“It don’t feel right, Warden. It just don’t feel right at all. Not one bit.”
There was a stench in the air.
A new stench, that is. A stench that was different from the typical, normal, everyday sort of stench that usually hung heavily through the cells and yards of the Mulder County Correctional Facility. And from the back of his office with his feet perched comfortably, and dare he say commandingly, up on top of his desk, Warden Wilson was trying to come to some sort of conclusion regarding how he felt about that exactly.
Now, on any other day, the Warden was a fan of the typical, normal, everyday sort of stench. It was his stench, after all. He owned it. He ran it. He gave life to it. Without him, that stench wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be the way it was. And what it was, was just right. That stench was exactly as it needed to be in order to be a proper righteous stench.
The Warden would be damned if he’d live on God’s green earth knowing that his beloved correctional facility wasn’t giving off the right sort of stench.
But this stench?
This was new.
This was different.
This was a stench on top of a stench. A brand new layer of stench. A stench that seeped through and changed everything underneath it. It created something entirely new. Something that wasn’t entirely normal or everyday or typical.
The Warden wasn’t certain yet if he owned that or not.
This worried him.
“It’s a circumnavigation of Justice, Warden.” Officer Danny continued to prattle on. “It ain’t what the law intends. Not at all.”
“Circumvention,” the Warden corrected him. “You mean to say it’s a circumvention of justice. A circumvention, you see, is when you get around something.”
“What’d I say again?”
“Circumnavigation. That’s when you navi– that is to say, that’s when you travel and go around the globe.”
“Oh.” Danny went silent. His face contorted in that special sort of way it’d contort from time to time when he’d think too hard for his own good. Warden Wilson had grown all too familiar with that look during the course of his tenure. Coincidentally, it was the same sort of look Danny would give during his fits of constipation. As if he was trying to push out something too large through a cavity that was simply not prepared or equipped to accommodate such a notion.
“Well, can’t that work too?” Danny asked. “You know. In a figuring sense? Like, the governor is deciding to sail right round the globe, passed the law?”
The Warden swung his feet off the desk and stood up with a hefty groan. He shrugged his shoulders. “You know what, Danny? Sure. Why not. It’s a brave new world out there, after all. If they can break the rules of living, I think we can bend the rules of proper word choice. Circumventing, circumnavigating, circumcising. It’s all well and good today.”
“One problem at a time, Danny.” The Warden sighed. “One problem at a time.”
The Warden walked to the open window in his office. From there, he surveyed the courtyard of the facility. His facility, he reminded himself. All fifteen thousand acres of it. Steel and concrete and locks and bolts, surrounded by a double row of twenty-foot tall electrified security fences wrapped with barbed wire on top to boot. All of it, his.
He leaned his face out and took a deep breath of the thick Mississippi air. It filled his lungs graciously with all of the familiar smells. Mud. Salt. Brine. Ragweed. Sweat. Body odor. And testosterone. Loads and loads of testosterone. There were other smells there, too. Smells that the casual observer couldn’t quite place their finger on. Smells they could never understand, not in a million years. Like the smell of anger. Hatred. Regret. Fear. And most important of all, the smell of powerlessness.
Those smells usually brought a smile to the Warden’s face. And yet, he wasn’t smiling today. Because today there was something else in the air. A rot.
“What do you figure on doing, Warden?”
The Warden didn’t bother to turn around. “What do you mean by that, Danny?”
Danny gulped. “Well. You don’t intend on listening to the Governor. Do you, Warden? I mean. About. Well. You know.”
The Warden shrugged. “I suppose I have to, Danny. That’s how all of this works after all. Justice. Chain of command. Respecting your superiors, following rules. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have law and order now, would we? If the Governor passes an edict and tells me to do something, I go ahead and do that aforementioned something, whatever it might so happen to be.”
Danny threw up his hands. “But it’s all a tectonically.”
“A technicality, you mean.”
“That too!” Danny said excitedly.
“Remind me, Danny. How’d you get this job again?”
Danny’s face beamed with pride. “I passed the test, Warden.”
“Of course you did,” the Warden said with a sly smile. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. Above his head, a ceiling fan wobbled clumsily as it spun. Its blades shook up and down as they traveled around and around, traveling a slightly different course for each rotation. Sometimes a bit higher than the last, and sometimes a bit lower. It’d been like that for years, the Warden recollected. He had been meaning to have somebody fix it. To get it running right again. But there was never enough time, energy, or money in the day. Other priorities always seemed to take precedent, and the fan remained what it was. An irregularity. An imperfection. Something that stood out from the otherwise high level of efficiency he’d achieved for his facility.
Eventually, he had gotten used to it.
Eventually, it even became a reminder of sorts.
“The men here, they were sentenced to life terms,” the Warden said. “They were found guilty of committing crimes, and their punishment was to live out the rest of their lives in this here facility. Judges and juries laid down the law and expected these men to breath their final breaths between those walls out there. And. Well. Technically, they have.”
“But nobody thought they’d get back up and start walking around again.”
“Justice is blind, Danny. And it certainly doesn’t have any hindsight.”
“It just don’t feel right, though. Letting those stinking, good for nothing zombies walk around all free.”
“Hey now, Danny. You know we’re not supposed to be calling them that.”
“Well, I don’t give a hoot what we’re supposed to be calling them. They’re zombies, just like they used to show in them movies. We can’t let them go. They’re dangerous. They’ll hurt people. And worse off, they don’t even have no purpose to society. They can’t work. They can’t talk. Can’t pick up a hammer, can’t drive a car, can’t carry nothing. Heck, they can’t even sign their own names. The only thing they do is eat brains. And they don’t even clean up after themselves, neither.”
“Which reminds me, Danny. We’ll need to requisition ourselves a new supply of mops.”
“It just don’t seem right, is all. Not one bit.”
The Warden sighed and looked out the window again. There they lingered. The inmates. His inmates. Or at least, inmates that were once his. At one time, they were tough men. Rough men. Killers. Scoundrels. Thieves. Madmen. But they were men who had feared the Warden. Men who listened to him when he spoke. Men who scurried out of the way when he marched through them. And when the Warden swung his baton?
They were men who winced. He had owned this place. He had owned those men. But they weren’t men anymore. He wasn’t sure what they were. And he wasn’t sure if he owned them anymore, either.
“You’re right, Danny. It isn’t right. But the law is the law.”
“So, we’re just going to let them out?”
Above him, the paddle fan wobbled. A breeze carried a foul smell. Outside, Mississippi sauntered. Part living. Part dead. One half seeping into the other. The two sides so connected now, it was difficult to see where one part ended and the other began. Everything was living. Everything was dying. All of it, making up the same stench.
And all the while, the ceiling fan kept on wobbling.
“Of course, Danny.” The Warden smiled. “We’ll let them out. Just like the Governor told us to. Provided they sign their names on the proper paperwork, that is.”
The Warden could always tell when Danny was thinking too hard for his own good. He’d make that same face he’d make during his fits of constipation. But after a moment or too, the notion finally squeezed its way through. And Danny smiled, too.
“You want me to make the announcement over the loudspeaker, Warden?”
“That’s right, Danny. That’s right.”
Up above, the fan wobbled.
A breeze carried a foul stench.
It carried the old and the new.
The Warden smiled. He figured he could get used to all of it.