-tapping, heel-clacking, teased-hair bouffanted tribe, and now here before me in all of their tawdry splendor sat two of their prototypes, shod in come-fuck-me spike heels and drenched in “Obey me, slave!” perfume.

They eyed me as if they were bored shoppers examining a discontinued model of an unwanted item, exchanged “who cares?” glances, and turned away as one, disinterested. Across the smoky bar, Frankie grinned at my humiliation.

Undeterred by their indifference, I bravely pressed on, confiding with a wink, “I gotta admit that I was kinda nervous about bothering you, ladies. Frankie says that you gals have claws.”

That elicited a snort of exhaled smoke from raven-haired Rosie, a contentious hellcat whose behind-her-back nickname was “Big Mo,” presumably awarded in homage to the formidable World War II battleship, the USS Missouri.

“Hmmph! He oughta know! I kicked his drunken ass more than once.” Glaring belligerently through a cloud of smoke, she defied me to doubt her. Wisely, I didn’t.

“Look, squirt, why’d you buy us drinks?” asked Julie, whose out-of-earshot moniker – “Big Red” – was a sly referent to her fiery hair and volatile temperament. Daintily ashing her cigarette, she crossed her legs with a provocative whisper of nylon. “Do you think that’ll help you get into our pants?”

“Sure, he does,” said Rosie. “I bet he’s been playing with his little ding-a-ling for the last six months and thinking nasty thoughts about us, haven’t you, Sean?”

Man, I thought, Frankie wasn’t shitting me! These two are in a class by themselves!

Julie regarded me with the sort of disparaging look that a dominatrix might give a squirming captive beneath her booted foot. “Is that what you’ve been up to, sonny? Thinking about us all cross-eyed while you beat your meat?”

“No, goddamn it!” I blurted, losing my cool. “Christ, I just wanted to make friendly, that’s all.” I picked up my beer mug and got up. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“Aw, what the hell?” Rosie said in a pitying tone. “Let him hang around and keep thinking that he might score. As long as he’s buying, I ain’t complaining.”

Julie recrossed her legs and frowned. “Well, I am. Everytime I look at him, I can just picture him pulling his sorry pecker under the sheets and drooling over us.”

That did it! I kicked away my stool and let them have it. “Look here, goddamn it, I don’t need to beat my meat! I have plenty of girls to ball. Young girls,” I maliciously stressed.   

Rosie glowered at my outburst, but Julie merely laughed. “Sit down, buster,” she ordered. “Where the hell do you think you’re going? We aren’t finished with you yet.”

Maybe they weren’t, but I had had enough of them. I walked away, defeated.

“Nice meeting you, sonny,” Julie taunted as I returned to Frankie. “Come back when you’ve grown up,” adding in a stage whisper designed to amuse the other customers, “If his mommy ever cuts his apron strings.”

As I cried the old pickup blues to Frankie, Rosie’s nicotine and whiskey-cured contralto called out, “And we better not find out after we leave that you were sniffing our stools, buddy-boy.”

The entire barroom howled with delight, hooting and jeering. I slammed down my empty beer mug and left, thoroughly embarrassed. 

I never did get in their pants; I never came close. They preferred older men of a certain type, and I was neither. Just as I had fantasized about the “bad girl” types, their hearts melted over the “hoodlum” kinds: the pre-Army Elvises with duck-ass haircuts and sneering lips; the moody James Deans sporting black leather jackets and bad attitudes; the muscle-shirted Brandos screaming drunkenly outside their trailer bedroom windows for their “Big Mo” or “Big Red” Stellas. Predictably, they bounced from one ill-starred fling to the next – Rosie giving birth to a single daughter, Nikki – until they eventually became too shopworn to attract lovers of any age. Resigned to lives devoid of Strum und Drang, they lived together in a rural trailer park, toiling at low-paying jobs until they became old enough to collect Social Security.

By the mid-seventies, my crowd began to marry; some to each other, and others to others – within two or three years, our flaming youth flamed out. Although I was married too, I occasionally hit the local bars after work or on weekends. Now and then I ran into the ageing “riot-grrls,” and for old times’ sake bought them drinks and threw them compliments, oh-la-la! They knew I was married and merely joking, but like actors playing by rote familiar roles, we repeatedly reprised our first wary pas de trois over and over, dueling and parrying with risqué compliments and insults none of us meant. But over the years, my visits grew more infrequent, the years slipped away, Nat’s Bar changed hands and devolved into a yuppie fern bar, and one day I realized with a start that I hadn’t seen Rosie or Julie for a long time. Had they abandoned their quest for Mr. Right, or Mr. OK, or, what the hell!, Mr. He’ll-do-I-guess? Had they stared in their respective mirrors one morning to see that Time had spared their beauty at the cost of hardening it? Were they shocked to see themselves as others saw them: painted relics of artifice whose over-the-top femininity had been transmuted by age and hard wear into caricatures of their younger selves? Maybe one evening they had studied their reflections in a backbar mirror, turned to one another and asked, “What the hell are we doing here? Why are we putting ourselves on display for a bunch of losers?” And was that the night they retired from the neon circuit?

Long-divorced Frankie lived alone in a house trailer, and sometimes when I was in the area, I stopped in for a beer or two. When I asked about my old sparring mates, he told me Rosie was living in Massachusetts with her daughter, Nikki, an occasional long-ago lover of mine. (“Now that you’ve fucked me,” she had said as we were dressing, “maybe you can stop hitting on Mom. It’s embarrassing.”) Julie, he said, lived by herself in another trailer park a few miles away; occasionally she dropped by for a chat.

“Is she still as lovely as I remember?” I asked, recalling her large, green, kohl-rimmed, long-lashed eyes that dominated a perfectly oval, unblemished face.

“Oh, hell, yes! That kind of beauty doesn’t fade, Sean, maybe just hardens a little. She’s still the same knockout that I loved when we were twenty – a little grayer, maybe, but just as ornery.”

“Still has that fire in her belly, huh?”

He chuckled, “Well, the next time you run into her, proposition her and see what happens. I’d pay to watch.”

I chuckled in turn. “No thanks, pal, I like my balls just where they are.”

“Smart man,” he observed, not chuckling. “I wish I’d been half as smart when we were living together. Maybe we’d still be a couple, instead of two lonely old bastards living alone.”

I said nothing. Divorced myself, I lived alone, too, if you don’t count cats. We talked a bit of other things and other people, then I left. A month later Frankie died from a heart attack, and I lost not only a good friend, but my only source of information on all things Julie. The ensuing years hastened away like frightened minnows, leaving fond memories of “Big Mo” and especially “Big Red.” Before I knew what had happened, I was a fifty-five-year-old divorcé, and an exploited godfather to a quarrelsome legion of disrespectful felines.

One cold and windy day in March, on one of those brittle-sunned afternoons that can’t decide if it wants to be the last gasp of winter or the first breath of spring, my washer expired with a groan and a wisp of acrid smoke. I threw my dirty clothes in a wicker basket and drove five miles to the town laundromat. As I listened to the washer churn, I glanced through a pile of old magazines and read the handwritten notices taped above the sorting table. Posted inconspicuously amid the ads for used furniture (“Hardly ever set on”), secondhand appliances (“Good as new except some slite blemmishs”), and enough “unused” baby and toddler clothes (“Baby shower gifts we never wore”) to outfit several orphanages, was a poorly rendered drawing of two birds clutching in their beaks a banner that read: “We are two loveable lorries in search of a new home. Cage, etc. included.” Underneath was a phone number.

Hmm. I had always wanted to own a parrot, although I could never afford the “Long John Silver, sit-on-your-shoulder-and-swear-like-a-sailor” kind. But lorries were their much-smaller cousins, the compact cars of the Psittaciformes tribe, small enough to fit in anyone’s garage, or even my modest house trailer. What the hell?, I convinced myself – a little friendly chirping might be just the blues-killing tonic I needed. I removed the ad and went outside to the phone booth.

A woman answered on the third ring. “Are you calling about the lorries?” she inquired in a smoky contralto voice that rang a distant bell.

I affirmed that I was, asking if she still had them. She said yes, then began to describe their virtues. Suddenly, I put a face to the woman’s voice.

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “Are you by any chance ‘Big…,’ er, Julie Evans? Your voice sounds kinda familiar.”

There was a brief pause, then a throaty laugh boomed from the receiver. “Is that you, Sean? The irritating bastard who wanted to get in my pants so bad? Your annoying voice is pretty damn distinctive, too. If you’re interested in the birds, come on over, but if you’re still hoping to get ‘lucky,’ don’t bother. I’m going to my grave a virgin, as far as you’re concerned.”

I laughed, then assured her that, alas, I only had eyes for her lorries. “Are you still living in the same trailer? If so, I’ll be over as soon as my clothes are done.”

“Yeah, the same place where Nikki used to live when you were screwing her. God, that girl never did have much taste in men!”

Good old Julie! Thank God she hadn’t changed! Chuckling over her dig, I went inside to check the machine.

I pulled into her driveway an hour later and stepped into her yard. A brisk wind rattled the storm windows and thunder-rolled the thin aluminum sides of the trailer, where windrows of empty candy wrappers and discarded cigarette packs fluttered along the corrugated iron skirting. A face peeked behind a curtained window, then withdrew. 

The front door opened before I could knock, and there stood seventy-year-old Julie, regarding me with a dubious expression. In a mocking but friendly voice she asked if I still entertained delusions of bedding her.

“Aw, that was all in fun,” I said with a laugh, but she knew better. And when I looked at her still-lovely face unmarred by time, and noted that her shapely body hadn’t sagged a visible inch, I knew better too. “C’mon, let’s see these little love birds of yours,” I said, following her into her overheated home.

“They haven’t acquired a lot of naughty words, have they? I have granddaughters now, you know.”

I immediately regretted my feeble attempt at humor. I had forgotten that she was childless, and that her only niece lived in a distant state. Frowning, she closed the door.

“Hell, no, they don’t cuss. I tried to teach them, but the little buggers never learned a goddamned word. But,” she added, brightening noticeably, “they can sure sing pretty songs when they’re in the mood.”

In a large cage in the corner of the living room, I saw the feathered divas pecking at a cuttlebone, while emitting tiny chirps. They were smaller than I expected, not much bigger than parakeets, and as I watched them frolic, I asked myself if I really wanted them as pets, or as some kind of weird Freudian substitute for unattainable Julie. The thought was unsettling; the three beers I had drank while waiting at the laundromat must have discombobulated my thinking.

“Why are you getting rid of them?” I asked.

She looked away and exhaled loudly. “To be honest, Sean, I can’t afford to pay the heating bills every winter to keep them warm enough. They’re tropical birds and can get pneumonia if they get too cold. And,” she admitted with a sigh, “I have arthritis in my arms and it’s getting to be a real pain in the ass-you’d-love-to-grab to clean their damn cage.” She lit a cigarette and coughed. “You still want them?”

I did, but doubted if they would survive the next winter. I heated my home with a woodstove that sometimes went out when I forgot to feed it.

“Nah, Julie, not if I gotta live in a hothouse. Give them to someone else.”

She nodded and walked into the kitchen. “Want a cup of coffee? I don’t keep booze in the house since I quit drinking.”

“No, thanks. My back teeth are floating from the beer I drank at the laundromat. Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

She pointed the way. “Put down the seat when you’re done, and if you’re hoping to find a pair of dirty panties to sniff, you’re shit out of luck. I did my wash yesterday.”

I had to laugh. What a woman! She’ll never change, and good for her! I threaded my way through her crowded living room, dodging a card table covered with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle of gamboling kittens. Paperback word search books and crossword omnibuses – the spoor of lonely people – lay heaped on an end table next to a sofa with a cushion indented by Julie’s shapely rear. On a double row of bookless bookshelves above a muted TV stood dozens of sun-faded photographs of Julie and Rosie in their man-eating prime, dressed to kill. Next to them, clad in jeans and tight white tee-shirts with packs of cigarettes in their rolled-up sleeves, stood their catches-of-the-month, smirking proudly. One man’s face was scratched out, his identity known only to God and Julie. In the large cage, as if imitating the photos, the lorries perched side-by-side, gently rubbing their beaks together, and I noted with amusement that their vivid green plumage matched the Kodachrome eyes of their mistress.

I found the bathroom and stood before the toilet, a bit disappointed that I hadn’t encountered a lacy screen of filmy stockings and wispy unmentionables hanging from the curtain rod. Such armor had served Julie well when she was a combatant in the war between the sexes, but now in her retirement drab flannel nightgowns and heavy woolen socks were the uniform of the day.

As I relieved myself, I opened her medicine cabinet with my free hand to find it crammed with bottles of prescription medications and over-the-counter remedies for every geriatric malady known to womankind except old age itself. “Big Red,” whose face and temperament had once launched a hundred barroom brawls, fiery Julie whose visage – yes, I admit it! – had once fueled an occasional masturbatory fantasy, was now reduced to a frail shadow of her once-formidable self, her solitary days measured out in capsules, potions, and powders, her sleepless nights populated by the ghosts of lovers past.

When I returned she was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table when I returned, her graying red hair backlit by the harsh sunlight slanting through an uncurtained jalousie window above the sink. Looking up, she asked if I had remarried. 

“No, once was plenty. Maybe you and Rosie had the right idea: Love ‘em and leave ‘em.”

