Below you can read the story that was grand prize winner in my inmate writing contest. The students and I had so much fun doing it - and there were so many positive responses from readers - I think I'm going to make it an annual event.
Swept Away, by Chris Moore is unique among the entries as it was truly a short story created out of thin air. There are some prison elements to it, but it is mostly a fiction tale set in a fictional prison.
For his accomplishment as the number one story, Mr. Moore will have a character named after him in my next One Eyed Jack book, Blue Chip.
But enough about that, sit back and enjoy Swept Away by Chris Moore!
“Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” PSALM 98:7
3:37 P.M. – San Francisco, California
It struck with ample warning. The colossal wave of seawater surged through the meandering, rush-hour streets of downtown San Francisco, lugging cars and trolleys through the city like children’s toys.
Mother Nature was reclaiming the coastal metropolis for herself, clawing at the compact city with giant, avenging hands that raked parts of San Francisco into the sea and, with malicious cruelty, reached back into the town for more.
Wave after enormous wave blitzed the hapless coast as far inland as two miles, and the receding seawater, as tall as two-storied houses, foamed and fizzled like gallons of spilled soda—dragging people, pets and debris out into the open sea. Others clinged to anything they could to keep from being swept away.
EARLIER THAT DAY – THE ALASKAN COAST
The Alaskan air was crisp; the sky, cloudless and the sun shone with noon-like radiance. The sea’s swells licked and lapped the coastal shores like playful puppies while sullied gulls squawked and glided in tight, hungry circles above the frigid waters.
The coast was more cliff than beach; more snow than sand, and the awaiting sunset—the Northern Lights—would eventually cast the entire Alaskan sky in swirling rainbows that danced like sweltering flames.
Three miles beneath the surface calm, in the black, abysmal depths along the Continental Shelf, the earth ripped and then shook—sloshing enough seawater to fill the Great Lakes, twice and sending it surging through the Pacific Ocean like a trampling herd of Bison.
9:03 A.M. – 2000 MILES AWAY, NEW ALCATRAZ STATE PRISON, SAN FRANCISCO BAY
On a small, rocky island off the coast of San Francisco, a speckled seagull nipped greedily at a half-eaten halibut outside a razor-wired fence surrounding California’s newest prison for women.
Alcatraz, the infamous penitentiary that once housed notorious prisoners like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, was a ghost of its former self. The State had purchased the landmark site, demolished the old federal prison known as “The Rock” and had built a state-of-the-art prison complex where the old one once stood, renaming it New Alcatraz. It was heralded, like Alcatraz, to be escape-proof and was designed to incarcerate forever the State’s most dangerous women.
“The Iron Rock” was its new moniker and from the air, it looked like a steel landing platform with five Millennium Falcons parked evenly in a half circle that, by design, formed a dirt courtyard where inmates could exercise. At times of unrest, prison guards—dressed like green storm troopers—marched in ominous formation while inmates—rebels in blue jumpsuits—desperately ran for cover.
At times of peace, on mornings of thick, coastal fog, New Alcatraz looked like an abandoned space settlement drifting on an asteroid through clouds of nebula in a sea of deep blue space.
Inside, ten inmates and four staff members gathered in a small classroom in the prison’s administration building.
“I can’t do it anymore,” cried Whining Wanda, an aging convict who was battling breast cancer and was serving her thirty-fifth year in prison for killing her abusive husband.
“I’m sick of doing time. I’m sick of being sick,” she rambled on. “I can’t do this anymore—I just can’t. I wish I—,” a small voice quickly interjected from across the room.
“Don’t say it,” the voice pleaded. “Please, don’t say it.”
Whining Wanda nodded quietly, rocking back and forth in a metal folding chair that faced the group—her knees together, her hands trembling.
