New and Sharp, With Many Teeth by Kara Bright Kilgore

An escaped prisoner commits another crime that might be his last; by Kara Bright Kilgore.

Before my escape, I learned this prayer of north and south. I learned it from Ralphie, who heard it from Vinny, who heard it from Saul, who learned about it from J. Forsythe, who supposedly made it out ten years ago. Ralphie told me this among other things, and his voice traveled through the water pipe from his cell above, and sometimes when he was tired it sounded like he was singing. West on Holden, he said, his voice going underwater as someone ran the tap. Then the words clean and clear as the water stopped running and Ralphie said East at Fenton Crossroads. I sat beside my sink right under the metal pipe so I didn't miss anything. At night, I repeated this prayer, remembering how the water would change Ralphie's inflection so that some words sounded hallow and haunted while others sounded rusted and washed away. Behind these bars, I rely on my hearing. So much depends on who's coming, who's leaving, the click of the locks. I can tell which correction officers are new just by the squeak of their shoes on these polished floors. On my cot, I whisper my prayer until each direction sounds complete, like small tightly wound bead on a rosary, one that I can never touch. I was a Catholic boy once and one thing you never forget is the smell of incense and the sound of praying, The boiling tea kettle sound of a hard S, the hissing softer s that's sometimes mistaken for breath, I hear it too: that small snake hoping it won't get noticed, carefully weaving in and around sweat, iron, and stone. Then there's that wet guttural R from the slippery prayers of this dark skinned guy from some island. I liked these the best. It's like he's almost growling in a way that says you have come too close but asking for protection at the same time, from what? I don't know. Not sure who he's praying to either, I just know a prayer when I hear it. This is what I was hearing now, so it must be getting close to lights out. Every con in here will tell you that they don't pray to nobody, but they do. When you hear those lights pop, they go out, one by one and all that's left is the black corridor and whatever small words you say to whoever makes you feel safe. Of course they all pray in here, in one way or another. Anyone would. I've seen contraband come in and out of here for years. This one guy, Ramón, he prays during every shake down. Some sort of words tightly kept under his breath. He looks around while they toss his cell and keeps his eyes off of whatever and wherever he hid it. When the COs are done, and the door slams shut, he closes his eyes and bows his head with this weird smile on his face. I hear one of the officers hit the switch on the wall, and I don't hear any fresh squeak in his shoes, so it must be the old guy with the white beard, name of Conner. He yells, "Lights out, assholes! Time to be alone with all your problems." Yeah, that's Conner, and don't you just love it when someone talks about your problems like they aren't one of them.

Now that it's dark, forget this shit. Forget the prayers, and the water pipes. I want to tell you a story. I want to tell you about the first time I felt remorse, that first moment that I knew that I was sorry.

First, the sirens: They were getting closer. Now the lock on the door of a large house. Remember now, as Ralphie would say, a lock is the same as a woman. All their locks are, just a dance of pressure and resistance.

And I could twist with the right amount of manipulation. A sharpened tool. A shattered cylinder. A broken will.

I was nervous as hell and imagined witnesses walking through this city of noise. Some of them would be scared, but I imagine that others would secretly smile at this act, boldly executed in the harsh sunlight. They might even laugh, but I knew better. I knew that they thought about their own locks.

Once in the morning, and again at night.

This house was right in front of the river. Find the river last, Ralphie would always tell me. That's the last thing you have to do is find that river. It was a fugitive too once; it ran from something a long time ago and now it stretches over two states, carving through mountainsides and cutting across the dry, parched earth. I found it, right there in the midst of hearing the sirens. I had been running and hiding the previous day, biding my time with the sun and watching for the stars at night. Always looking for true north. When you escape from prison, you can't run fast enough. Something is always tripping you up and catching you off guard. Every color seems to hit you right in the eye. How could I forget the color of wild saw grass and the deepening green vines wrapping around the trees? The sky, it follows me like the crime that put me away, and was it really all of these shades of blue? It must be. Twenty-five years in prison and you'll forget a lot of things. Not all at once, or even all at first, but in slower ways that tend to go unnoticed. A robbery gone bad, that's what I was in for. I guess I'll have to tell you about that too just so you understand everything. You see, people were always using me as the muscle, and the store was supposedly closed, but the clerk was just counting the drawer, a small man among the shadows that were playing on the wall. I had a gun, and so did he. I fired and ended the anger I saw blazing in his eyes. I understood that anger, but I've never regretted taking his life. That was just what I did. I got people out of the way. If anyone needed a gunman, a big guy to get his hands dirty, I was their man, and I never stopped to ask questions. Twenty five years, and I've never felt any regret or remorse for the act, not even in here behind grey walls, where my only view of the world is through a narrow rectangular slit cut in the concrete wall. This was my window, small, just like my world.