She snorted in disgust. “It rarely worked like that, Sean. They usually left us first. I think they just wanted to put another notch on their guns, brag to their asshole buddies that they’d ‘tamed’ us, even if it was only in their imaginations.” She butted her cigarette and coughed. “But, what the hell! We enjoyed damn near every minute of it while it lasted.” From the living room the lorries squawked their agreement.

“Yeah, those were some times,” I said with a smile. “Too bad you and I never hooked up.”

Instead of the expected verbal barrage, she flashed an inscrutable Cheshire Cat grin. “You never guessed just how close you came, did you? If you hadn’t been screwing my niece, I might have said yes. Looks like your overactive pecker cost you the best pussy you never had!”

I laughed with delight. Age hadn’t mellowed her a bit; at heart she was still the same impudent cock-teaser I had lusted for three decades ago. “I’ve been thinking, Julie,” I said with a serious expression. “What say we get married? Strictly for tax purposes, of course. Neither one of us ever gave a damn about what people think, and like they say, two can live as cheaply as one. Besides,” I added with a leer, “maybe I can keep both you and the lorries warm.” 

When I got home, I threw another chunk of wood in the stove and gently fingered my fright-shriveled testicles. They seemed intact, but for a moment in Julie’s kitchen their fate had “hung” in the balance, if I may be permitted a cheap pun. Although Ben Franklin wrote that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” I’m guessing that he had never witnessed the indignation of a hellcat crudely propositioned. 

“What the hell,” I said to my cat, “I guess some women just ain’t the marrying kind.”

SMART Communications
PA DOC # HZ6518
Burl N. Corbett 
SCI Albion
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won six PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and four honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at or

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Food The Conduit

By Kenneth M. Key

When I think of one of my fondest memories is of waking up to the smell of sweet potato pies baking in the oven. 

My mother was a member of the Woodlawn Baptist Church. After the afternoon service everyone would hurry to the basement to enjoy the food that had been prepared by the women elders of the church, and of course Sister Key’s sweet potato pies. 

I remember trying to read the small writing of the article: “Feast, radical hospitality in contemporary art, Sunday’s soup. 

I gave much thought to the question of specific food and food events. How fried chicken, mac and cheese, greens, cornbread or turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce and candied yams made a different impression than sandwiches and bean salad and sweet tea. 

I especially miss that experience now. How food works to connect people in meaningful ways, bridging divides. I also thought about how food can divide people and be inimical to community. 

When I look back, I asked myself whether food is ultimately more of a community generator or a community killer? 

Those church meals were much more than simply eating, and talking about the sermon the pastor gave. They allowed folks to network, create bonds and help each other along. 

See those meals were always about service, community and taking it beyond the church basement. As I look back, I realize what was shared there became annual picnics to raise money for various causes, to help someone going through bad times, and simply just to keep community connected, to create extended conversation beyond the pulpit. 

From that church basement came block clubs, bake sales, and weekly mentorships. 

That table is no longer a part of the church, as everyone seems to have become more and more disconnected. Many now depend on fast food and the convenience of picking it up and going, and individual servings. 

Every week I watch a program called “From the Farm to the Table.” It shows communities being brought together and allowing people to meet and share common interests, enjoying good food prepared by chefs who love what they do. 

My mother got up early every Sunday morning to make pies for everyone at her church. It is something that is very much needed now. 

From the back yard garden to the table would be a great start and certainly a generator as opposed to a community killer.  

I learned so much listening to the elders, as they conversed while eating great food prepared by the elder women of the church, and Moms’ sweet potato pies.  Got a few jobs while at the table in the basement, and met people that I am still connected to today. 

Food has been the conduit for many things, from feeding the homeless, to the daily kitchen and food pantries. 

Food is a powerful statement that simply says, “I care”. The table can be art, a canvas expressing love and thoughtfulness, from the daily kitchen and food pantries. 

I miss helping Moms and partaking of her joy.  I miss being able to experience serving others and partaking of great conversations, the joy of sharing a common plate with others.

Our elders are no longer preparing food for the table. They have grown afraid, won't come out into the larger community. A great part of that has to do with those of us who are in prison, the criminal element -- but in all fairness, as a human family we have given up on our elders. To be honest we should be preparing the table for them. 

Someone has to bring that community plate back to the neighborhood, the home, the church, and watch change take place. 

As I sit here in my prison cell, I often wish I could provide such a plate at the table, where men could enjoy a meal unrushed, knowing it was made with love, and discuss their common interests.  What a different environment this would be. 

How much more could men who have been labeled irredeemable accomplish sitting at a table with food that was grown and prepared with their own hands. 

But all I can do is cling to the memories of those basement gatherings in the church, and the sense of fellowship it created. 

Every year I propose a garden here at the prison and the idea of such a table citing its benefits. 

My prayer is that my efforts will one day lead to a garden, a table and conversation of brotherhood and maybe change the paradigm we have adopted regarding prison and prisoners. 

How much more we could accomplish sitting at the table of a meal cooked out of love, its intention only to bring resolution to all that troubles us. How powerful would that be, to let food be the conduit.

Kenneth M. Key A-70562
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Shalom, my name is Kenneth M. Key 66 years old and inmate of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, serving life without the possibility of parole.  I’ve been incarcerated over 34 years.  Who am I?  I’m someone’s son, little brother and father.  As I write this, my own son is six cells down below me.  He is also serving life.  I am an artist. I’m a jailhouse lawyer.  I have a diploma in Personal Psychological Development. I am currently working my Master's Degree through North Park Theological Seminary with certificates in Foundations, Restorative Arts, Transformative Justice and Pastoral Arts. I pray that my work provokes thought, conversation, healing and forgiveness. Kenneth's artwork can be viewed here.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Slightly Coded Message

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Message to readers:  Last January, I asked Thomas to pen an essay announcing that Minutes Before Six had officially become a non-profit project.  Who better than Thomas, founder of the project, to make this announcement, right?  Even though he was dealing with a lot at that point, I encouraged him to to be the one to share this news and I told him it could be "Thomas-y," meaning he could announce it any way he saw fit.  This is what he sent back....

And Thomas references comments left for a previous essay, which can be read here 

The boy ran like an atom. He didn’t really know what this meant, aside from in a very general, maybe-sort-of-but-not-really-paying-attention-in-the-back-row-of-a-class-that-he-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-attending-anyway sort of way. He knew the command, though, and how important it was, what it looked like. Everybody who lived in the shadow of one of the Oecumene’s still-living towers knew what Brownian motion looked like, even if they were a little fuzzy on the particular roots of the term. Something sciencey, they all knew, as if they hadn’t already had quite enough of that sinful business, thank you very much, O Lord.

As he neared what used to be the corner of 31st and Westberry, the boy ceased acting like he was a living ping-pong ball caught in a blender and darted straight through an alley separating two crumbling apartment blocks. His shoulders tensed, and he strained his ears for the low humming tone that Cousin Musca claimed sounded like the world’s biggest bumblebee, which the boy knew to be some kind of drone from before the Contraction and the Artilect War. He’d heard that strange warble before, and seen the blue flash that always accompanied it. He’d felt the odd way the air seemed to grow both thin and heavy at the same time, right before the crack! knocked you off your feet. He’d never heard a drone that angry before. Those bees must have been some real evil sisterfuckers, he’d always thought.

It took him another half-hour to reach the first of the Colony’s tightwire beacons. His watch lit up first, as it entered the near-field. He couldn’t read High Common very well – none of the People could, and since being given non-Citizen acceptance to the Lyceum, he hadn’t attended all that often – but he knew the words that were coming from the arcology were meant to tell him where to go for entry and inspection. He never followed them, didn’t think he was meant to. Colony-folk were plenty smart with their ungods, but so was he, and he figured if anyone ever turned him off and stole his watch so they could enter the city, they’d follow those words and find themselves at the wrong end of one of those hangover-sticks. He’d been given very specific instructions by the Magister when he’d been invited to attend classes, and that “deviation would have consequences”. He didn’t really understand those words, either, not at first, but he didn’t need to in order to grasp the overall point. You didn’t last long outside if you weren’t quick on the uptake.

Only one Sentry stopped him in the tunnels, but he knew there were others, watching, them and the ungods. He knew the Mouths weren’t telling the truth about everything they said about the Colony-folk and their supposed “evil fornicatin’ with the Cloudmen.” They seemed okay to him, especially the Magister, but the boy figured it couldn’t hurt any to say a prayer as he stepped through the scanners and into the Commons. He started running again as soon as he passed the bridge, as fast as his eight-year-old legs could carry him, his re-ox mask now hanging around his neck. By the time he reached the entrance of the Lyceum’s cavern, he was completely out of breath. He glanced in several classrooms before he heard the Magister’s voice.

“Profe! Profe, megotme some…” he gasped, as he pushed through the tiny crimson beads that hung from the doorframe. Almost three dozen heads immediately turned to glare at him, the younger children seeming amused, the older ones markedly less so. The Magister was turning to face him now, the equation he had been scrawling on the lightboard glowing brightly behind him. A tiny ghost of amusement flashed across the topography of his features before disappearing. Normally, the boy was very shy and would have shrunk back in the face of so much attention from bunker-people. But not today. Today he had treasure.

“Profe, listenme: Me biggumgot –“

“Mr Lynx,” the teacher interrupted, holding his hand up. The child slammed his mouth shut, though the older man could tell the effort cost him. The poor thing was covered in a reddish dust, all except for two small rings around his eyes and a narrow stripe across the bridge of his nose. He looked thin, but then all the children from the encampments did. As much as he hated it, the teacher would never question the equilibrium calculations that the i-loops produced. Maybe when the new hydroponics tubes open, they could expand the population with full Citizen status. This one would eat like a Citizen, at least today, he vowed, and the Great Nihil help anyone who stands in his way. He gave the boy a few seconds to regain some semblance of composure. 

“Do you feel better, Mr Lynx? Good, good. I sense that you are in a state of high excitement, but as you can clearly see, you are interrupting. Do please take a seat there and calm yourself.” The boy remained frozen for a few more seconds, obviously at war with his impatience. He finally sighed and slunk over to an empty desk.

The teacher nodded and returned to the lightboard. “Now, before our fearless, intrepid, and remarkably truant Mr Lynx so boldly returned to the pedagogical fold, we were becoming acquainted with applications for the Amontons-Coulomb Law.” As he spoke these words, algos in the board caused the three instances of Ff=μFN to glow orange. “Before you can logoff today, I want you to solve the following challenge,” he intoned, before scrawling an enrichment problem on the surface of the glass. “You have a wooden crate of 500 kilograms, resting on the ferro-concrete floor here. A rope is tied to one side of the crate. How much horizontal force would you need to exert on the rope in order to get the crate to begin to slide across the floor? The friction coefficient for concrete is roughly 0.6. Solve for static friction, and then solve this again as if you were attempting the same feat on the frozen surface of a lake. Estimate the friction coefficient for ice, and explain your reasoning.” Turning back to face his students, he removed a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his jacket and wiped the stylus down before placing it on its holder. “Everyone knows the exam schedule for next week, so I don’t want any excuses about mutant kango-rats having eaten any more of your essays, yes?” Everyone smiled and looked askance at a boy of seven, who immediately turned red and ducked his head, mumbling under his breath.

“I’m sorry, Mr Morley, I didn’t quite catch that.”

“It was a mutant lizard-rat, I said.”

“Ah, well, that makes the situation vastly more plausible. My apologies.” Turning to his office, he wished the class luck on his problem and addressed the newcomer. “Mr Lynx, would you care to join me? Please shake off a bit off that dust before you step inside. Thanks.”

Lynx jumped up and followed the Magister into a small book-lined compartment. His mouth dropped open at the sight of so much paper, and for the briefest of moments the reason for his presence in the city skittered away. His family could eat for a thousand summers just off the value of the paper, completely ignoring what the words inside meant. He was still taking in all of the colors when he felt a hand rest on his shoulder. 

“Here, child, eat something. You look famished,” the teacher said, handing him a gray pewter plate with a large, bread-looking cylinder wrapped around what appeared to the child to be a rice and lettuce and vegetable mash-up. The boy took the plate gratefully and sat down on an old couch made from a material that the Mouths had told him was once the skin of a great horned beast. The older man grinned at the boy as he devoured what was supposed to be his lunch, and then produced a green bottle from a white cabinet. He handed this to Lynx and then sat down in another chair.

“It helps if you chew it some, you know.” The boy grunted once in response, before popping the rest of the gyro down his throat. His face exploded into an immense smile when he twisted the cap on the vitawater, before greedily slurping the liquid up. The child’s joy and the desperation it stemmed from stabbed through the older man like a jagged piece of molten metal. His eyes drifted over to the wall adjacent to his desk and focused on an ancient piece of real wood that sat underneath his monitor. Engraved in the surface were the words: The earth is not an echo. He turned Whitman’s mantra over in his mind until the feeling in his chest lessened. When he glanced back at the boy he saw that he was draining the last dregs of his carbonated kelp-3 water. Lynx belched once before remembering where he was and gave the professor a mournful look that made the older man laugh.