“Why,” Judgmental Judy, the group’s critic demanded. Severe fault-finding, a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, was what led Judgmental Judy to kill a woman in a bar fight several years ago. Even in her late sixties, she was strong and had a penchant for fighting, a trait she inherited from the time she served honorably in a M.A.S.H. unit during the Vietnam War. Now, in a twist of fate, she found herself battling a cancer that was as pugnacious and judgmental as she was.
“Why what,” retorted Freedom Florence, her tone challenging, tension building between the two. Freedom Florence was the consummate protector of the group and was quick to run to the aid of the weak. No one knew what terrible deed she had committed to end up in prison, but it didn’t matter. She had earned the respect and admiration of those around her, except for a few.
“Why shouldn’t she say it,” replied Judgmental Judy, clearly annoyed. “Why should she keep it all bottled up inside of her. It’s how most of us feel anyway, so why shouldn’t she say it?”
Joyful Jenny, the one who had asked Whining Wanda not to say it, looked over at Freedom Florence with wide, curious, expecting eyes. At four-feet-six, Joyful Jenny was the smallest of the group members and was just ten years old. She was one of three special child visitors in the group: Jealous Jessie, her slightly taller twin and Brave Brittany, her best friend in the whole wide world. All of them were fighting deadly cancers and all of them were losing the battle, their petite bald heads evidence of failed radiation treatments and chemo therapies.
Their visits were part of a year-long pilot program dubbed, “Women For Honor” that sought to bring sick children together with sick prisoners with the far away hope of unearthing the precious oil of inner healing.
It took the Cancer Institute and prison administrators seven years to start the program, and after only one year of weekly meetings, the program was now in jeopardy. The shifting political climate on crime gave prison management the excuse they needed to shut it all down: the group’s progress was inconclusive and fell suspiciously short of the expectations set by prison officials, not to mention the safety of the children. Still, like devoted protesters of the Civil Rights movement, the group met every single week.
“Because they’re children. That’s why,” Freedom Florence answered emphatically, looking at the three girls sitting together. Her gaze softened, lingering on Joyful Jenny for just a moment longer than the others. Perhaps it was because Joyful Jenny was so little and wearing mechanical leg braces that made her seem more vulnerable than the other two, or maybe it was that she reminded her so much of her own daughter—a daughter from whom she had been exiled for the past twenty years.
Freedom Florence turned away, emotions creeping in. Children, she thought, innocent children who had been unfairly afflicted with the world’s most deadly disease and for what? To what end? She would gladly sacrifice herself and bear all of their illnesses, giving them all a chance to live long, healthy, happy lives. After all, she was guilty—her life marred forever by a single, horrible act. Then, that voice, that small voice caught her attention, bringing her out of her self-reproaching inner soliloquy.
“We shouldn’t—” Joyful Jenny began, speaking so softly that she had to clear her throat and start again.“We shouldn’t say it because it’s not true.”
“Why don’t you think it’s true, Jenny.” This time it was the prison’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ann. The group insisted on calling the doctor by her adjective name, Analytical Ann, but she refused to be addressed that way. “It’s inappropriate,” she would say.
Everybody in the group was required to have an adjective name—an alliterative name that combines an adjective that describes a personality trait with a first name.
“What do you mean it’s not true, Jenny,” the doctor repeated.
Joyful Jenny looked at Whining Wanda with round, discerning eyes.
“It’s not true because she wants to live.”
Whining Wanda nodded greedily, feasting on Joyful Jenny’s truth like a famished nomad.
“She wants,” Joyful Jenny continued, “what we all so desperately want: Hope. The doctors tell me that I won’t be here come Christmas.” Joyful Jenny turned and looked solemnly at Healing Harriet, the oncologist from the institute who sat there with tears welling in her eyes.
“They tell me that my courage is greater than my strength. But I would rather them tell me that I am as strong as I am courageous because through the strength of hope and love, I know we can all be healed.”
Joyful Jenny redirected her gaze at Whining Wanda, her eyes deep and compassionate.
“You are immeasurable love, Wanda. Please don’t let life’s short-lived miseries take that gift away from you.”