Once you get out, the outside swallows you up. Its massive, all color and secret wind. Every sound is ear piercing, and I don't remember when the world got so damn loud. I crouch behind a tree and take off my shoe. That's where I had to keep my picks. Finally, I see the house on the hill and everything that happened, happened quickly. One feeler pick in, and I know the lock is nothing fancy, just the standard pin and tumbler. One pin after another, a little pressure and that final release of keyhole turning like a blackened amen. A dark haired woman ran to the opposite side of the house. I could hear cops on foot now around the outside of the house. And she screamed, of course she did. She screamed like a free person, like someone that has never had to learn silence. I grabbed her around the throat and put my hand over her mouth. "Shhhh, I say, "I'm not gonna hurt you." She tries to say something, but I pull her down until we are crouched under a tall window. "Shut up. shut up. Shut up!" I tell her as I listen for footsteps. I don't hear any. The sirens though, yeah, I still hear them but they aren't as loud. I think they are on another street, but one quick turn could turn could send them my way. That's when you'll hear those things really scream. "Be still," I tell her. "Do exactly as I say and I won't hurt you. Soon as these cops are gone, I'm gonna leave. Just be still and quiet till we don't hear no more siren. You understand me? Not one word. Nod if you understand."

And she did nod. Her head fell forward, and for some reason I thought of the river and how it rises and recedes. The tension in her neck wasn't there. It was gone just like that and her head hung long until her chin was touching her chest. I loosened my grip just a little and listened for that intake of air, like waiting for a timid, frail creature to emerge from the dark earth. I couldn't hear anything but waited for that rush of wind. It never emerged. She wasn't breathing, and somehow in that deafening silence, I stopped hearing. I knew I had no choice. If I couldn't hear, I'd have to look at her with my eyes. She was blue, but I remembered something I saw on television once so I lay her on her back on these black tiled floors and breathed into her mouth. Nothing. I push down hard on her chest and hear something finally, but it's only my own voice whispering: not this, whimpering no, not this again, I wasn't trying to hurt you. She was so small like a Christmas tree angel. So special to someone until I broke her. And I was left alone in her house with her things, the ghosts of all that remains undone and unseen, like the negative of a photograph of something you were just holding. Out here, far from the prison bars that became my bones, everything breaks. It's so frail with no concrete to hold you up and no iron to let anything in, just sky, dust and a place where directions fall apart and who needs some spinning compass? It was my arm, of course. I listened all right, but for other sounds, other voices. I wasn't listening to the one thing I was holding on to because truth be told, I don't ever hear the things that are just within reach, those small brittle sounds that crack and creak. Her breath must have felt as thin as paper, crumbling and flaking away with me and I didn't even notice how tight I was holding her. I wanted her silence, and then, just like that, I had it. I couldn't move and I knew I needed to run. I could also hide from anything or anyone, but not now, and not from myself. I crawl underneath windows until I find a blanket of some kind and cover her up until I get to her face. I still can't hear nothing, but I have this weird urge to say something to her before covering her face. What were those sounds that I used to hear in my cell? Something that starts with an "S" that boiling tea kettle sound or that softer far away s, but I just can't hear it and put my hands over my ears. That's when I felt something. There was something in my chest, so heavy and getting closer. It was something new, whatever this feeling was, and as it pressed down it was sharp, like it came with teeth. I got to say something to her before this thing in my chest chews me apart. I get a look around the house, and I remember there was this glass of water sitting on her table. It had her lips marked around the glass in some kind of lipstick. Her lips bent like that around the edges of her things, things that were safe to her. Quick and coral colored, those had been her lips when she was alive, and that there on that glass, Shit, that's just a greasy reminder of what used to be. My chest feels heavier. I feel this tearing and it sounds like wings. I see this piece of paper with a date scribbled on it, three days from today. She had her own plans and they were within her reach just like her circle ring of keys that hung there by the door and man, what I wouldn't give to own a set of keys. Before I stopped her from breathing anymore, maybe she spoke about her plans, quietly to herself, or rehearsed into the receiver of some ancient phone. There's pictures on her walls, photos of her and another man standing near the tall rocks of that river that I just crossed. I remember those grey rocks cutting my hands as I crossed, those pale jagged edges where the only handholds I could manage against the fast, thundering current, that always threatened to carry me somewhere, anywhere else if I didn't hold on to something. Running fast, that river was alive with all kinds of color and life, white currents silvering back into blue tips and the sounds went on like that until I came to those rocks. That's what I'll say to her, I thought, I'll tell her about the river, but when I opened my mouth small sounds that I didn't recognize came out, before I clasped my hand over my own mouth. Something else instead, so I speak again and this time my voice is solid and I tell her how I don't know what I'm supposed to say. It grows quiet, and I tell her about my prayer, the one I heard in the water pipes. I tell her how to pick a lock. I tell her about the river and how it was a fugitive too once. You have to careful in this river though, I added. When you cross it, there are these parts where the current is swift and the water is deep. Careful.