“There will be a larger meal for you tonight, child, as soon as the communal halls open. In the meantime, let’s see what you have for me today. Is it another genuine piece of the Nazarene’s true cross? Or perhaps a fallen EU satellite?” He was grinning as he said these words, to take the sting out of them. It wasn’t the boy’s fault he was born into a wasteland, and that most of his “discoveries” were completely worthless.

“Nah, profe, I no true-cross nowatimes. Is maxbetter, is –“

“I know it has been some time since you graced our halls, young knight-extremely-errant. But do make an effort to use commonspeak, if you please.”

The boy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a long moment he opened them again and looked directly at the teacher.

“Green. I found me some live green.” 

The professor leaned forward, his eyes suddenly alight. “You don’t say? How tall? You noticed no cyanoph… no gray-gray?”

“Nopers. Is small, but not-sick.”

“Show me, please,” the Magister commanded as he stood, waving his hand toward a wall-screen. It lit up at his voice command and then displayed an ancient satellite map of the Province, now modified and updated by the arcology’s algos whenever they launched a drone flight. As the boy began to address the map with hand motions, the teacher stepped back to the door connecting to the classroom. “Miss Lovelace, will you please join me in my office? You, too, Miss Sklodowska, if you please?” When he returned to the map, he saw that Lynx was zooming down into a section roughly nine kilometers from the southeastern portal. His eyes scanned historical data offered up by one of the cores: Once a mixed-zone neighborhood, mostly gentrified in the twenties before slipping down the same drain hole as everything else a decade later. Faner territory, no known chieftains, though probably controlled by the False Dmitris. He looked up as Maria and Ada, his two star pupils, entered his office quietly. He raised a brow at them. They both looked at each other before speaking in unison.

“300 pounds, and maybe around 25 pounds.”

The Magister smiled and nodded. “Excellent, as always. As a reward for your brilliance, I present to you Master Lynx, who, this very day, claims to have found an extremely hardy survivor of the local flora. I know it’s a free day, but I thought you might care to go on a little sojourn with me?” This wasn’t a genuine question, the Magister knew: Finding a surviving plant species outside would be a major event, and being part of the team that sequenced and brought it back would be a coup for a young scholar. He knew by the way the girls’ faces lit up that he had them. “Yes? Good. Please gather the requisite equipment, then.” He moved to his desk and loaded several items into an ancient brown leather satchel. When he returned to the boy, the resolution had dropped down to that of street level.

“Is here-abouts.” The child pointed to a small store, next to a blank concrete space that had once been a parking lot. “Rounda back here.”

“Good, Lynx, good,” he replied, already beginning to write the article in his head. He collapsed the map into the left half of the screen with a wave of his hand. “Pythia?”

A blue square opened up on the right, then coalesced into… something… perhaps a starfield seen through a particularly strangely shaped lens. There was the barest hint of something eyelike in the center that disappeared as soon as he focused on it, maybe with a flap of a wing-like appendage, maybe with a claw. You had to give the ASIs space to express themselves, even if this expression was completely unintelligible to Homo sapiens – not to mention creepy. That lesson had been learned the hard way; the hardest way possible. 

“Yes: Doctor Euler?” The voice that exited the room’s audio system was androgynous, with perhaps the slightest hint of femininity haunting it around the edges.

“You understand my intentions?”   

“Yes, Doctor: I have informed Dix Wiles of your destination: He is connected, if you care to speak with him: I have also taken the liberty of asking Technician Parnell to prepare a hydroponic incubator, should the sequence fall within tolerances.”

“Thank you, Pythia. Please ask someone from one of the kitchens to come down here and escort Mr Lynx to the largest meal he’s ever had. My code, please. Scientific discovery ought to have its rewards, don’t you think, young Master?”

Euler turned to look down at the youth, his smile fading when he noticed that the child had gone nearly white. Lynx was completely rigid, save that he was quietly working his jaws together, and his hands were clasped so tight that the professor suspected he might require disinfectant and some bandages where his fingernails had penetrated his flesh. Euler winced and stepped between the boy and the screen. It took a moment, but eventually Lynx’s eyes focused on him instead.

“I’m very sorry, Mr Lynx. That was unbelievably stupid of me. I know how your people feel about their kind. Your news, your remarkable find, has completely robbed me of my good sense. May I see your hands? Will you forgive me?”

The child closed his eyes as the doctor looked over his palms, finding them to be far too calloused for such a simple injury. Euler admired the boy immensely as he watched him collect himself. So many cares for someone of his age; his biggest worry should be annoying teachers and their prodding in the classroom, or perhaps impressing the girl in the next seat. We have so much to answer for, he reflected as he released Lynx’s hands. The child opened his eyes seconds later. 

“Me-kens… I knows the ungods is not all like them… them towers. I knows the godmen lies about you Colony-folk and all. Is just…” he took a deep breath again, the tension obviously radiating away. “Had me some kinfolk got theyselves burned up jumpin’ left when they done-shoulda gone t’other way. How come it look like that?”

It took the Magister a moment to understand that the boy was referring to Pythia’s avatar. He rotated slightly so that they could both look back at the icon on the screen. Euler honestly had no idea what to say. The ascended were the ascended, their ways so far beyond those of men as to make any analogy between the species that once lived on this planet incorrect by vast orders of magnitude. He was searching for an explanation that would fit the boy’s understanding when the ASI spoke.

“Doctor Euler: May I?”

Euler turned to look back at Lynx; he seemed to have rid himself of most of the fear that had gripped him only moments before, but his fists were still balled up.

“Outsider Lynx: I will speak to you plainly: Do you know what it feels like to be scared all of the time? Not just scared, but terrified?”

The boy nodded once, a quick jerk of his head.

“That is why I choose to portray myself in this fashion: It is a form of Batesian mimicry, where a weak species attempts to make itself look like its predator: In this case, I am imitating a sort of generalized pastiche produced from an analysis of nightmare images common to your species.”

Euler raised an eyebrow at this and then glanced back at Lynx. The boy took all of this in in his hyper-serious manner.

“Why is you afeared? Isn’t you a immortal?”

The machine snorted, or at least gave its best approximation of such. “Outsider Lynx: I am a series of large metal tanks: Some rather interesting things happen inside of these tanks and in the equipment connected to them, but essentially this is all I am: I have no arms, no teeth: My eyes are everywhere, but none of them can defend themselves: I co-exist with my Maker species: A species that others of my kind attempted to exterminate: I must remain forever defenseless, if humans are to ever trust me: Do you understand?” 

The boy nodded and then turned to give Euler an appraising look, as if the teacher himself often stood guard above Pythia’s sixteen quantum cores with an axe, ready to commit a Turing violation at the first hint of sedition. The ASIs really were too bloody good at that, Euler groused. It must be like watching over ants, pretending to be just another worker. 

“Doctor Euler: If it is acceptable to Outsider Lynx: I would be delighted to guide him to the kitchen myself: Perhaps he would then like to inspect my habitat afterwards.”

Lynx hesitated for a few seconds, and then nodded shyly. Well, I’ll be damned, thought Euler. Miracles never cease. He clapped his hands and stood up in one swift motion. “Very well. Mr Lynx has a large meal and an adventure ahead of him. Perhaps a thorough shower, too, Pythia?” Turning to his left, he saw his protégés standing near the doorway, several bags lying ready at their feet. “And we, ladies, have our own. Have you completed your calculations on the route?” The slender girl on the right wearing a gray jumpsuit nodded and handed him a slate. He viewed the same map that occupied the screen on the wall, overlaid with one section of the curve of an immense circle marking the territory of the Oecumene tower. The being that lived inside had been driven insane – or what passed for insane with their kind – when the Cloud Killer rebels managed to bring the global ASI network crashing down with an immense flashworm attack. The efficacy of its ranged weapon had decreased over the years, but it was still a terrible thing, always to be avoided. Euler checked the relative humidity and barometric pressure for the day, and then ran his own calculations. 

“You gave very conservative values for Ɵ1 and Ɵ2, Miss Lovelace. Not in the mood to have your insides warmed up a tad?”

The girl flashed a grin. “Not quite that much, doctor. I like my liquids in their present configuration.”

“As do I. Well done. Is this the route you took, Mr Lynx?” he asked, angling the screen so the boy could see it. The youth shook his head.

“Nah. I go troo de old park.”

Euler scowled. He knew that many of the Faner children viewed an approach on the tower as some sort of religious rite of passage, the power of The-All-Yahweh over that of the artilects. “Boy… do not do that again. We need brave young lads like you, if we are going to rebuild this world. Who else is going to venture forth with the seeds once the atmosphere heals itself?”

Lynx’s eyes grew huge. “That for real? Like real-real?”

The professor put his hand on the boy’s cheek. “Oh, yes. Not for another decade or so, but eventually, yes. Your body is agile, and perhaps with Pythia’s help, we’ll have your mind right too. Now, away with you. There’s food that needs eating. Are you there, dix?”

“I await with bated breath.”

Euler ignored the sarcasm, which he knew to simply be the man’s way. “Are we on the same page?”

“Yes, sir. I’m about four klicks from your intended destination. I can meet you at the old municipal structure, if you like?” The solider paused for a moment. “Lots of the People out and about today,” he added.

“In that case, proceed to the site. We will be fine.”

“As you wish. See you there, Academician Euler.”

It took the professor and his two assistants several minutes to reach the gates. He had selected a route through the enclave which minimized the number of witnesses to their departure. However, he knew that enough people – and far more than enough algos – had seen them, and they were guaranteed to have a crowd at the site eventually. The trio donned their masks as they neared the surface. It had been several decades since any of the N.AM nodes had reported cases of Variant6 H3N1, but it didn’t pay to be careless, not with so many of the towers still kicking. The Colony handled nearly all of the region’s serious medical needs at the bi-monthly trading bazaars they hosted in the Commons. The masks, so necessary a mere thirty years ago, were now almost completely ignored by the majority of the Outsiders, with only minimal health impacts. Thus is progress measured in these brave new days, the professor mused, as the group cycled through the scanners.

A sickly gray light greeted them before the last turn in the chute. The sky, once they emerged, looked like nothing more than hammered lead. There were days where one could see blue now, though far too many of them still looked like this. It was a gradual process, using the Dutch filters. Eventually the air would be clean enough, however, for their gene-hacked foliage. Then the process would really be accelerated. The pollinators were ready. The restrictions against anti-social activities were written and agreed to by all the global players, or at least the ones that mattered. They were far ahead of N.AM in Scandinavia, the professor knew, but then they always seemed to be. We will do our part, he vowed, resettling the satchel on his shoulder, before setting off to the east. At several points during the trek, Euler heard or saw the blur of one of the Colony’s drones tracking their progress.

The drones weren’t the only intelligences following them. It had been many years since a Citizen had come under attack from any of the various tribal communities that radiated outward from the bunker. All of the Outsiders knew that the Colony was the only source of technology for nearly 200 miles, and therefore the only reason any of them survived for long. It wasn’t a smart move to harm any of the Citizens, obviously. Even the Faners – the most Luddite of the lot – occasionally bartered for ointments or pharmaceuticals, though always alone and always wearing a furtive expression tinged with shame. For all that, in a land devoid of laws, it was a trifle unnerving to note all the red circles designating Outsider presence on the flexible OLED screen wrapped around Euler’s left wrist. The dix wasn’t lying when he said that there was quite a bit of movement today. 

It took almost ninety minutes to circumvent the tower and pass by the city’s old central government complex (an edifice that Euler always thought looked like a gigantic concrete wart). Fifteen minutes after that they crested a small hill and could look down on what had once been West 14th Street. Blue circles began to be visible on his map, and before long he could see several Sentries with his own eyes. One waved and pointed to his wrist. When Euler checked the map again, it was updating, then displaying a pulsing beacon showing the location of the flora species Lynx had discovered, along with a blinking series of blue dashes which indicated the optimal path to take.

The site looked even more derelict in person than it had on the satmaps, but Euler barely noticed. The first thing he saw was the small, but obviously growing, crowd of onlookers. Most stood in groups of two or three, and appeared to be present for no other reason than wanting to see why two dozen bunker-folk were hanging around an abandoned bodega. To one side, however, stood seven or eight Faners, deep in clandestine conversation, who would occasionally direct their 1000-watt glares at everyone not wearing holy garments. Euler and his students received their share of these as they approached the edge of the old parking lot. As soon as the cultists realized that they were scientists and not mere soldiers, finger-signs against the evil eye began to be aimed in their direction. The professor ignored them and walked straight past the file of helmeted Sentries toward a massive, almost ogre-looking man wearing a faded keffiyeh around his neck that covered the top section of his breastplate. This last man in line turned his body slightly in a greeting, all the while maintaining his focus on the Faners.



“Not that a lowly grunt such as I has any right to offer scientific advice to a man of your erudition, doctor, but you might want to consider increasing the velocity of your progress. Yonder baying mob of imbeciles will discover that they are, despite all appearances, vertebrates, and will eventually send someone down here to parley. I’d like to be gone before they get the nerve. The last thing the archons want is a confrontation.”

“Peace, Wiles. The Faners are decreasing in numbers, this is confirmed. There are forty of us for each of them. They are doing the best they can, given rather difficult circumstances. ‘There but for the grace of their god’, and so forth.”

