The clank of the bolt yanked sideways comes first, then the rattle of the keys. Your ears are attuned now: you can count the last few clanks and the rattles until you know the next are for you. Anticipation is paramount in here; you don’t want to be caught unawares. Number 22 didn’t suspect a thing when it all kicked off, and look what happened to her.
The hyena pack is already dominating its end of the breakfast table. Head Hyena is holding forth, baring her teeth even as she shoves the Krispies in. The rest of the pack grins silently, with nodding heads like toys on a spring. You look for Number 22. It’s Day 4 and her chair is still empty at the other end of the table.
‘Sleep well?’ asks HH, as sweet and as deadly as a barley sugar stuck in the throat.
‘Yes, you?’ you reply, brightly. You care deeply about the good quality of her slumber: it makes her pelt glossier; her nostrils keener; her fangs all the better to bite you with.
‘Where’s your stinky friend?’ The hyenas erupt at this, the cleverest, drollest witticism in the whole, wide world.
‘Must have overslept,’ you reply. You are pleased with yourself, even as they smell your fear. You take your place at the end of the breakfast queue. You shuffle forwards in concert with the rest, like a segment of some grotesque, oversized insect.
That morning, like all other mornings, you’d gazed at the birds between your window bars: the long-tailed tits with their syncopated flight; the starlings strutting, self-important; the whole lot scattering as the pigeons descend to snatch the biggest worms. You’d followed each one with voluptuary eyes, imagining yourself among them: you’d be a long-tailed tit or a pigeon, either would suit.
That afternoon, you hear again the wailings, the howling at the moon. You picture the gnashing and wild eyes, the swinging of Number 22’s unwashed dreadlocks as she flings herself at her locked door. You, her trusted, her only friend, know the source of her fury: the blank, rectangular space on her wall where a golden eagle, soaring high above a canyon, used to be.
HH had slept well the day the guards came running. Her vision sharp, her ears cocked. She spied the eagle, slant-ways, through No. 22’s opened door. You picture her smile as she licked her lips: punishment for the stolen photograph – mysteriously missing from the prison library the week before – would be swift, severe. The pack would have a new corpse to feast upon.
That evening, you descend the staircase, and Number 22 is there at the table’s far end. Her head is down, her caterwauling ceased. The hyenas wait with their breath hanging in the air, observing you with glinting eyes. Your integrity and your future survival depend on what you do next. You place yourself in the middle of the table. You have clipped your own wings and you are not proud.
About the author: Sally Lane has had many jobs, from chimney sweep booker and strawberry picker to office automaton. She dreams of a life in the woods, with only a canoe and a campfire for company.