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Skulls and Sharp-Petaled Roses

The drive to the prison is beautiful once you leave the city.

Highway 101 follows the Puget Sound’s west shore like a kindergartener’s tracing, sometimes hugging every curve and other times wandering off into the timber before returning, miles later, to the soft gray edges of the estuary. The famously scenic two-lane cuts long swaths through vast evergreen forest, creeping between the towering legs of Western Hemlock and erroneously named Western Red Cedar. Then, like an orca surfacing for air, it emerges, once again beach side.

For nearly a hundred miles the road climbs along the inlet, browsing quaint coastal communities and threading rugged mountains and brackish waters to reach the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From there the pavement thrusts inland through an almost deserted stretch of wilderness—insurance that the state’s most dangerous are well back from civilization’s doorstep.

This final leg of narrow curves wends again through dense cone-bearing cities, and when we’re sure the last shoreline is behind us, the deep blue water of Lake Crescent, humble and melancholy, spills from the thickets. Its beauty is nothing buoyant, laughter disturbing its pensive coves, unthinkable. The lodge and handful of cabins scattered along its pebbled shores seem lost or staged for buses and top-lit cars to nurse a nascent remorse. Parade. Procession.

Eventually, we exit 101 for some lesser highway, every last beauty going . . . going. A meadow. A brook.

The first trip, we did not think of postcards, Mom and I, each pleasant scene raising new blisters as we imagined it all through the eyes of the boy we both had raised—life drifting away, plans and would-be plans, sand and mist.

For four hours we are lawyers, mothers, judges, psychiatrists, accomplices, psychics and beggars. We blame him, blame ourselves, blame the system, money, absent fathers. We try to understand how such a mistake can happen—a juvenile with a clean record, a nonviolent crime—how it could lead to a maximum security prison. We talk about when he was all eyelashes and grins, try to pinpoint the day, the hour, the moment. We murmur, sniffle, and sigh. We silence. We pull apart and collect.

She tells me how she waited outside the jail. How he called for her when they brought him out for transport. “Mom! Mom!” Like he was ten again instead of seventeen. I wonder how many miles she followed them that night, tail lights dripping on the windshield.

I turn from the windshield to the window at my shoulder and blink as fast as I can, hold my breath. The world strobes, flickers.

I wonder if that’s when the sickness started in Mom. Standing there helpless while her child screamed for her, every maternal fiber opposing the inactivity. The pulling, too much for her cells to bear. They panic now. Her body wages constant war on the tame and the mild.

A last right turn and we crawl through the tree line into a glade crowded with concrete and outlined in wire. The plain, white complex with its low, flat roofline looks almost ordinary except for the deficiency of glass and the spools of razor wire heaped on top of its chain-link border. I’m so busy processing the scene that it takes a few moments for me to recognize the guard tower looming conspicuously over the parking lot. The tinted windows near the top give it away, and I suddenly realize we are being watched.

A flurry of conversation ricochets around the interior of Mom’s hand-me-down car, confusion over where to park, how to park, which lot, which stall. Beneath the dark brow of the tower we are suddenly idiots—here, there, stop, go, reverse. Finally, we find the instructions and tuck in beside another vehicle. We imagine a few moments of privacy before braving the open-air crossing to the facility entrance.

Where, we wonder, are the acute angles, the shadows, the damp, gray stones? Without the tower and barbed steel, the place would seem docile. Our blood relaxes a little in the charade as if it has forgotten the phone calls: press three to learn he is a boy among men, a thief among murderers; press three to learn money could buy safety if we had any; press three to learn he must fight for his life and each time lose more of it; press three so you can sleep; press three for insomnia.

For a month he will tell us. Then he will go silent.

We approach the check-in station where guards issue instructions and estimate the zip code of our mannerisms. Mom’s responses are too many syllables, too many teeth. Her movements are twitchy. I point my chin at the far wall and say nothing. We are unaware of the dress code. No hoodies. No shorts above the knees when standing. No baggy clothes. No tight clothes. Mom’s underwire earns a more thorough search, and I’m lucky I chose a different bra today. They talk to us as if we should know this by now, as if they know us.

We choose a table in the middle and sit down with our baggie of quarters—no more than $20—relieved but disappointed we’re all in one room. Some fiction had raised a belief in privacy. Our eyes circle the room as we wait, afraid to land.