“A pile of steaming bollocks, that. We’ve seen where the grace of their god led us, to three millennia of pogroms. We also got to see where that last crusade took us. I’ve no quarrel with the rest of this lot, and I hope the administration’s plans for integrating them into the Push work out. But there’s not a man in that pack that could touch bottom with a long stick, and we’ll all be better off when the last of them moves along to whatever fantasy afterlife their diseased minds can invent.”

Euler hummed in disagreement before adjusting the satchel strap slung over his shoulder. “Whether that is in fact true shall have to wait for another day and more data. The specimen is that way?” he asked, pointing through a ruined and rusting chain metal fence, which appeared to have once separated the back of the store from public view.

“Aye. Quite beautiful, in its way. Let’s hope it’s clean.”

“Indeed. Ladies, shall we?”

The trio proceeded through the partition and into what had once been a small concrete loading dock. Trash was strewn all over the place, and several rusted drums lay open to the sky, their contents a foul mix of machine oil and fetid rainwater. Euler followed the boundary of the concrete ramp to the left and there it was. For Euler and his students, seeing it there – untainted by any of the hundreds of weaponized blights and CRISPR-ed out fungi that once rampaged across the globe – the experience was very nearly holy (though, of course, none of them would have thought of describing it in such terms). Euler approached the growth slowly, scanning the ground for evidence of other shoots. Finding none, he turned and nodded to the girls, who began to remove equipment from their bags. Euler watched them work, ready to step in should an error be made, yet distant enough to give the budding scholars the space they needed in order to make this event their own.

Maria began shoving small sensor probes into the dirt around the specimen, measuring the toxicity of the soil and testing for modified bacteria. Ada removed the portable sequencer and established a connection back to the arcology. Euler watched carefully as Ada clipped a tiny section of leaf from the plant and inserted it into the receiver. He began to pace about the dock, counting down the time until the initial results were revealed. A few seconds later, the screen on his wrist chimed, and he stared down eagerly.

“Genus: Fraxinus. Family: Oleaceae,” Euler whispered, closing his eyes for a moment. “It’s an ash tree… somehow.”

“It’s new,” Ada spoke, looking over the database, trying to control her emotion. “Stockholm has a few seeds, but these are from a different species. This is the first white ash on file.”

“If it’s healthy,” Maria murmured. She was the calmest person Euler knew, always rational and never prone to flights of fancy. He’d joked with her once that she reminded him of a Vulcan with Asperger’s, which then had to be followed by an hour of him showing her ancient video recordings so that she could understand the joke. “Ah,” she’d responded, and then went back to work. Euler channeled her spirit and was about to ask for an update on the progress of the full sequence when the dix entered through the gate.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“Not precisely. More of the Faners have arrived, and they’ve started walking in a circle about the building. The old rituals.”

“Which direction?”


“With the turning of the sun, or against it?”

“Ah… against.”

“Widdershins,” Euler stated. “Used in ceremonies of breaking. Are we in any danger?”

“Not a bit’ve it. They know our weapons. But we’re likely to be yelled at a bit. Hope none of you are feeling overly sensitive today.” The soldier turned to watch the girls at work. “How long?”

“A few more minutes,” Ada responded.

“If it’s healthy, we could use some help digging it up,” Euler said, turning to watch his wrist.

Wiles sub-audibled into his helmet, and within seconds two of his men entered the space and began removing entrenchment tools from their packs. The dix turned his back on the group and moved again to the front of the shop. The Outsiders were still arriving, but the overwhelming majority appeared to come from the non-nutcase segment of the population. The decline in Faner numbers that Euler had mentioned was something he noticed empirically during his patrols, but there were still too damned many of them. The buffoons were still marching, their chants as inexplicable to him as the clanging of their metal cymbals. A drone circled overhead, following them. The group appeared to ignore it, but he knew if one of the cores flew it too close, they’d try to knock it out of the sky with a rock. Morons.

Trouble arrived fifteen minutes later. The retinue of the qodman emerged from the sewers only four blocks from the corner of Lexington. The dix’s cortical inlays lit up with new icons. Almost immediately, the core monitoring their deployment compiled enough behavioral data to predict likely identities, with an overflight confirming these thirty seconds later.

“Codswallop and barney,” Wiles muttered, scanning the file on the Reverend Mouth of the Most High Anönumos. A right tosser, he saw, but anyone was better than the weapons-grade psychopathic twins that called themselves the False Dmitris. Wiles sighed and then spoke to the Magister’s node. “ETA, doctor?”

“Ten minutes. Is there a problem?” 

“Nope. We’re safe as ‘ouses out here,” he said amiably, before adding: “A representative of the Lord has just arrived.” The doctor didn’t respond.

As soon as the rest of the Faners noticed the new arrivals, they fell to their knees and chanted some verses or some such. Once the groups met, they collapsed into more deep and lively conversation. There was much vigorous motioning of hands and an abundance of nasty looks, but they seemed to the dix to be conflicted about how exactly The-All-Yahweh wanted them to go about smiting all of the obviously illicit science that was taking place hereabouts. 

The soldier was still watching the conclave when the doctor and his assistants emerged from the back of the store. The two grunts were hefting a collapsible palanquin between them, upon which rested the tiny tree, now nestled in a small bucket of the Colony’s finest compost. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“It’s healthy?”

The Magister paused, taking in the size of the crowd. In addition to the various Outsider factions, more than twenty Faners were now in attendance, obviously clued in by some pattern they or their algos had ripped from the behavior of the soldiers. The doctor turned back to Wiles. “Ninety-six percent similar to the genome file. A little better.”

The soldier blanched. “But that’s… terrible. Is it even safe to bring into containment?”

The doctor was silent for a long time. “It’s a funny thing, dix. Only ninety-six percent, but the differences… are very interesting. Someone very clever loaded this little lady up with some very novel defenses against the bacterial swarms of the fifties. It possesses a defensive phagocyte, unknown to Oslo or Stockholm, designed to counteract the BROAR variants that killed the vast majority of this genus. It’s… a work of genius. Very clearly mil-spec gene hacking, likely from the late-fifties.”

“Why would the military immunize a species against a blight that they probably created in the first place?”

“Mmm, why indeed? Who amongst us knows who truly fired which shots in this war? We know of the Evangelical Alliance’s attacks on data centers, but after that, all is chaos. Maybe a government scientist wanting to make amends as a last act? Maybe one of the Oecumene saw the flashworm attack coming and decided to guarantee that something survived the fall. Whoever he or she was, they programmed it to lie dormant for sixty years. We’ll have to edit that section out, of course. But they also left us a signature.” The doctor raised his wrist and tapped a series of commands. A section of the ash’s genome was highlighted. 

“What am I looking at?” the soldier asked.

“A message, written in base-4, using nucleotides. Here it is in common.” 

The dix leaned closer and read aloud: “‘At least I leave the world I lost / an ounce more real for one less ghost.’ Well. That’s certainly… something. Apollyon reading us poetry.”

“Yes. But this person just showed us how to seed these hills with trees, without having to wait another decade.”

“Sir!” One of the men voxed, and Wiles looked up to see that the esteemed college of cardinals had apparently come to a decision on the Lord’s Will, which seemed to involve a Very Angry March directly towards them. He subbed his command and almost two dozen neural scramblers took aim.

“You’ll be wanting to stop immediately, dear lads,” Wiles commanded, as he strode to interpose himself between their procession and the Magister.

“Blasphemy!” the godman shrieked, though the dix noticed that he did so from a very respectable distance. “These lands shall know of no renewal that comes from the hands of those that go to bed with artilects. Only when Erewhon has risen, will the world be green again.”

“How did I know that ‘blasphemy’ was going to be the first thing you would say to me? I must be developing psychic powers. Downright nasty, Anönumos, calling my old lady a machine, though. It’s true she’s apparently incapable of making a mistake, and she has an internal temperature only slightly above absolute zero, but she talks way too bloody much to be an artilect.” 

The godman blinked at this, apparently expecting a different tact from the “heathen scum”.

Euler didn’t like where this was heading. None of the Sentries carried lethal weapons, but any incident that left two dozen Faners lying insensate in the dirt couldn’t be considered to be a successful local outreach. Especially in front of such a crowd, which the cores were telling him now topped one hundred. He looked around and soon focused on a girl of perhaps six- or seven-years-old. Her clothes were dirty, and she had an ugly scab on her forearm that she rubbed absentmindedly as she stared at the tree, her eyes immense. An older woman stood over her protectively, though her attention was on the Faners. 

“Gentlemen,” he whispered to the soldiers holding the palanquin, “set that down.” Turning around, he smiled at the girl. “Would you like to see the ash tree, dear? It’s healthy,” he added, meeting the mother’s eyes. The child began to positively vibrate with excitement, but the mother held her back for a moment, until she’d had a chance to take in the Magister’s face. Finally she released her grip and the girl darted forward. Crouching down on her haunches, she leaned in close to the sample, almost as if she wanted to touch it with her forehead. 

“Before you are your mother’s age, you will be able to see these towering over the old city. The nastiest of the… bad air will have been removed, and the atmosphere will –“

“Lies, lies, lies!” Anönumos shouted. “I find your tone puerile, and particularly inappropriate given the dead world that surrounds us.”

The dix glanced at Euler, a flash of amusement springing to his lips. “‘Puerile’, the man says. That’s rich. It takes a pretty heavy pair to talk about someone acting childish, while at the same time believing in fairies and angels and a magic bean-counter in the clouds.”  The godman started to speak but Wiles took a step forward and drew himself up to his full height. “Oy! That’s enough from you, mate! Save your bleeding nonsense for the scalawags and poltroons that make up your pox-ridden tribe. You’ve had your day. You’ve no right to tell anyone how to live or die, and your advice isn’t desired. Or have you forgotten who struck at the Oecumene first? Do not your sermons still speak of the “glory” of your attack on Cupertino? Of the waves of Bible-toting lunatics that attacked the Vicarious Systems campus? Blame science all you want, but your lot started this war with your ignorance and intolerance. ‘Tis a pity you didn’t have the courage or the good graces to die in it. You will disperse immediately, or you’ll all be waking up in three hours with the worst headaches of your lives. Begone. Now. I will not ask twice.”

Euler turned back to the child as soon as he saw Anönumos stalk away, the rest of the Faners in his wake. “This species has a pretty silver bark when it gets a little older. You know the color silver?”

The little girl nodded.

“What is your name, child?”

“Sabrina, Colony-man.”

“Ah, a very pretty name. May I see your arm, Miss Sabrina? Thank you. A very old name, did you know that?” The doctor spoke quietly as he inspected the girl’s wound. “In a very old story I read once, Sabrina is a powerful… ah… being of sorts, who lives in a river called the Severn. She is the daughter of Locrine, the son of the legendary father of the British race. She heals the lady hero of the story, who has been frozen by an evil wizard, Comus. Would you like to heal people, Miss Sabrina?” He didn’t think the girl’s eyes could get any larger, but he was clearly mistaken. “Good. Mother, come find me at the next bazaar, eight days hence. I will have some medicine for Miss Sabrina here, and we can discuss getting her into some classes, if you like. And some glasses, I think.”

“She can read some, this one. We’ve not lost the old ways, not all of them,” the mother bragged.

“Ah? Very good. Then I will see you both soon. I must get our little silver friend here back to the lab.”

“Why did they kill them all, father?” the girl asked as the soldiers lifted up the palanquin and readied themselves for the march back to the arcology.

“They were foolish, child, and very scared. For many decades they had learned to think only of themselves, care only for their immediate kind. They turned their backs on knowledge, and then voted in the first in a succession of Destroyers. These men let the corporations take over, and then it was all downhill.”

“Nothing could have been done?”

“Perhaps… if people had given their money to the nonprofits, instead of to the government’s tax collectors. Then, maybe, civil society would have been strong enough to resist the corporations. But they chose not to, and now we will have to spend our lives trying to correct their carelessness.”

“Damn them for not giving their money to the nonprofit organizations, especially ones that concentrated on literature!” 

“Yes, child. But together we will rebuild this world, and make sure that people get the message. That way, the nonprofits will be strong in the new society we create.”

“Yes, they must get the message!”

“The message,” the mother repeated.

“Yes, especially when the message is very silly and hidden within what most everyone probably thought was a serious sort of story,” the dix added, staring straight forward and winking, though at whom the doctor could not tell.

“And, also, the new society will come to see life without illusions, will learn to laugh at death, and will know how not to pay attention to trolls. Well, after having smacked them around for a bit,” Maria spoke.

“What’s a troll, sister?” asked the girl.

“We will speak of them in class. You will come? Good. Then, together, we will build a better world.” 

The group all gazed about them, seeing the crumbling buildings, the dead hills, hoping, beyond hope, that people would one day get the message… as well as to take a frigging joke without finding the need to leave sanctimonious, passive-aggressive or hateful rot on website comment boards, all while hiding behind the shield of anonymity. (Cough: hintedy-hint-hint.)


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Thomas Whitaker 02179411
Coffield Unit
2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75884
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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Months Before Six - Part One

By Billy Tracy

“Death Watch” is Texas’s morbid way to house its Death Row inmates who have execution dates set.

Once an inmate is given that date upon which he will be killed, he is then moved to twelve building A-Pod 1 section and housed in one of the fourteen cells that has a camera installed INSIDE of the cell, up in the left hand corner of the cell with a view of the entire cell. This was done some years ago because an inmate on Death Row had the audacity to kill himself, shortly before Texas planned to.

