”It’ll sound even better when I get a harmonica,” Vickie Lawrence to Carol Burnett
in a prison sketch on the old “Carol Burnett Show”—one of the funniest single lines in TV history.

Cell 334
by Billy Lyons ©2014

Tom Bradshaw wondered aloud how he had ended up in this backwater country jail in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.

“Shut the hell up, Cracker!” shouted the huge black giant that slept in the bunk beside Tom’s. “You got here the same way we did. You’re a junkie.” He laughed, and Tom looked in awe at the well-defined muscles that covered the man’s body. This was Oscar; the first African-American Tom had met in his life.

Oscar’s statement was regrettably true. Tom was indeed a junkie. A slew of negative events had manifested in his life in a very short period of time. Instead of dealing with them in a healthy manner, Tom had turned to the oblivion from physical and mental pain readily obtained from the opiate family of drugs. Tom had ordered some Oxycontin by mail from a Virginia seller, and before he could say ‘Interstate Commerce,’ had been arrested, extradited, and jailed in The Old Dominion State.

“Yeah, Homie. Enough. If I have to listen to your whining on more time I’m gonna kick your ass.” This voice came from Juan, a tiny Puerto Rican.

The three made a curious trio. When Tom had heard the cell door clang shut behind him some ninety-odd days ago he had been sure that he would not last five minutes. Tom was an Indiana farm boy. He had no prejudices against anyone; he simply had not had an opportunity to interact with anyone who was not Caucasian.

The irony of the matter was that if he had been paired with anyone other than Oscar and Juan he probably would have been the subject of severe bodily harm. Such occurrences were common among new inmates. Thinking back to that first day, Tom remembered how the two faces had glowered at him. One man looked a lot like John Coffee from The Green Mile and the other resembled a Charter Member of the Mexican Mafia.

The John Coffee thing rose to his feet and his head only missed bumping into the ceiling.

“Well. Lookie what we got here, Juan.”

The Latino man laughed. “Yeah, pretty slim pickins.”

Tom looked down at his feet and then glanced up with what he hoped would be a non-threatening smile. “I’m Tom, fellas. Pleased to meet you.”

The black man he would come to count as one of his best friends looked at Tom as if he was a dog turd stuck to the bottom of his shoe. In an exaggerated, nerdy voice, he mocked his new cellmate. “Hi, fellas, golly-gee! I’m Tom! Pleased to meetcha!” Then, with a deeper and more threatening voice he said to Juan, “Take care of my light work.”

“Yeah, I got this.” Juan glowered at Tom. “Okay, White Boy, strip and let’s get it over with.”

“What the hell do you mean?” Tom asked incredulously.

“I mean you have a choice. You can get over here and be my bitch or you can leave the cell in a body bag.”

Tom tried to stop trembling. “You’re not serious,” was the only thing he could manage to say.

“Do I look like I’m not serious? I’ll give you thirty seconds to think about it.”

“Thirty seconds to live,” Tom said to himself, thinking how much he enjoyed waking up every morning. Just when he expected the beginning of the beating that would end in his untimely death, laughter erupted around him.

“Oh my Lord, if you could see your face,” the black man said as he clapped Tom on the back.

“Yeah.” Juan wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. “Dude looks like he’s gonna pass out!”

Suddenly Tom realized that he was neither about to die nor be forced into sexual servitude and almost fainted from relief.

“Sorry, man,” Oscar said. “We just have to perform this little initiation ritual of ours on all the newbies that come through Cell 334.”

Juan clapped Tom on the back. “Welcome. The place ain’t much, but it’s home for now.” That was how the unlikely friendship between them had begun.

Coming back to the present Tom said, “Yeah, well there isn’t anything else to do in this dump, so why not listen to the story of my life one more time?”

“Like Hell,” Juan shouted and threw a shower shoe that caught Tom squarely in the jaw.

“Hey Oscar,” Juan said casually. “Tell us about New Orleans. You ever see any Voodoo down there on the bayou?”

Oscar was Cajun, and had lived in the swamplands of Louisiana most of his life. The only trips he took outside of his home state were to Chicago to purchase large amounts of heroin, which he brought back and sold at a huge markup. During the last journey he was the victim of a routine traffic stop just outside Richlands, Virginia that resulted in the discovery of six kilos of pure smack. This was enough to earn him a trip to the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail.

“It’s not Voodoo, its Hoodoo. Voodoo is a religion. Hoodoo is straight-up magick.”

“What do you mean by straight-up magick?” Tom had always been interested in the occult but knew nothing of the esoteric arts.

“I mean that if you want to petition a Saint for a favor, go see a Voodoo priest. If you want to put a hex on your neighbor because he married the woman you love, go see the Hoodoo man. Voodoo is the nice, dressed up version of what Hoodoo can really do and what most people want.”

“Damn,” Tom muttered. “You really believe in that?”

“Tom, I’ve seen things that would scare the white off you.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, lots of shit. Shape-shifters, spirit lights, witchboards.”

Juan crossed himself. “You mean a Ouija Board? Those things open doors to places you don’t wanna go.”

Tom laughed. “Like where? Look around you, Juan, we’re in jail. I wanna go anywhere but here!”

“Do you want to go to Hell?” Juan asked.

Tom started to laugh but didn’t. He could see his friend was really scared by the current topic of conversation so he continued in a less sarcastic tone than he would have normally used.

“They sell Ouija Boards in the toy section at Wal-Mart. What’s so scary about that?”

“If you put it that way nothing, but in reality, the board isn’t a toy. It’s a tool. You can talk to spirits, but remember, there are good spirits and bad spirits.”