There's a ceiling fan blowing low and I look up to see her dress hanging inside of a door frame and the wind catches it and fills it with air, and just for a second, it blooms and looks like the shape of a woman. This is what spooks me the most, and I know I've got to get out of here. I crouch down and look at the stillness of her face. I close her eyes with my fingers and remember those s sounds I used to hear each night in my cell. I think I know this biting pain in my chest, but it quickly changes into a sound where so much is lost on the jagged in between sounds that began with air, water, and pipes. The message gets lost, flooded or washed away. My chest is breaking, but I make myself wait until the sun is down. I crawled out of the house through a back window, and ran back toward where I last saw that river. I hear it before I see it. I stopped at the shore and took the picks out of my shoe, threw them in shallow water and said: Here, this is for you. I kept going across that river and noticed how different it was. The currents that I fought to get to her house were instead carrying me to this shallow clearing with the patch of wild wooded area, and I let it. A couple of times, I lost my footing, fell backwards, and tried to breathe in the deep silver waters, because that was just as well. But the river wouldn't have me, and flung me back up toward the surface, toward the air and the light. The river was a color I had never seen, but it smelled like something I remember.

Rain: that dirty aluminum smell, the way it smells after the sun comes back around and dries up everything it can.

I felt the bottom of the river with my feet, and looked up to see the rocky shoreline with the wooded area. I knew I was done with this. I crawled and coughed the water out of my mouth until I could get to my feet. I pulled some branches and a few leaves, piled them on the ground, and started a fire with the greasy lighter I kept behind my ear. Yeah, I'm done. The fire and smoke rise and I sit there and wait for the helicopters to see the flames, for the guys with the hand cuffs to come and pick me up. I can wait. I can stay here, and I can wait all night. I need my cell, with the concrete slit, where my world is small again. Sitting between the fire and the water, that was my last moment as a free man. I stare at the small stones lining the shore, bend down close to them and ran the palms of my hand over their worn smooth surfaces. So tired, I'm worn away as well, I let my face rest on large smooth stone until half of my mouth was in the water and the other half in the air. I hear the helicopters and smile, 'cause I'm going back. "I'm sorry," I said to the stone, to the river that carried me, "but I need to go back where the wind recollects my name."

They put me in the same cell as before. Days went by before I even got off my cot. I mostly slept and tried to forget that feeling that came with sharpness. So heavy, and with those fucking teeth. I hear a familiar knock coming from the toilet. That was Ralphie, in the cell above me signaling me to come over so he could talk to me. I trudge over, and rest my head against the pipes and hear Ralphie's voice hallow and ordinary through cold tap water.

"Was it hard to get across that river?"

"Naw, I managed to get across."

"I heard about the woman. Why'd you run back? Get spooked or something?"

And I want to tell him about that feeling I had in my chest, but before I can, I hear what sounds like a woman's voice echoing up through rusted pipes, "Be careful here though," she says, "these currents are swift, and this water is deep."


  1. Great story! Rich detail, compelling and unnerving plot. I wanted that woman to live, even as I was sure she would not. Well done.

  2. Great short story. They always leave you wanting more

  3. Interesting language re the articulate sociopath and the theme of sound. The perceptions of the character drew me in.

  4. Super enjoyable, great descriptions. Just the right length. While I found the long paragraphs daunting - I appreciate your mixing it up with the short punchy digressions along the way. Super velocity and momentum coupled with a lot of description, which is difficult to pull off. Compelling story and certainly would read more.

  5. Kara is an exceptional writer, wielding metaphor, place, mood, and the 5 senses with easy grace. I wish I were this good. Until then, I'll just keep reading her. Thanks for this!

  6. Great story! Draws you in quickly. Leaves you wanting to know more.