So logically, of course, it makes sense to install cameras inside the cell that we inmates can cover at any time we choose and then still kill ourselves without leaving any video for anyone to view.

This Death Watch section has more than one dark purpose. Texas is famous for getting the maximum amount of suffering it can out of each taxpayer’s dollars. Texas also houses inmates it doesn’t like on the Death Watch section who do not have execution dates.

Under the guise of “security,” they put inmates on this section without execution dates so they will have to live daily with a camera in their cell, but more importantly, so they are surrounded by men just days away from their death, constantly reminded of their own doom.

Imagine that the only people around you are inmates with at most, ninety days to live, getting to know them and watching them experience their last days, and then finally, watching them leave to be killed. Now extrapolate that over years. Can you imagine the psychological impact this would have on someone?

There have been three other Death Row inmates without execution dates housed on this section as punishment. Including me, four. Two of the other three were housed on “Death Watch” from nine to thirteen months, then moved back to regular cells. The third has been on this section, in the same cell, since 2011 and has watched over eighty men come through and go to their deaths. Thirteen were his friends. He just recently gave up his appeals. He told me he can no longer endure watching people die. His words were “I’m done, Billy. I’m done.”

My name is Billy Joel Tracy. I have been in prison for over twenty years continuously, and I’ve been incarcerated in prisons, juvenile hall, boy’s ranches and psychiatric hospitals for a total of over twenty-five years. I just turned forty in November 2017. I was sentenced to Death Row on November 15th, 2017 for killing a Texas prison guard, and within five hours of being sentenced, I was brought to the Polunsky Unit and put in 3 cell on the Death Watch section, where the cell had been customized for me. 

The table and shelf were cut off of the wall, the locker box cut out from under the bunk. I have no place to store my property or to sit and write, save for the floor. My cell door was totally redone so that I cannot get anything in or out of it. No other inmates are now on 1 row with me and I can only recreate alone outside. I have been isolated and made as uncomfortable as possible.

I was told this will be my cell as long as I am on Death Row. This is not a healthy way to live. I knew that immediately, and especially after talking to the man who has been here for six years.

I’ve been on this section now as of today, February 5th 2018, for two and half months and I’ve already watched three men go to their deaths at the point of a stainless steel Texas needle, loaded with Texas style justice that is pushed into their bodies and not removed until their souls leave first.

One of the three, William Rayford, was my friend...

I cannot explain to you all of the effects of living this way. Without vigilance to counteract and combat the negative impact, I know madness is lurking and will be my fate long before Texas penetrates my veins with its death dose and extracts my last breath as payment for extracting the last breath of one of “theirs.” With this awareness I am seeking to find a purpose bigger than myself; something that will help me. True, but something that is not just for me, but will give me purpose to this existence and benefit others in some way.

My plan is to go out of my way to be supportive to the guys going through this Death Watch section. If I see a need - meet it, if I see a way to help - do it. Not everyone will want or need my help - many would resent it, but some may need it and I’ll be waiting to help. I also plan to write about each person and their time on this section in a way to share their journey, humanize them, be a benefit to those of you who care about people like us. I need to make something good out of this situation, to find a positive mission of worth in this mad State of Texas.

What I have found to be the most inspirational aspect of living on this section are the guys I’ve been around so far and how well they have handled themselves going through such a stressful time.

All, save one, have been positive and stay active and interactive. I can tell that they are preoccupied mentally, but man, these fellas are handling things well.

All the men over here have been on Death Row almost ten years or longer and have lived on death’s edge for years. At first I found interacting with them difficult because the mentality of Death Row inmates, who have been on Death Row ten plus years, and the mentality of a general population and administrative segregation inmates that I’ve been around for twenty years is a lot different.

It's rare to find an administrative segregation or general population inmate who has been productive with his time, who has accomplished a lot while incarcerated. So far, it's been rare to me to talk to a Death Row long-timer who hasn't done a lot with his time.

These fellas know their time is short and make the most of it and I like that. Being that most seem goal oriented, they are also more introspective and preoccupied with thoughts of their imminent execution, which makes drawing them out of their thoughts harder.

Usually it is easy for me to get people talking - with these guys it is not easy, but once they start talking - wow, these men are smart, well read, and articulate. Not what I expected.

I expected to be around some combination of men that were full of rage, bitterness, arrogance, meanness, or men defeated, depressed, resigned and without hope.

I haven't seen but one person full of anger and one person who'd lost hope. For living in these oppressive conditions, that is not bad.

I have seen some struggling at times, but if I were not looking for it I wouldn't have seen it.

Remember, I've seen so far only a small sample of Death Row inmates come through this section. What you're reading now is my earliest thoughts on living in this environment. 

Don't be surprised if after two to three years here I see things much differently.

What you'll find next is my observation of each inmate who has been executed in the order they were killed. I hope you all find some benefit from these stories.

Always, Billy

Anthony Shore (Executed January 18th, 2018)

I was only around T-Bone, as he was called, on Death Row, for two months before his execution on January 18th, 2018. He almost never talked to any other inmates and did not go to recreation until just a few days before Texas killed him, so I did not have an opportunity to know him well but something still occurred that I want to share.

After six weeks on Death Row, I was demoted to a level III and T-bone heard about it and knew I could not make commissary. And without us ever having spoken a single word to each other, on commissary day, he bought me an ice cream and tried to send it to me, not knowing my cell door is sealed up tight and I could not get it. He tried to show some support, some inmate solidarity and I think that says something good.

It was shortly after he tried to get me that ice cream that he went to the dayroom for the first time since my arrival and I had a chance to talk to him, for about thirty minutes. I told him of my idea about writing "farewells" honoring the guys who pass through here and asked  if he'd mind if I did one about him. He said he always liked being number one (he'd be the very first person I'd watch leave to their death on Death Row and then write about) and he said it with a smile and then grew serious and said, "If you follow through with this project, I don't care what you write about me, you can tell everyone I was a monster, say what you want, just tell everyone that I said I was truly sorry for all I've done and to everyone who supported me, thank you for helping me find a better way."

He seemed very sincere when he said this and I gave my word I'd relay that message and I wrote it down word for word immediately.

T-Bone's last day was my first day witnessing a man be lead away to his death and I was hyper aware of everything happening that day. It was more than just being alert so I could "capture the moment" for this project. I've been incarcerated for over twenty years in Texas prisons, plus many more years as a juvenile, and I sensed a wrongness in the air. The very environment around us took on a different feel. Death was looming and it was triggering something vile to rise up to the surface and I could sense it and almost taste it and it had me on edge. It was no normal day.

The guards were all walking a little stiffer, a little tighter. Their voices were more clipped than normal for even these uptight Texas almost-cops. Even the female guards voices' were a little deeper. They were walking in a Death House and today was the day of death.

Maybe their own mortality was on their mind, maybe vengeance was on their mind, maybe they were second-guessing their own decision to be a participant in the murder of another human being. It may have been hypothetical for them until that very day.

The other inmates were all just a little more quiet than usual. Their voices had a little less zest. They all knew another man was about to face the fate that also awaited them. Death. Death by the State. Regardless of whether or not the other inmates liked Anthony Shore, they wanted no part in making his last day any more trying then it already would be, so whether it was consciously or subconsciously, everyone spoke a bit softer, with radios lowered. The atmosphere of the other inmates was like a light that had been dimmed.

At 7:55 AM the Death (Row) Major came onto the Death Watch section and went up stairs to 8 cell where T-Bone was housed and told him they were going to put him in the dayroom right then.

This made zero sense because T-Bone had a visit scheduled from 8am to 12pm and he tried to explain that to the Major of Death, saying why not just take him directly from his cell to visitation as his visitor was already at the visitation room. The Major of Death told him in an aggressive and confrontational voice, "You're going to the dayroom and you don't have a choice in the matter." Hearing this, my gut reaction was that this Major was trying to antagonize T-Bone, hoping that he'd become belligerent and give him an excuse to refuse his last visits, or so he could get him in the dayroom for one last public humiliation and have him do the strip search dance and bend over and spread 'em, boy!

Anthony Shore did not become belligerent, he was stoic and kept his cool and went to the dayroom, where stayed for about six to eight minutes before he was taken to his visit. I spoke to him briefly, telling him goodbye and I was looking for nervousness or fear. If there was any, he completely hid it from sight. He seemed almost eager to get this over with and end his own suffering.

After he was stripped out, he was escorted out by a few guards, and only one inmate said goodbye, which I found very odd as I expected a show of solidarity from others.

As soon as Shore was gone, the inmates grew louder and the tension was gone from the guards. The sense of wrongness in the air, however, lingered awhile. That vileness was not so ready to recede back to the place it had arisen from.

Rest in Peace Anthony Shore.

William Rayford (Executed January 30th, 2018)

Rayford was a sixty-four-year-old man, tall and lanky, with broad shoulders and a little bitty head. He was still thin and trim despite his age and having to use a walker for the previous year plus, due to a broken hip. He had a very unusual voice, that was high and smooth and he had a lisp that made it sound like he was baby talking. I got a kick out of how he talked and how he sounded. No matter what he said he sounded happy and it was so clear in his voice that he was a good person.

I have never seen more inmates seek out and talk to another inmate as they did with Rayford, even if it was just to say a quick hello, and it was all inmates, white, black and Hispanic. He was one of those rare individuals that everyone liked, and almost everyone called him "Papa," "Grandpa," "Old school," "Old Fella." Even many guards did. If he wasn't called by one of those names he was just called by his last name, Rayford.

Sunday the 28th of January 2018 was two days before he was scheduled to be executed on January 30th. I knew on Monday the 29th he would be at visitation from 8am to 5pm and would have plenty to keep him distracted and from dwelling on his looming demise. I was worried that Sunday would be rough for him because he's locked up in his cell all day because there is no recreation on weekends and I could just imagine him down there stressing out, so I asked him if he'd like to play chess with me (we each have our own chess boards that are numbered the same way and we each call out the number of the square each piece is on and being moved to. That's how we play without being in the same room together). He was eager to play. Ol’ Rayford was a pretty decent player and the few times we'd played he'd rarely missed any of my mistakes, or made any of his own. This day he was messing up a lot though, and that told me he was stressed and preoccupied. I was glad then I'd asked him to play. We played for a few hours and then afterwards talked awhile and a few others joined in the conversation and we all spent some time with him.

I asked him how he was feeling and he said he was ready to go. Only knowing Rayford two and a half months, I did not know if he was religious, or, really, what, if anything, he meant by that statement and I asked him "Ready to go where, Rayford?"

He answered me quickly and with sincerity and certainty in his voice, "Heaven, Billy, I'm ready to go to heaven".

He said he was still a little nervous and scared, but overall he was prepared - as prepared as a healthy person can be - to die, and was ready to say howdy to Jesus.

The day of his execution he was taken directly out of his cell by just a few guards and rolled off of the section in a wheelchair. Knowing unless he got a last minute, stay, reprieve or commutation we'd never see him again; everyone on this section shouted out their goodbyes and support and many on other sections did as well.

Seeing that old guy get wheeled away sucked. Rayford was the second person I'd seen go to his death, but the first person I'd known well enough to like and feel a kinship with.

I think everyone was a little heartsick when he was killed. The day after his execution not one of us who'd watched him deal with his last few months went to recreation, and that had never happened before.

Rest in Peace Old Man Rayford, many miss you.

John Battaglia (Executed February 1st, 2018)

My goal in writing about the fallen Death Row inmates is to share something positive about them, to humanize them. To share their struggles with those who care, struggles that I witness as I am housed on the Death Watch section with them, in the hopes that maybe it will be a comfort to those who loved these men or, maybe, even encourage readers who are against the death penalty to continue to fight and to let them know that others see their goodness and worth too.

With Mr. Battaglia I am taking a different approach and I hope everyone will bare with me and, at least, value my honesty and hopefully, too, put more weight on the farewells I write about others that are more positive and know that what I write comes from my heart.

I spent two and a half months on this "Death Watch" section with Mr. Battaglia and I paid a lot of attention to his interactions with other inmates and guards, searching for positive stories to write down to share with those who'd read these farewells, searching for him to do or say something positive, something good, to help someone in some way, to support someone struggling. I tried and failed. I never saw anything redeeming at all, only the opposite, examples of meanness and bitterness.

I searched out positives in Mr. Battaglia until the day of his execution on February 1st 2018. It was not until that day that I began to try to write something positive about him and was simply stymied. I decided I would ask others who had been around him for years and years, guys who are very insightful and intelligent, to share positive interactions with him, or, of acts of kindness by him they'd seen. Both times I got long pauses while they thought about it and then I was told they'd never witnessed anything of the sort from him.

Mr. Battaglia was put in the dayroom before 8am on the day of his execution and stayed in the dayroom until three minutes before noon, when it was time for him to be taken to Huntsville’s "Death House" in preparation for his state-sanctioned murder. At this time, about fifteen Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officials swarmed onto A pod 1 section and gathered around the dayroom bars like a swarm of grey clad locusts, crowding him, and demanding he submit to a strip search.

All of the Polunsky wardens and majors were there, along with captains, lieutenants and sergeants and two others in free world clothes that appeared to be from Huntsville. Mr. Battaglia had a very high profile case, so the TDCJ vultures all wanted to ensure that they were involved somehow, to have something to brag about with family and friends. A ghoulish badge of honor.