Gloomy Gloria, a young, reticent prisoner who resembled a chubby Lucille Ball, covered her mouth and wiped her eyes, hiding tears and her astonishment at Joyful Jenny’s insightful and compassionate answer.
Gloomy Gloria was a victim of pancreatic cancer. She was also a murderer by accomplice. During a home-invasion robbery, her partner in crime, senselessly murdered one of the occupants—the husband, and although she hadn’t killed anyone, the State saw to it that she shared equally in the guilt and in a lifetime of punishment.
Gloomy Gloria was a manic and a depressant whose life was a dichotomy of two stories. Her right arm, decorated with artful tattoos, heralded her as a fighter, but her left arm, riddled with grizzly scars, accused her of being a quitter.
“I love your answer, Jenny,” chimed Helpful Hanna, one of the two counselors from the institute who was also a successful writer that had published a best-selling novel entitled, One-Eyed Jackie, “but what about when bad things happen to you and you feel sad like Whining Wanda?”
Joyful Jenny’s expression changed. Her eyes grew sad, her lips pursed in a way that only a child could purse them and her rosy cheeks grew rosier.
“To me, sickness and the awful things that happen are not lifelong condemnations but are dreams that remind me that life is about healing and forgiveness. It makes me want to embrace life, not to let go of it.”
The group was pin-drop silent. It was an incredibly simple answer, uncomplicated by the hamartia of grown-up reasoning.
9:47 A.M. – D-BLOCK, NEW ALCATRAZ PRISON
In the main living quarters of the prison, inmates milled about. Some playing cards, others just standing around, all of them wearing blue jumpsuits with the words, “CDCR PRISONER” stenciled on the back of their uniforms in large, yellow lettering.
This group of prisoners lived in one of the five buildings that looked like a Millennium Falcon—a two-story concrete structure that curved in a half circle at the back and tapered to a V-shape point at the front. Small, two-person cells lined the rear, rounded portion of the unit and extended two hundred seventy degrees toward the guard’s station at the front, giving the sentries a clear, unobstructed view of all fifty cells.
A second story, inner-observation tower was built into the front of the building and was posted by an armed guard who could shoot any target inside or outside of the unit. The cavernous space inside the building was referred to as the “dayroom” and was where inmates regularly assembled for recreational activities.
A group of inmates had gathered to watch a recorded episode of Orange is the New Black on a wall–mounted television in the dayroom. They laughed and made crude comments. Ten minutes into the show, a breaking news banner flashed across the screen. A news anchor urgently reported the breaking headline.
“A nine-point-six earthquake was registered off the coast of Alaska. The epicenter was thousands of feet beneath the ocean. Tsunami warnings have been issued for Pacific coastal areas and are to remain in effect for the next twenty-four hours. We’ll have more on this late-breaking event.”
Dozens more curious inmates gathered to watch. A young, tattooed gang member with braids called Scrappy asked, “Hey, are we part of the coastal areas?”
Several prisoners turned with scowls on their faces that read, “What are you, stupid? Yeah, we’re part of the coastal areas. Duh!” Yet, for all of their collective brilliance, not one of them realized the horrible catastrophe that was heading their way.
The television suddenly went black and a collective “aw” rose from the group of inmates. An awkward silence followed. Static crackled over the Public Address system and a guard’s voice commanded all the inmates to return to their cells.
The inmates were complying with the command until a terrifying realization crashed into Scrappy like a massive wave. “Hey,” Scrappy shouted, “the tidal wave is coming this way!”
Tidal wave was a misnomer. Most people imagine a tidal wave as a towering wave that sweeps inland and causes a great loss of life. In truth, tidal waves are often small, harmless waves that fluctuate with tidal conditions, hence the name tidal wave.
Tsunami, Japanese for “harbor wave,” on the other hand, is a giant wave spawned by an undersea earthquake or other event. In the open ocean it may take the form of successive waves, traveling up to five hundred miles per hour and at a deceptive height of only three feet. As it approaches the coastal shallows, tsunamis slow down and grow to enormous heights and become the gargantuous wall of water depicted in Hollywood movies.
