Primal - By D.A. Serra

Chapter One

Samuel slips the knife to Rex.

Wilkins rocks forward onto his toes, to get a clear look at Ben, who sits in reverence with his head dropped forward, exposing the pale smooth nape of his vulnerable neck. The air is rank with odor from damp armpits, oily hair, and decaying gums. It’s the smell of rot. When Wilkins has guard duty on Sunday mornings, he watches Ben Burne, because it makes him feel hopeful here among the human scrap meat. He is drawn to the devotion on Ben’s face, and so he doesn’t notice the jagged-edged homemade blade as it is passed from one inmate’s hand to the next, underneath the lip of the stainless steel pew.

Rex hands the knife to Heto.

This ascetic chapel with a plastic altar is populated every Sunday by lifers who, if given the chance, would slash God’s throat. They attend services as an alternative to sitting in their cells. Wilkins thinks about how no one wants to be here, no one except Ben. Ben is enraptured. He communes with the hanging wooden crucifix lost in a personal reverie: Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. The lime paint of the prison’s cinder block wall doesn’t tint Ben’s face in the same ghoulish way it colors the skin of the other inmates. Wilkins wonders if this is a sign. Yes, he thinks it is. Yes, God is trying to tell him something. He has cast the glory of His forgiveness on Ben Burne.

Ben nods his head in prayer. He has lost a lot of hair for only fifty-three years old; the penitentiary food and harsh soap are hard on the body. Ben has managed to stay muscular by lifting weights in his cell and using the window bars for chin-ups. He raises his face. Real tears swim in his eyes as he swells with piety.

Ben, with his reputation, is a celebrity here; as long as Ben is around with his superior air and his attention grabbing ways, well, it pisses off some of the others who feel just as deserving, just as tough. And they are just as tough — they just aren’t as smart. In any room, in every room, Ben is the puppet master.

Heto passes the knife to Leon.

Leon is an obelisk of a man: tall, thick, and sitting directly behind Ben. A grisly anticipation ripples through the room, knowing glances are exchanged and eyes light up, giddy with expectation. Wilkins tilts his head, sensing a palpable shift in the room. His eyes narrow; where is it coming from? He scans the pews up and down. He peers underneath at the shoes solidly on the floor. What is it? He can’t place it. At the altar, the chaplain prays fervently for each of these men’s souls. He feels some solace in knowing that at least he has saved one man. He has saved the soul of Ben Burne.

The inmates in Leon’s row shudder eagerly. Leon likes holding everyone’s attention this way. They are waiting for his move. He tenses first. Then, his jaw drops slightly open. Saliva moistens his mouth and a drop of spit forms on his canine tooth. Right next to him, the skinny hollow-eyed inmate giggles in a small sharp burst - the sound of caged madness. Leon’s fingers clench around the knife. Ready. He springs up! The chaplain looks. Leon’s knife hand juts up and then powers down toward Ben’s bare neck. Miraculously, Ben’s hand jerks up and grabs the blade. It sinks deep into his palm. He makes no sign of pain. He closes his fist around it and the two men stand in a struggle of power and will. The room erupts. They are animals sprung loose - clawing and fighting. Wilkins battles through the melee to get to Ben and Leon who are locked eye-to-eye and motionless as blood gushes from Ben’s closed fist. Wilkins is almost there when an inmate jumps him from behind reaching for his weapon. With eyes in the back of his head, Ben uses his other hand to karate chop the inmate, breaking his neck and sending him to the floor without even a scream. Wilkins regains himself, grateful to Ben, who has not taken his eyes off Leon. Wilkins pulls his gun out and shoots four rounds into the ceiling. The fighting stops at the sound of the gunshots. Other guards burst in. Wilkins moves in next to Leon where he and Ben are frozen in inert combat with