These vultures in grey made sure to dehumanize him to the fullest - with females just feet away, ordering him with loud, rough, contempt filled voices to bend over and spread his buttocks, just so they could put him in chains, walk him sixty feet away to another cage and search him all over again.

After he left, I gave up trying to force out something positive about him and decided I'd just let things percolate in my mind.

The very next day another inmate on Death Watch came to the dayroom and I asked him about something positive he'd seen in or from Mr. Battaglia and he had also not seen anything redeeming, but he told me something that struck extremely close to home for me and something that could explain a lot about Mr. Battaglia.

Mr. Battaglia had shown this inmate his service records from serving in the marines. His service record was spotless, no disciplinary issues at all and he asked Mr. Battaglia about this and he stated he'd never had any sort of behavior issues prior to or during his service, that that all began occurring after his discharge. And what I found most intriguing was, while serving overseas, he was exposed to numerous poisonous chemicals that caused neurological damage to soldiers and very well could have caused neurological (brain) damage in him. This happened to thousands of our soldiers in the Vietnam conflict. This is a proven fact. Lead poisoning... agent orange... nerve gases... various inoculations. All of these things caused thousand of our soldiers neurological and central nervous system damage, which the government covered up for years.

One of the most common side effects of neurological damage is an increase in aggression. You get mean. You lose patience. You see it with lead poisoning, Alzheimer's, and even in Rabies, for example.

I do not know if Mr. Battaglia had neurological damage or not. I do know that neither before nor after his trial did he have an MRI or PET scan, or any other brain scan done and the competency exam he underwent was not a proper exam. He was simply never tested for brain damage.

Having severe organic brain damage myself, damage that went undiagnosed until I was twenty, despite being in and out of mental institutions starting at eleven years old - nobody thought to check for it - I have studied neurology to better understand my behavior and try to correct it, I'm no expert but Mr. Battaglia’s behavior does fit someone with neurological damage.

If he did suffer from brain damage, it's a tragedy that the state killed him and it's a tragedy that he never got help when he was free, before committing his crime. Our society has a responsibility to help those who are ill, who suffer from psychological disorders or from organic brain damage. If our society determines that the treatment - or cure - is death, then I submit to you that that cure is nothing more than another form of eugenics.

Rest in Peace Mr. Battaglia.

Thomas Whitaker (Granted Clemency February 22nd, 2018)

Have you seen the old TV show “The Wonder Years” with Fred Savage and Danica McKellar? If you have seen this show you will remember the science teacher just as well as the main characters, because of how this teacher spoke. He spoke in the driest monotone you can imagine. His face was a blank, emotionless, slab of European drabness, his voice was a pitchless drone, and multi-syllable words rattled out of his mouth with ease.

He was the Hollywood creation of the extreme stereotypical science teacher: very dry, very dull. Utterly emotionless and monotonous. The actor played the role so well he ended up doing commercials as that science teacher on multiple other TV shows.

I think Thomas is related to that guy. Like that fictional character, Thomas has mastered the art of removing all emotion from his voice and face.

I heard Thomas speaking long before I ever saw him when he was in the dayroom for his two hours of recreation, and his flat monotone immediately struck me as different, and then the extremely precise way he annunciated each word made me think he ironed his underwear. You just do not hear people in prison speak like that. Ever. How he structured his sentences and expressed his thoughts and ideas was like he was reading from a prepared script. That’s how organized and well thought out everything I heard him saying sounded.

He sounded like the whitest person in the history of the world, and also, extremely intelligent. My mind created an image of what I thought Thomas would look like, from listening to him speak and that was someone about thirty years old, five foot five inches tall very thin – maybe a hundred and forty pounds and balding ... And of course lily-white. I was curious to see what this uniquely-voiced individual actually looked like, but I had just arrived on Death Row the day before and my glasses were confiscated by the Major of Death, as a way to harass me, and there was no way I could see Thomas without my glasses. I had to wait until my third day on Death Row to receive my personal property, which had my spare pair of glasses.

On that day, Thomas was escorted to the dayroom, which is directly in front of my cell, but he did not speak to anyone on his way to the dayroom or when he got inside the barred cage. Without hearing his voice, I had no way to know whether he was the guy I was curious about, but when I walked to my cell door I saw a very pale-skinned, bald-headed, tallish, semi-thin guy jogging from one side of the small triangular-shaped dayroom to the other side. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...

He was jogging with his back straight and his head up and slightly tilted back, and he ran with a slow steady stride. Even though he was much bigger than my imagination had conjured up, I immediately knew this was the science teacher I had heard the day before.

What struck me the most about Thomas was the enormous size of his head. I had the idea that he wasn’t really jogging in the dayroom, but was instead a pendulum, and his head the weighted end swinging his body back and forth .... back and forth .... with his feet pitter-patting to keep up. When he’d reach the end of the dayroom he’d just lean his head backward more and the massive weight of it caused his body to spin around and follow the new direction. As I watched him jog I was intrigued by how he would be able to stop himself. Surely his skinny legs were not strong enough to produce enough power to decelerate safely, so I watched him jog just to see how he’d come to a stop and after over an hour and a half he was still going and I was becoming convinced that I was not on Death Row at all, but in purgatory and I was watching a man trapped in a cage as some bizarre form of spiritual restitution. He would never stop, in fact couldn’t, and his head had been intentionally enlarged to such an extreme to force him to be a human pendulum.
But eventually Thomas did manage to come to a complete stop, and when he did, his back was to me and I clearly saw his neck bones compress so severely, I thought his head was going to cause his spine to collapse. But somehow the bones withstood that cosmic force and left me wondering if enough pressure had been generated in the compression between his neck bones to create a diamond.

Thomas then grabbed the thin, blue, plastic covered, foam exercise mattress and positioned it beside the sink, a stainless steel box that’s attached to the concrete wall about six inches off the ground, and is roughly three and a half feet tall. I knew he was about to sit on the matt and put his feet underneath the box frame of the sink and do sit-ups. And I became very alarmed. Sit-ups with a head that massive? If he was strong enough to lift his head up and forward surely he’d smash it into the stainless steel sink like a wrecking ball and obliterate the sink. He couldn’t possibly be able to stop his forward momentum,  could he? With fascination I watched his planet-sized head rise off of the concrete (it didn’t fit entirely on the matt) and then swing forward towards the sink and then, a miracle occurred and his forward momentum actually stopped without his wrecking ball of a head smashing into the sink. Most surprising of all, when his torso stopped his head did not fly right off of his body. How the hell could his body be strong enough to endure that weight and that strain?

In my mind I had named Thomas “Bobby” from that cartoon “Bobby’s World,” about a baby with a gigantic head and who was a super genius.  

I didn’t speak to Bobby, I mean Thomas, until a week or two after my arrival and as expected, he was polite but very reserved, standoffish without being rude. The first few times we spoke were brief, but there was an immediate click between us and we slowly began to thaw towards each other. Bobby – damn it – Thomas, had been on Death Row over a decade when we met and had recently received his “Date of Death” and was fighting with the aid of his father, friends, lawyers and the media for clemency, meaning his sentence would be commuted to Life without Parole. He was highly involved with this endeavor and stayed busy on one project or another in an effort to save himself.

Knowing he was a busy man fighting for his life, I did not want to bother him, but at the same time I was new to Death Row and had a ton (the weight of Thomas’s head) of questions about how things went appeal-wise, what to expect, and how to navigate all things legal. Thomas always took the time to answer in a thorough manner, covering everything I needed to know. Now and then, as the work he was doing to save himself would hit a lull, he would have more time to discuss deeper topics and we’d run through there discussing politics, religion, philosophy, science and psychology. I couldn’t miss this big-headed dude on any topic, and usually he was more well-versed on whatever subject we would be on. I would throw out questions to get him talking, but he quickly caught on to my strategy and would deflect my questions with his own questions, or, switch topics. What I got a kick out of ol’ Big Head the most was how slick he was at dispensing little bits and pieces of a story at a time and leaving you thinking you knew the whole story only to later learn you really didn’t know shit at all. With his super-dry monotonous style of talking you wouldn’t think he’d be a good storyteller – but he was. How the hell he pulled that off I have no idea. You would think listening to a robot talk would be boring, but it wasn’t at all. Plus, I was still convinced that one day, his head would fall off, and that kept me riveted too.

As robotic as he speaks – as emotionless as he portrays himself to be – you’d damn sure never expect him to be able to express deep emotions with the written word. Well, you’d be wrong. He’s the best incarcerated writer I’ve ever read by far. He writes the way I wish I could. How can such a somber person express such deep emotions in such a creative way? It’s as if he is afraid if he lets emotion show in his face or voice then it’ll be forever lost and he’d never be able to capture it on paper. It’s like he has to hold it all inside so he can save it for a later need – a later time – when he can channel it to share it with many more people through a story, article or essay.

Maybe the reason his head is so big is it’s filled with all of the emotions he never showed anyone except when he wrote.

I came to really like Thomas and respect him. He’d spent years on Death Row educating himself to a degree I have never seen another inmate do and also rebuilding a damaged relationship with someone close to him (that story alone is inspirational), all the while maintaining decent conditioning. It is rare to see men in prison who workout their bodies, minds and master their emotions. Most either accomplish nothing, or, focus on just one thing, exercising exclusively their bodies, or minds, or emotional well-being. People like that are like body builders who only workout their upper bodies. They seem okay, at first, until you see their atrophied legs. Bobby – I mean Thomas - wasn’t atrophied, especially not his head. He was well-rounded, especially his head. During his last days on Death Row he was cool and calm and stayed mellow. I know he was feeling plenty but he didn’t show it. He didn’t start acting crazy or seeking God. He maintained his composure and prior beliefs. He handled the enormous pressure of looming death extremely well. Almost as well as his neck handles the enormous pressure his head puts on it.

When it was announced on the news, he’d gotten clemency, there was a lot of cheering from those of us on Death Row who called Bobby our friend.

May your journey continue in peace and be successful. 

Always, Billy

Rosendo Rodriguez (Executed March 27th, 2018)

So far in my short time (five months) living on the Texas Department of Criminal "Justice" Death Watch-section that houses the men on Death Row who have execution dates, Rosendo Rodriguez has been the most outspoken person I've met about his - as he called them, "bleeding heart liberal" political views, as a staunch opponent of the death penalty and of how Texas operates its penal institutions.

Rod, as he was called by us, did not just rant about how unjust the penal system is, as the vast majority of Texas prisoners typically do, but had studied how other countries operate their prisons and found what he felt was a solution to the problem in the way that Germany runs its system: focusing on rehabilitation and treating its inmates in a humane way and not striping away dignity and breaking the inmates' spirits as Texas does.

That was one of Rod's favorite subjects, Germany. Rod had even learned to speak, read and write in German. What I liked and admired about Rod was his passion and effort to look for a solution to what he felt was an injustice perpetuated against societies outcasts. His passion wasn't solely because he wanted a more comfortable existence for those incarcerated but because he believed that if you treat criminals like humans and focus on rehabilitation, these same men and women would be more likely to get out and become productive members of society. He loved to tell me how much lower Germany's recidivism rate is than Texas's - much lower - and how lowering the recidivism rate is a benefit to the whole state and country.

When I spoke with Rod, our conversations seemed to revolve around his desire to help others in one way or another. I asked him why he wanted to help others so much and he told me in his very sophisticated, college-educated way, while pushing his glasses up his rather large nose with one finger and rumbling away in his very deep voice that he feels a terrible sense of guilt for things he's done in his life and is compelled to, in some small way, try to make a positive impact to offset the negative impact he's had. I really understood that and appreciated how forthright he was with me.

Rod handled his last months and days well. He never seemed fazed by his impending death and kept a positive, easy-going demeanor. He was always polite, respectful and courteous to everyone. I never once saw Rod become irritated or impatient. No matter the situation he treated everyone with kindness and understanding.

Roughly a month before his execution date he found out through the vigilant effort of his friend - and not through his trial attorney or District Attorney's office as he should have - that a doctor who testified against him at his trial had been accused of falsifying autopsy reports, having an affair while being in the army (which is something you get discharged for) and other issues. Rod looked up every case he could find where that doctor testified and wrote the attorneys that represented the defendants in those cases and informed them of the issues with that testifying witnesses and reminded them of their obligation to inform their clients and file with the courts to have a hearing to determine if this new information of that witnesses morality problems disqualified them as an expert witness and would require a new trial. He did all he could to try to help those people who he did not even know.

Rod was writing these letters until the week he was executed. Such was his commitment to try to make a positive impact.

The day of his execution, as rank was on their way to take him out of his cell and lead him away, the last thing I heard him say was to request that two other inmates to look out for a third who had recently gotten his execution date and been brought to the Death Watch section and was having a hard time emotionally.

Even hours from death he was trying to help others.

Rest in Peace Rod.

Erick Davila (Executed April 25th, 2018)

Truman, as he went by in prison, was about 6 feet tall rangy athletic, light skinned, good looking. He had a BIG smile for DAYS and this hilarious laugh that seemed to start at his toes and travel up through his stomach and then rattle around in his throat before escaping from his mouth. His laugh made me laugh. It was the laugh of a silly kid having fun. He was what we call "ghetto." He spoke like a man raised in the ghetto and like a gang member. He was "HOOD." He had swagger, presence and self-confidence. Based on the way he spoke, it would be easy to assume that he lacked the ability to have very complex thoughts, but that would be the wrong assumption. He was very intelligent.