Mental lightbulbs, one by one, began flickering on in the rest of the prisoners. Someone yelled, “They’re gonna lock us all up and leave us here to die!”
More commands were given for the inmates to lock up. More inmates joined the uproar. Then, all hell broke loose.
10:13 A.M. – ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
Freedom Florence broke the silence. “I had a dream last night.”
“What kind of dream,” Whining Wanda asked.
“I was falling, but I wasn’t afraid. Someone was holding my hand on the way down. It seemed like I was falling forever, then I landed softly on a blue cloud.”
She looked around to see the group’s reaction, but there was none.
She went on. “I don’t know what it all means, but in my dream, I felt truly free for the first time in my life. I mean really free.”
Judgmental Judy rolled her eyes.
“Love is knocking on your door,” Joyful Jenny responded. “Answer it and you will find the love that cast out fear and it will set you on a soft eternal cloud of freedom and truth.”
Judgmental Judy had endured enough. “Stop it with the philosophical BS. The truth is that we’re all locked-up doing life, we’re all sick and we’re all going to die in this miserable rat hole. And don’t think for a minute—”
The prison’s alarm started blaring. Something was wrong.
The doctor and both counselors stood up, checking outside the room for signs of a disturbance.
Fearful Frances began fidgeting in her chair, her hands sweating.
“Does anyone have an Oreo cookie,” she asked weakly.
The group shook their heads, unaffected by her unusual request. They understood her peculiar reaction. Whenever Fearful Frances became scared, she would always ask for the same thing: an Oreo cookie. Occasionally, she would get one but most of the time she was forced to deal with her fear without one. Either way, it was just Fearful Frances’ strange, almost humorous, way of coping with her own trepidation.
An ear-piercing scream came from down the hallway, just outside the room. Everyone jumped.
Freedom Florence scurried over to Joyful Jenny and knelt beside her.
The doctor locked the door and returned to the group.
“Look, something’s going on,” Dr. Ann began. “We’re going to stay put until we know what’s going on or until we get instructions. Okay?”
The group nodded.
Outside, the staccato sound of automatic gunfire could be heard and the building rattled under the deafening booms of flash grenades. The acrid smell of pepper spray began seeping into the room.
Several group members began to cough, their eyes watering under the stingy effects of loose mace.
A cacophony of sounds was taking place in the hallway just outside the room. Screams and shouts, commands and orders, and none of it made any sense. Then, the dreadful sound of multiple struggles—grunts and shrieks—and soon after, gunfire.
Brave Brittany and Fearful Frances began sobbing hysterically. Others strained to contain their fright.
Dr. Ann got on her cell phone. She spoke and hung up.
Freedom Florence gathered the children into her arms to form a tight circle.
The door shook, its knob rattled and a fist pounded desperately for entry.
There were more shouts, more struggles and more gunfire. The door stopped clattering and an eerie silence followed.
Everyone in the room was afraid to move. Freedom Florence quietly ushered the children into the safest corner of the room, away from any sudden breach of the door. The rest of the group followed.
The room that held them was windowless, a concrete bunker buried deep inside the prison’s command center where, like a bomb shelter, they could hear the muffled explosions of warfare.
They sat on the floor in a semicircle looking like a battered group of survivors from a plane crash and for the first thirty minutes no one said a word. They just listened to the carnage taking place outside the walls.
The group began to make small talk. Their talk evolved into laughter and their laughter turned into sadness. Soon their sadness became resentment; their resentment turned into anger and anger turned into shouting and fighting. Like a vicious cycle, crying and forgiveness came last and then it started all over again. All of it was an attempt to distract themselves from the insanity waiting just beyond the walls. But the war on the other side would not be ignored.
The sound of exploding grenades and screams jolted the group back into silence.