When the line of men enters, I interrogate each face, palpate its humanity. I sort them like laundry according to their system and wonder where my brother has ended up, his brown skin, hair, and eyes, something that won’t be worked out until years from now. The Mexicans, he’d said, made their inquiries in Spanish. When he shrugged, they moved on. Had the Natives seen stealth in his long limbs, a warrior’s chin, or had they left him for the whites?

Regulated celebration advances through the room like a rain shower across a cornfield—augmented whispers and bodies rustling at the sight of loved ones. When it reaches us there is a pause as we assess—legs under torso, head balanced on unsteady neck. Our voices come cradled in silk.

“There he is.”

“He looks good.”

“He’s done something to his hair.” His straight walnut hair is gelled back from his face, the loose boy hair he’d worn since fourth grade, gone.

“He’s pale,” I say, standing to hug him the allotted number of times—one.

His lips bend into a measured smile when he sees us and we follow suit, fluttering the tears away before they glisten and pool. He sits in his chair, talks, drops quarters into vending machines before the things he wants are gone, eats sugary snacks and microwaved hamburgers as if this is the school cafeteria. What he doesn’t do is laugh or stop shaking.

Conversation volleys an hour, two, then stalls on the edge of a desert. The tiny patches of green so hard to reach without burns. We cannot say: Damn you! We cannot ask: Are you sleeping? Are you afraid? Has anyone hurt you? And so little he will tell. None of us speak of the oasis years away, a mirage so many parched, punctured miles and devouring dust devils in the distance. What of any of us will remain?

Out of material, we push the minute hand along those last ticks. When the time is up, we stand and hug him the allotted number of times—one. We trade I love you’s. Mom and I linger until he exits the room, then we wade the hallway, wait for the click, walk through the door, under the razor wire, and out the gate. The metal teeth bite down hard behind us, and for the first time in my life I feel freedom.

The going is always better than the coming back. Wrung of words and drowning in thoughts we churn silently through the afternoon and early evening as we backtrack toward home.

Eventually, we know the way without a map, know the parking, know the rules. Eventually, his friends stop writing, stop taking his calls, and he starts illustrating—skulls and sharp-petaled roses—on shins, pecks, and paper.

Mom gets desperate. Tucks a Sourdough Jack in her shirt for his birthday, and we point our chins at the wall. I try to remember if I’ve ever driven her car. I think of all the reasons cheeseburgers are contraband, but when he bites into it, I wish it was my idea.

He gets the groundskeeper job and Mom buys a toothbrush and pimple cream. As we leave the parking lot, she chucks them into the grass for him to rake up on his morning shift. The toothbrush bounces off the windowsill and back into her lap. Stiff in my passenger seat I hiss, “Hurry up!” and she grabs it up and tosses it like a lit stick of dynamite. We listen for the sound of an alarm or a voice booming from the tower, but there’s only the crunch of gravel reaching through the open window. On the other side of the gate, we laugh until the miles eat away the humor.

We peel back months and discard years. I name my new baby Justice. Mom plays flutes and powwow drums on her days off. She burns incense and prays to earth and sky. One day her prayers are answered, or the stars align, or fate enacts, and a boy/man opens a door long closed. He bears a resemblance to but is not the same one who formerly inhabited the room.

He shaves his head and bares his teeth like the wolves on Mom’s wall. Snaps and snarls at us. Postures and threatens. We are no longer his pack. The soft sound of drumming seeps again from the seams of Mom’s house. The thrumming of her heart, steady.

We watch him through layered limbs, pacing the darkness. We build a fire high and bright. Years of fuel we pile. Mountains of soft cedar boughs we stack. Then we wait. Mom tells me again about his birth. How he tangled himself in her womb, tied a knot in the life cord. A true knot, she says gravely. She tells me how his tiny lungs starved, and how his food trickled until his heartbeat was a forgetful promise, the beat of sparrow wings. Even then, she tells me, even then he survived.


Photo of the author posing, hands clasped and smiling, before a hedge of solid ivy.

B. BILBY GARTON is the mother of three boys whom she adores and whose attributes she too often takes credit for. She enjoys studying conifers and edible plants during her many hours spent hiking remote areas of the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Her work has been published in Brevity, Cleaver, Bending Genres, FEED, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. Reach her at


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