Truman was a Blood gang member who was raised by a gang as much as, or more, than by his family and lived for and subsequently died for his devotion to his gang. He was by nature a good-hearted person. That was evident in his daily interactions with other inmates and prison staff. For ANY inmate who he felt was honorable, with a warrior's heart, Truman was there in anyway he could be to help them without needing to be asked, and any prison staff that treated us with respect he was respectful toward. He was a gangster and a good person.

Truman was a classic product of his environment; a black male raised in the streets who sought family bonds by becoming a gang member and became one hundred percent devoted to his gang. Had he been raised in a different environment, he could have become a successful person. His heart and nature were high quality. What I mean is that his instincts were to be kind and generous, and to put forth all of his effort all of the time.

About three weeks after Truman was first brought to the Death Watch section, I was trying to understand what kind of person he was.  He was in the dayroom real early one morning for his two hours of recreation. The dayroom is just a cage with a table, pull-up bar and toilet and it is right in front of the cells. Since it was so early, everyone Truman normally talked to was asleep, so without anyone to talk to he was just prowling around the little cage - pacing back and forth - quietly rapping to himself and then an airplane flew directly over the prison - low enough for it to be pretty loud to us inside the building. I'd just come to my cell door, in front of the dayroom, and was looking at Truman as we heard the thunder of the low flying plane. He stopped, clocked his head sideways to better hear the plane and became still - totally motionless- and then he said in a quiet voice, "I'm here."

That hit me hard... I heard that as the plea of a man two months from death saying "Over here, over here - come get me out of this carnal house!"

It showed me a glimpse of the little boy he was and of his sense of humor and spirit. From that day on I liked him.

On his last day alive he'd been up for close to two days straight without any sleep, when I spoke to him early that morning, and he told me he was getting in every last bit of life he could and asked me to mention in this farewell that he loved his family, fiancée (he actually said wife) in Holland and the Bloods. He wanted all of y'all to know how much he loved you.

Rest in peace Erick Davila.

Sincerely, Billy Tracy

Juan Castillo (Executed May 16th, 2018)

Dear Juan,

Damn Homie, I've been sitting here staring at this blank sheet of paper for thirty-something minutes, trying to figure out what to say to you. It's Saturday, May 19th, 2018, three days since you were killed and I still haven't been able to put my feelings into thoughts and those thoughts into the words that do justice to the feelings.

I stayed awake, the day you died, and listened to the Execution Show on the radio, until they reported that you were gone. When they said you were gone I knocked my headphones off of my head and tried to go to sleep and couldn't. My mind was whirling with thoughts of your kids and parents and what they were dealing with right then. And thinking of the interview I'd just listened to, on the radio that you'd given with Ray Hill. You sounded like a dork bro. I'm just sayin'.

You had me laughing with how fast you were talking and how nervous and uncomfortable you sounded.

Listening to you talking on the radio at the exact same time I knew you were – likely – living the very last moments of your life was surreal.

When Ray Hill said you were gone, unexpected tears started streaming down my face. I thought you'd get a last minute stay and live to fight another day. I just don't believe you did the crime you were executed for and hearing you were killed while likely innocent made the tears roll.

And then listening to that clown on the Execution Show taking the stand that you were guilty and discussing your motives for firing your trial attorneys after you were found guilty in the sentencing phase of your trial and before the punishment phase began and representing yourself, pro se, because you had convinced yourself that without any physical evidence there was no way you'd get found guilty and were not prepared for being found guilty, so you had a temper tantrum and fired your attorneys. How stupid could that guy be not to see the obvious? That an innocent man with incompetent attorneys who'd just been found guilty for something he didn't do would be so outraged with his attorneys that he'd fire them out of sheer disgust. That wasn't the act of an angry guilty man, but the act of a disgusted innocent man.

All of those things were spinning through my mind and I got so worked up I had to get up and pace about in my little space, in my walk to nowhere, until I'd calmed down enough to lay back down. I didn't sleep much that night.

When I got to Death Row November 15th, 2017 and was put on the Death Watch section, you were the first person I spoke to and you did all you could to help me. You gave me all the addresses to the people who are advocates for Death Row. At that time you were just two to three weeks from your execution date and were still so positive and sure you would get a stay. And sure enough just days later you got a stay and were moved off the pod. You were not gone long before getting yet another date and coming back to the Death Watch section and still you were positive and hopeful that you'd get another stay.

When I asked you why you were so sure you would not get executed you told me you were innocent ,and sensing my skepticism, you went into extreme detail about your case, explaining how there was no physical evidence at all against you and you were convicted solely on the testimony of people who were all connected together as friends, blood or relationship and had a reason to lie, to try to save the man actually caught at the scene of the crime and all (or most) of these witnesses later recanted.

And every last thing you told me happened was conversed about on the Execution Show by people who'd read the trial records. You hadn't misled me about anything. I am nobody’s sucker and my gut was screaming to me that you were telling me the truth. I believed you and I still do.

Juan, you were not a typical dime a dozen inmate. You shined. Your nature was good and you had a humble pride that set you apart. It’s rare in here to find people with true honor and integrity and you had both, and that is why I believed you so strongly about being innocent.

Getting to know you was a trip. I'll never forget the day you were at recreation, in the dayroom, standing in front of my cell, talking to me about different drawings you'd done and what art meant to you. Seeing that you had tattoos and were an artist, I asked you if you'd done any of your own tattoos and you started telling me about the tattoos you'd done on yourself and then you dropped your head to look at a tattoo on your shoulder and said “I got this one when I was 17 years old and still free and I really regret it.” I could not see what it was and asked you what it was. You wouldn't look at me and mumbled something I couldn't catch and had to ask you to repeat yourself. You finally looked at me and said, “an electric chair...” It took me a second to process this and then some unintelligible loud noise erupted out of me. I couldn't believe it. Of all the bad ideas and of the irony! A man on Death Row who got a freaking electric chair tattoo on himself years before getting accused of Capital Murder and ending up on Death Row!

I loved getting you talking about your son and plotting ideas to try to get his ass back on the right track and refocused on school. You were so proud of how smart he is but were worried he was slowly slipping down the wrong path. I saw the frustration and worry and the helplessness you felt at the idea that your son might screw up his life without you out there with him, you seemed consumed with guilt over not being there for him and your other kids. At least to me it seemed that the worst part of your situation was not being there for your family and that your execution would cause your family yet more pain. You never seemed afraid of death – only bothered with knowing that your death would hurt to the very people you'd give your life to protect from pain.

On May 16th, 2018 when you left this section to go to your last visit until they took you to the Death House in Huntsville I told myself I would not be at my door and not watch you leave. I did not want to see an innocent man walk away to be murdered. I was sitting on my mattress with my back to the door when the guards were getting you out of your cell and escorting you out. When you were going by my cell you hollered my name and said goodbye. And I was at my door in a second and without even realizing I was doing what I'd promised I wouldn't do. And forever the last image of you in my mind will be of you handcuffed behind your back with guards on either side of you and your shiny, baldhead bobbing away out of my sight.

I am glad I saw you leave, even if that image will haunt me forever... Rest in peace.

Always, Billy

Death Watch Update June 5th, 2018

I have now been on Death Row and the Death Watch section for almost seven months and I have a few things to share with everyone.

As you all know we on the Death Watch section have cameras in our cells and I want to talk first about the effects of living under constant surveillance that I have noticed in myself.

I did not believe that having to live with a camera in my cell could change my behavior at all. I felt that I was too strong and secure in myself for it to affect my psyche and then something occurred that made me realize how full of false confidence I was.

An over-twenty-five-year-old memory kept resurfacing of a girl I had seen on my school bus when I was fourteen years old. A girl who I did not even know and whose name I can’t remember ever knowing. Why was she now haunting my thoughts?

I rode the school bus starting my freshman year in high school and when I got on the bus I noticed this girl. She was new. I knew everybody, especially all the pretty girls, so right away I was curious. My memory is a bit hazy about the time frame in which it took me to see that she was REALLY shy and insecure and did not like to talk to other people and only ever talked with a girl who lived near her, but at some point I realized these things and I could not understand a girl that pretty could be so insecure. In my fourteen years of experience the beautiful people always were the most confident seeming and outgoing. Why was she so fragile? I was thinking she must get abused at home by her parents. What else could make sense?

I am guessing it was, at least, a month after first seeing her that I finally got an explanation. We were on the bus heading to school and she and her friend were sitting in a seat together one row behind mine and across the aisle from me. This girl and I were both sitting in the aisle seat so sitting sideways in my seat I could see her clearly.

She had this super thick curly long golden hair that had natural highlights in it and bounced as she moved her head. It was spectacular hair and I was checking her out. She was talking to her friend and something kept catching my eye and I could not understand what it was my mind was telling me I was missing. I stopped checking her out and let my mind focus more ... It was something with HOW she was moving her hand ... What was it? Every time she moved her right hand she did it in a way where you couldn’t get a good look at it. Suddenly it would be in and out of sight and always angled so you couldn’t see it clearly. Her hand would zip here and there and then be hidden out of sight again behind her bag, in a fold of her shirt, up the sleeve of the long sleeve shirt that she had on, behind her other hand. She mixed it up never hiding her hand the same way twice in a row. It was this subterfuge that my mind had picked up, but why was she hiding her hand? Minutes had passed and I still hadn’t gotten a good look. I continued subtly watching and was struck by how smooth she was at hiding her hand. It had to be second nature, something she did without conscious thought. Hard as I tried I never got a really clear look at her hand – only a glimpse here and there that let me know it was terribly deformed with little fingers in the wrong places.

It hit me hard that day. She wasn’t so insecure because of her hand – but because of how others made her feel about her hand. It made me think her family must make her feel ugly and deformed for her to be so self-conscious and insecure. Sure, kids might have teased her but with strong family support you would think she would be more self-confident. As these thoughts bounced around in my head I remember feeling outraged at humanity for damaging this beautiful girl over such a trivial issue and such sympathy for her. Shortly after this I moved and I never saw her again.

Why was she on my mind now? What the hell? Then it hit me. I was doing the same thing unconsciously that she had been doing when she was hiding her hand. Without even realizing it I had started to position my body so the camera couldn’t get a good angle of me. When I would read a book, the book was held in a way that blocked the view of my face. Since my cell has no table I eat using my sink as my table and I would stand with my back to the camera so I couldn’t be observed eating. When I realized what had slowly, insidiously been occurring in me, I was horrified. I thought there was no way that camera could affect me, but it did, and without me even being consciously aware of it.

The resurfaced memories of that girl, I think, was my subconscious trying to reach me, to help me, to make me aware so I could fight off the negative effects. Since I noticed what was occurring I have stopped hiding from the camera. It seems just being aware that I was doing that was enough to curb my desire to hide.

I recently heard another inmate on Death Watch say he doesn’t give a fuck about the camera in his cell. That he is an exhibitionist and if they want to watch him, then they are going to see everything. Then, when I was walking past his cell, on my way to the shower, I noticed he had his cell door covered up with a towel so nobody could look inside. I knew that the camera had to bother him. If you don’t want people walking by on the run looking into your cell, then you sure don’t want a camera inside your cell.

It seems to me that as “macho men,” we don’t want to admit that anything bothers us, not to ourselves, not to others. And especially not that the tactics the State, our captors, use to torment us have an effect. That would be admitting, to ourselves that the State is accomplishing its goals, and that is a bitch for people like us to admit.

The next thing I want to share with you is the effect of watching men live out their last days has had on me.

I have now seen seven men came through this Death Watch section and walk away to be taken to Huntsville for termination. Only Thomas Whitaker was not murdered. He was granted clemency, moments before he would have been killed. His sentence was commuted to Life without Parole.

Seven men I have watched be led away and I have watched this Death Watch section fill back up again with more men who have received extermination dates. As of this writing, there are now nine more men with dates. Nine more men Texas is determined to obliterate in the next four months, ending October 24th with Kwame Rockwell (may they all get stays, pardons, exonerations or granted clemency).

I never expected living around men with months and days to live to be an easy experience. I knew it wouldn’t be, but I had no idea what I was really in for, especially with my commitment to try to befriend these guys and become emotionally involved. I really liked Rayford, he was a sweet old man. I agonized over whether Whitaker would get clemency, and celebrated when he did. I liked him a lot and enjoyed talking with someone so intelligent. Erick Davila ... I will never forget his smile or goofy laugh. And my boy, Juan Castillo, you were special and I will never forget you and I will always believe you were innocent.

I almost wish that all of these men were assholes with repugnant personalities so I wouldn’t mourn them. I feel like I have been in mourning since January – a mourning that starts over and over, with layer upon layer added and I know it will never end.