It was difficult to imagine that guards had lost control of the prison, but the screech of rubber soles against a polished floor—the sound of a lone inmate skipping down the ruinous hallway, shouting the lyrics of songs from the sixties and rapping the walls with a guard’s baton—was sufficient proof that the unthinkable had happened.
It was five long, tortuous hours before Dr. Ann’s cell phone rang. She listened, nodded and hung up.
Dr. Ann turned and looked anxiously at the door. Six times had someone tried desperately to enter. The last time was over an hour ago.
Dr. Ann turned to the group, their eyes pleading for an answer.
“There’s a tsunami headed toward the west coast,” she began. “Evacuations have been ordered for all coastal cities but widespread panic has made it almost impossible. The inmates at the prison have risen up—”
“Damn right!” Judgmental Judy interjected.
“We have to make our way to the roof where we’ll be safe and can wait for help,” Dr. Ann finished.
“There’s a stairwell just down the hall that accesses the roof,” spouted Silly Sandra. They all agreed to stay together and made their way to the door.
They huddled together, crouching through the smoky corridor where bodies of inmates and guards littered the floor. Shrieking alarms blared incessantly and rapid fire gunshots could be heard in the distance. Somewhere, a roar of inmates erupted with more crackle of gunfire.
They reached the stairwell to the roof.
Joyful Jenny wrapped her arms around Freedom Florence’s neck, her crippled legs dangling like loose shoestrings over Freedom Florence’s straining arms.
Three flights of stairs was all that stood between them and the roof where they would be safe from the violence and they would wait for help. Joyful Jenny wheezed and coughed erratically and Freedom Florence quickly covered her mouth with a T-shirt.
“Hang in there, baby,” Freedom Florence urged.
They had reached the roof and a helicopter could be heard whirring in the distance. They stood on the rooftop, wildly waving their arms in the air.
The aircraft was a police helicopter and several, heavily-armed SWAT officers were perched, like hawks, on both sides of the chopper.
As they made their approach, the officers pointed at the children and waved everyone else away. Freedom Florence gently laid Joyful Jenny on the ground and stepped away.
“Don’t leave me, Florence,” Joyful Jenny begged.
“I have to go, baby, but I’ll see you again. I promise.”
“Promise,” Joyful Jenny asked.
Freedom Florence nodded with tears in her eyes, her clothes flailing in the chopper’s draft.
The helicopter landed and the SWAT team dismounted, rifles pointed. They grabbed the children and ushered the counselors and doctors onto the waiting chopper. Freedom Florence took a step forward. An officer pointed his weapon at her head.
“Get down! Get down, now!”
Freedom Florence and the rest of the inmates got on their knees, hand behind their heads.
The SWAT team quickly retreated to the helicopter, guns still pointed. The lifting chopper rose haphazardly into the air and then banked up and away.
Joyful Jenny looked down at the roof. She could see the approaching wave in the distance stalking the prison like a giant crocodile. She let out a bloodcurdling scream that went unheard, drowned out by the popping rotor blades.
Joyful Jenny watched in horror as the massive wave hit the prison with a roar. Freedom Florence was still on the rooftop, kneeling with outstretched arms when the wave swallowed her pleading body and the entire prison in one enormous bite.
Everything had been swept away.
ONE YEAR LATER – SOMEWHERE IN THE PACIFIC
The sun hung in a velvety, azure sky like a glittering diamond, beaming warm sunrays on a tiny island that was rich in lush, mountainous foliage. Brisk gales wafted the salty scent of ocean through the island’s thick, green flora while streams of fresh water coalesced at a cliff’s edge and spilled over the side into a blue lagoon thirty feet below.
A couple stood at the cliff’s edge, their hands linked together like connecting cables and their eyes lost in each other’s dreamy gaze.
“I now pronounce you united in Holy matrimony,” a voice said solemnly.
Tears flowed down Freedom Florence’s face, her gown fluttering in the wind.
She looked from her soulmate to the two people standing next to her and stifled an urge to cry, letting out, instead, a tearful chuckle. Her daughter, Florina, smiled and reached out to her for a hug.
Her dream had finally come true.
Natives serenaded the couple’s union with hand drums that rapped a catchy, Caribbean tune.
“Three,” a voice began counting down.
Freedom Florence looked at the bright, orange life vest strapped to her chest. She didn’t know how to swim, but that was okay. She had never felt safer in all her life.
The couple turned and faced one another, reuniting their dreamy gaze. The drumbeat gradually became louder, rising into a crescendo.
Freedom Florence closed her eyes, whispered to herself and with her mate, leapt off the edge of the waterfall, descending toward the lagoon below.
Her whispers turned into talk as she fell over the side. She had been reciting the adjective names of the unforgettable friends that had, for so long, touched her life—a tribute to their lives, their struggles and their search for freedom.
“Whining Wanda, Gloomy Gloria, Silly Sandra, Loveable Linda, Insightful Isabel, Helpful Hanna, Analytical Ann, Fearful Frances, Angry Alexis, Dramatic Dorothy, Brave Brittany, Jealous Jessie…”
She opened her eyes, still falling; the thoughts about the loss of her friends falling with her and whispered the last of the endearing names: Joyful Jenny, who was standing over the edge of the cliff with Florina, watching her descend and splash into the water below.
“The LORD on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty wave of the sea.” PSALM 93:4
SWEPT AWAY is a fictional story that is based on the amazing things that I have seen and heard in the creative writer’s workshop hosted by Christopher Lynch. It was a privilege to build a moving and dramatic story that conveyed a message of hope, but also incorporated elements of personal experiences from the classmates themselves.
SWEPT AWAY is both a literal and an allegorical story. In a literal sense, it is a story about a group of women and children who struggle with illness and incarceration in a prison setting, when suddenly, their lives are threatened by a catastrophic tsunami that strikes the prison. It ends with two of the characters being reunited on a tropical island and living out their dreams.
Allegorically, it is a story that symbolizes the deeper truths of the criminal justice system and the inextinguishable human drive to persevere and discover hope.
New Alcatraz represents, not just a single prison, but an entire criminal justice system built on a rock of old, draconian precepts that seeks to incarcerate people far more than it seeks to free them, and treats the incarcerated with cruel indifference—expendable objects—rather than irreplaceable human beings with limitless potential.
The group represents prisoners everywhere who struggle to find change and also the many facets of the human condition. Cancer is the incurable and fatal stigma placed on those who are incarcerated and upon those who attempt to help them.
The children symbolize the deep, nagging, insightful truths of our inner child. It is that part of us where forgiveness, love and compassion lie locked away in a cage of tragic experiences and can only be unlocked by the key of recognizing our own childhood innocence.
The tsunami represents ‘change’ and how it rumbles in the deep recesses of our being, rippling through us and sweeping us away into a new life—a life with new meaning and a new way of thinking. Like tsunamis, ‘change’ comes in waves, washing away old habits that we often fight to hold on to. It is something we see coming from afar, but there is little we can do to avoid it until it is right upon us and crashing into us with life’s transformative power. Nothing is ever the same after a tsunami.
The tropical ending symbolizes…FREEDOM.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Moore, whose own adjective name is Caring Chris, is an aspiring writer and a strong advocate of criminal justice reform. Chris is serving his tenth year of a Life sentence under the Three Strikes Law and in the last several years, he has discovered the transformative and healing power of creative writing.
His stories are often set inside a prison and are meant to enrich the lives of its readers with engaging plots, dynamic characters, profound dialogue and deep, provocative themes. Chris has helped instruct a creative writing class in prison and in his spare time, he is a barber, an athlete, a chess player and a friend who helps others rediscover their own capacity for compassion and hope.
Chris is currently incarcerated in the California State Prison at Post Office Box 4430 in Lancaster, California 93539. His prison ID number is AK6450.