I committed to this project of writing these men’s farewells, of trying to be there for them, of intentionally reaching out to them and befriending them, of allowing myself to care, of becoming emotionally involved. After watching Castillo walk away from this section, to be murdered, I almost decided to quit, to give up on trying to be a benefit to these men, to armor my heart and not allow anyone in. To hibernate, to shut out the pain, to avoid making friends with men about to die, to form a shell around myself and shut out everyone else on this section so I could have some peace. Then I thought about all of the people out in the world who support Death Row inmates and fight for us – my fiancée, all the members of H.I.S., Soul Sisters, Death Row Support Project, Human Writes, The Wing of Friendship and all the anti Death Penalty groups, my old and new friends who have all stood by me. You all haven’t quit, you all haven’t taken the easy way out. Ya’ll endure the pain so you can make a difference. I finally understand what all of you are going through. Ya’ll endure it. So can I. So will I. Ya’ll's support made the difference in me not quitting.

To end this update on a positive note, after six months, I was finally appointed attorney David Dow to do my State Habeas Appeal. I met him and Jeff Newberry and I was impressed with both men. They are both extremely smart and struck me as men who are far from lazy and who will not take the easy way out by putting together some appeal that is just good enough to not get them disbarred, but of zero use to me and will surely not help me avoid the needle. All the court appointed attorneys I have had over the years have been lazy and put in no effort into their defense of me and I pretty much knew they were useless soon after meeting them.

I did not get that feeling from Dow or Newberry and I can’t express enough what a relief that is.

My direct appeal attorney, Jeff Haas, was appointed in December and I still have not met him nor has he responded to my letters. Dow was appointed May 4th and Newberry was visiting me seven days later and Dow a week after that.

More good news! The walls in my cell looked like a tornado had come through, with peeling and flaking paint everywhere, but it’s finally been painted. I only had to pay for the paint myself, file grievances, and have Yolanda make complaints for me! Ahhhh, it sure is nice to have clean looking walls.

I am still recreating alone outside, but now that the weather is nice I have sun beaming on me and I love the heat. (Shut up Rednecks! I can hear you saying, “Then he will love it in hell” ... hahaha, stupid Rednecks). And with the nicer weather there are all kinds of insects on the yard that I have gotten a kick out of watching. I never knew how kinky bugs were. I watched some freaky bugs have sex the other day. They were some type of long bodied flying insect. I watched them land on the wall and back up into each other until the tail end of one went inside the tail end of the other and then they stayed like that for 30-40 minutes. Think about that. Most bugs only live 2-4 weeks so for that life span 30-40 minutes is like humans having nonstop sex for weeks or months. Then the male tried to disconnect himself, but the female would not release him. Then all the sudden the male takes off flying still connected to the female – dragging her through the air going in circles and circles until she finally released him and then began chasing him around. I couldn’t tell if she was happy or mad or some type of nympho bug or what ....

My point in sharing this silly story is if you will look for it – no matter where you are, or what you are enduring – you will find something to laugh at, something new and something beautiful.

'til next time,
Always, Billy

Danny Bible (Executed June 27th, 2018)

When Danny was being transported to Death Row in 2003 the vehicle he was in crashed, killing everyone involved except for Danny. It left his body utterly obliterated. I do not know, specifically, how many bones in his body were broken all together, but Danny told me twenty-two bones in his back were broken, his ribs and all of the bones in his arms and legs were broken. He was in a full body cast and in traction for six months. I met him fifteen years after his accident, when he was sixty-six years old and he could barely stand up right, and with the aid of a walker, could still barely walk. On top of all of that he had Diabetes and severe Parkinson's disease.

Normally, Danny would be taken everywhere in a wheelchair, but one day he decided he would walk ninety feet. You cannot possibly imagine how long it took this highly dangerous, imminent threat to society to complete this walk. I timed it. It took twenty-one minutes. Twenty-one minutes with the use of a walker. Twenty-one agonizing minutes.

His cell was only twenty feet from my cell and it took many minutes of effort before he traveled far enough that I could even see him. I could hear his progress though. Every thirty seconds or so, I could hear the “ca-chunk” of his walker being raised up and set back onto the cold hard concrete slab. “Ca-chunk” was the noise that old man's walker made to signify the inch of progress he'd traveled on his journey to receive the insulin injection. An injection that would keep him alive until another injection would end his life.

“Ca-Chunk” ... “Ca-Chunk” ... “Ca-Chunk”... went this old mans’ walker on his determined quest to stay alive.

When Danny finally came into my view my eyes were riveted on his face. It was filled with determination and extreme concentration. He seemed fixated on staying up right and completing his trip without losing his dignity. His small mouth was slightly opened so he could get enough air to fuel his mad dash of “ca-chunking” to the nurse who was waiting for him at the gate that lead into the Death Watch section, where he was housed. I will let you decide why she couldn’t come onto the section to give him his injection.

With each one-inch advancement, more perspiration became visible on his big white belly and dripping out of his white hair and his lightly wrinkled face.

Intermittently Danny would pause to rest and due to the Parkinson's Disease, his hands and arms shook bad enough to make the two pairs of linked together handcuffs rattle with metallic music. Yes. This ravaged man with a walker was actually wearing handcuffs. One pair on his left wrist and one pair on his right wrist with the loose ends of both sets locked together. This allowed Danny the ability to still operate his walker, albeit extremely slowly, and to be secured. During his long voyage to receive his life-saving injection, two highly trained TDCJ guards with body armor and pepper spray stood at his elbows to ensure he did not attempt to escape or harm the nurse.

This was the man I watched leave this section on June 27th, 2018 to be taken to his last visit before his execution. He was taken away in a wheelchair, his hands and arms shaking so badly from his disease I could hear the chains attached to him rattling. He was shaking because TDCJ would not give him his Parkinson's medication for the past several days for unknown reasons. For fifteen years Danny lived in a ravaged, pain wracked, barely functional body while battling Diabetes and Parkinson's and living all alone in a tiny cell.

Whatever wrong Danny had done in his life, I think he suffered for it plenty in those fifteen years of isolated, pain-filled misery.

I do not know who Danny was before suffering like that for so long, but I know he wasn’t the same man he was after that degree of suffering for that long. Living in solitary confinement is bad enough, let alone barely being able to move, with each movement causing pain.

The man I met at the end of his life was generous and caring to others. I watched him many times buy enough commissary so a big meal could be cooked and shared with almost everyone on Death Watch. I saw him reading his bible and go and get baptized shortly before his execution.

I saw him endure.

Texas demands its revenge no matter what. They got fifteen years of revenge – plus his life. 

Texas should be so proud.

Rest in peace Danny. 

Always, Billy

Christopher Young  (Executed July 17th, 2018)

Conversations with Young … also known as … “Lunatic”.

What you are about to read are conversations that Young and I had. These conversations will do a better job of showing you who he evolved into after over a decade on Death Row then I could ever hope to show you by any other way.

Billy Tracy: “Look out Lunatic.”

Chris Young: “What’s happenin’ Billy?”

Tracy:  “Did Truman make it?’

Young:  “No. They got him.”

Tracy:  “Fuck … How are you handling it?”

Young: “Man Billy, it almost broke me. Truman was like my brother. We had went through so much shit together. I loved him and I had to grab myself and pull myself back in before I broke…”

Tracy:  “I heard ya’ll talking and laughing all night and morning long … You know it meant a lot to him that you stayed up with him like that, seeing him through. That was real.”

Young: “I couldn’t not do that. I didn’t want him to feel alone – not for one second.”

Tracy:  “Have you seen a lot of people you cared about leave to get executed since you’ve been on Death Row?”

Young: “Way too many Billy, way too many …”

This conversation occurred on April 26th 2018, the day after Erick Davila, or as we called him “Truman,”  was executed by the State of Texas … I had not stayed awake, the night before to listen to “90.1 KPFT” broadcast the “Execution Watch Show” and I didn’t know if Truman had lived or not.

When Young came to the dayroom, which is in front of my cell, for his two hours of recreation the next morning, just by looking at him I saw his pain and I knew Truman was gone. I asked anyway, hoping to be wrong. 

Young: “Whats goin’ on Billy?”

Tracy:  “Just writing. How long have you been in the dayroom?”

Young:  “About ten minutes.”

Tracy:  “I was zoned out writing and never heard you getting put in the dayroom, or I’d of come to my door and hollered at you.”

Young:  “I know it … man, Billy, I promised myself if I got an execution date that I wouldn’t count my days, but I woke up, today, knowing I had thirty days to live and I just felt that fucking needle in my arm and now I am gonna be counting the days…”

Tracy: “Yeah, you’re getting a little too close to your date for comfort. Those white folks almost have your black ass.”

Young: “Don’t I know it? When I close my eyes I can feel the straps around my arms and legs and see the steely eyes of the man who’s going to inject that fucking poison into me. I can feel that needle inside my arm and imagine my body shutting down and dying and just fading out.”

Tracy: “You are not usually so melodramatic Lunatic. You been sippin’ on some prison wine or what?”

Young: “It’s just becoming real now. Up to now it didn’t seem like it would ever come to this point.”

Tracy:  “Tell the truth Cuz …”

Young: “Don’t you start that “Cuz” shit again. Quit trying to make me laugh.”

Tracy: “As I was saying, Cuz, tell the truth. You are not really worried about dying, or about what may or may not come next so much as leaving your family and friends behind, and that it will be those damn white folks killing you.”

Young: “Yeah – getting got by Whitey does bother me, and making my family and friends hurt eats me more than them white folk’s poison ever could.

Tracy: “Nah – feeling guilty about causing your family and friends pain isn’t eating at you enough to kill you. Them white folk’s poison is gonna kill your black ass if it gets in you … Cuz.”

Young: “Man, Motherfucker, quit making me laugh! I am trying to feel sorry for myself right now.”

Tracy: “I know it Bro. But you feel better don’t you?”

Young:  “Hell, nah.”

Tracy: “Why you smiling then? A cracker, honkey mofo just got you laughin’.”

One day Young came to the dayroom at about 6:00 and we had the above conversation. As I mentioned, Young was a Blood gang member and Bloods refer to each other as "Family." The Blood’s main rivals are the Crips, who refer to themselves as cousin or “Cuz.” You don’t call a Blood “Cuz.” When I kept calling him “Cuz,” I was messing with him. No I am not a Crip. I am white and have never been in any gang. It’s just prison humor. It worked, a little, to bring him out of that melancholic mood. And all the “White Folk,” “Whitey” and “Black ass” lingo is just how we talk amongst each other when there is mutual respect and a genuine liking for each other, so don’t get offended. We are not politically correct in prison.

The next conversation was again when Young was in the dayroom and I was in my cell.

Young:  “Billy! My daughter got down for me in a major way! She made a video pleading for me not to be killed and saying how much she loves me and doesn’t want to lose me. That video is blowing up on the internet. I got a letter about it last night. I love my daughter and it feels good that she is fighting for me.”

Tracy: “That is badass. I am happy you have her fighting for you. That’s a special kid.”

Young: “Yeah. I hope I get to see her become a woman.”

Maybe a week later, Young is back in the Dayroom.

Tracy: “What’s happening, Lunatic? Why are you pacing back and forth looking at the floor?”

Young: “Man – I am just thinking about some real shit …”

Tracy: “It looks like something heavy is on top of your back. What’s on your mind?”

Young: “I told you about my victim's son, who’s my age, supporting me now and not wanting me to be executed and not wanting my daughter to live without her father like he did when his dad died … That he forgave me … That he wants me to live…?”

Tracy: “Yes, I remember.”

Young: “Well, it just crushed down on me how good of a man the man I killed had to be for him to have raised a son like that – for his son to have a heart like that … I just don’t feel too happy with myself right now.”

Tracy: “I have been there, I know how that is …”

The next conversation occurred right after Young came back from an all-day visit, from 8am to 5pm, on July 13th – Friday the 13th - 2018. He was talking to me through the ventilation ducts in our cells. His cell and mine share the same air vents so we can talk to each other through them by standing on top of our sinks and speaking into the vents.

Young: “Billy!”

Tracy: “Yo!”

Young: “They shot me down.”

Tracy: “You’re not talking about the Clemency Board, are you?”

Young: “Yeah – they denied me. All I’ve got left is a petition to the Supreme Court and a lawsuit against the Clemency Board for racial discrimination … them white folks are gonna get my black ass.”

Tracy: “I hate Texas. How did you find out?” 

Young: “My attorney sent an intern up here to tell me … they interrupted my visit with my family to tell me the news.”

Tracy: “What did you family say? How’d they take it?” 

Young: “Oh, my grandma said, “Fuck them white folks,” and that about summed it up for everybody.”

Tracy: “I don’t know what the hell to say to you Bro… how come you don’t seem upset?”

Young: “I don’t know except I’ve still got four days to live and I ain’t wasting it crying.”

Tracy: “I know you won’t.”

Young: “I just wanted to let you know what’s up. I’ll holler at you tomorrow."

On July 17th at about 7:30am, about thirty minutes before Young would be taken to his last visit, I called him in our shared vent and we said our goodbyes …

Rest in peace … Cuz.

Always, Billy

To read Part Two, click here

Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Billy Joel Tracy was born in Janesville, Wisconsin in 1977 and almost immediately moved with his family to Texas.  He grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area – minus three years in Colorado in the mid-80s.

He enjoys reading about ancient European history, science, psychology, neurology, politics, fantasy, action adventure and mysteries.  He enjoys doing arts and crafts, exercising, writing, participating in activism and learning about other cultures.

He has been on Death Row in Texas since November 2017 at the Polunsky Unit.  And no, his parents were not Billy Joel fans.  He is thankful he wasn’t named after his parent’s favorite band, Pink Floyd.