“So what’s the big deal?” Tom was warming up to the conversation. “Say you get a bad spirit. If it starts any trouble just put the board away.”

“It doesn’t work quite that way,” Oscar informed him with a wise gleam in his grayish-brown eyes.

“Yeah,” Juan added. “Just by using the board you’re inviting the spirits in, and not only into this little jail cell. Into our lives. You give them power, bro, and that’s just what they want; someone stupid enough to grant them permission to do their dirty deeds.” He looked at Oscar for validation of what he had just said. Oscar gave it with a solemn nod.

Tom paid no attention to the look that passed between his cell mates. “So what kind of dirty deeds are we talking about?”

“Oh, the kind that generally fucks up the lives of folks who don’t have the sense to leave well enough alone,” Oscar answered.

Tom stood up from the mat that served as his bed and stretched. “I don’t get it,” he said honestly. “Let’s say I call up my dear old Granny on the Ouija Board. She died last year from a broken hip. Granny wouldn’t want to hurt me.”

“Granny probably wouldn’t, but a demon might.”

Tom laughed. “How did we make the leap from spirits to demons?”

“Remember Forrest Gump?” Oscar asked and then did an almost perfect imitation of Tom Hanks. “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” When Juan and Tom stopped laughing, he continued. “A witchboard is just like that. You may actually believe that you’re talking to your Grandmother. The words coming through the board might sound just like she did. The board may even say things that only you and she knew. That still doesn’t guarantee that it’s Granny.”

“So how do you know who’s real and who’s not?”

“You don’t,” Juan said.

Oscar looked at him seriously. “He’s right, Tom, but hold that thought. It’s almost time for the cell doors to pop for chow.” The three men stood and waited for the doors to open so they could proceed to the cafeteria.

Thirty minutes later they were back in the tiny barred room. Normally the couple of hours that followed the noon meal were spent napping, but Tom was anxious to get back to their discussion. He expected Oscar to object to the interruption of his afternoon sleep, but oddly enough, he was the one who brought the subject up again.

“Okay Tom, I know you’re just dying to ask more questions,” he said.

“Tell me more about this Ouija Board stuff. You say that instead of talking to who you think you are you may hook up with a demon. The only Ouija board I’ve ever seen was on TV. All it did was move around a little triangle and spell out words. Where’s the harm in that?”

“Things worse than spelling out words can happen.”

“Such as?”

“Such as shit flying through the air towards your head. Evil voices laughing at you while you try to avoid getting hit.”

“Something like that would be kind of freaky, I’ll admit, but dangerous?”

“Yes, Tom. Dangerous. You ever hear of spirit possession? Like in The Exorcist?”

Tom shuddered away a genuine chill. He was only twelve when the movie came out, and his parents had refused to let him watch it. His Uncle Steve was considerably more liberal-minded than his mom and dad, and took him to see the movie one night on the false pretense that they were going bowling. Afterwards, Tom wished that he had been knocking down pins instead of sitting petrified while Linda Blair masturbated violently with a crucifix. The movie actually inspired a renewed sense of piety in the boy until its effects wore off.

“Yeah, that movie was something else,” Tom told Oscar. “But the key word here is movie.” Movies aren’t real.

The Exorcist was. The idea for the movie came from the true story of a boy who was possessed by a demon. A lot of the stuff in the movie came straight out of church records.”

Tom was growing frustrated. He was looking for answers to the unknown, but so far the only thing he had been able to discover was that his two cell mates were very much akin to a couple of superstitious old women. “But we’re talking about Ouija Boards, not possession.”

At this remark Juan jumped back into the conversation. “You know, Oscar, we should have actually killed his dumb ass when he first walked through the door instead of acting it out.” The he turned to Tom. “If you saw The Exorcist, then you remember Captain Howdy, right?”

Tom had to think for a few seconds before memory served. Captain Howdy was the moniker by which the evil spirit first introduced itself to the female protagonist in the movie. It was friendly to her at first, but became exponentially more menacing and deadly as the movie progressed. Tom looked at Oscar. “Do you guys mean that Captain Howdy was a demon that used the Ouija Board as some kind of an access point to get inside the little girl and try to kill her?”

“You know,” Oscar said, looking at Juan, “maybe he’s not as dumb as he looks.” He grinned at Tom. “You got it. What’s more, there’s lots of other cases where people became possessed by using the board. I’m sure those poor bastards thought they were just messing around with a stupid party game, too. What the board does is never predictable. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes maybe the ghost of a relative actually does come through. On other occasions something much worse can come through, and yes I do mean a demon. When this happens the best case scenario is a trip to a psych ward and the worst is a trip to Hell.”

“I don’t believe it,” Tom said with more bravado than he felt.

“What do you want me to tell you, Tom? I guess it’s like that Ripley guy used to say. Believe it or not.”

Tom thought for a minute, and then heard himself say, “Prove it.” He didn’t understand why he was uttering the words, or pushing the issue. It was as if an unquenchable curiosity had possessed him instead of a demon.

“What do you mean? Have you lost your mind?”

“I mean I don’t believe it. You say this board can reach out to Heaven, Hell, or Wherever, and potentially raise some kind of unholy terror that may or may not possess or kill us. I think all you really believe are some old wives’ tales you heard growing up down on the swamp and they still scare you. I believe you’re afraid.”

Tom was trying to push Oscar’s buttons, but it didn’t work. He looked at his friend with unmasked contempt. “Do I really look that stupid to you? Do you think that some amateur-hour reverse psychology is going to get me to do something I have no intention of? Besides, we can’t just ask the guards to open the front door so we can trip off to Toys R Us and buy one.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tom retorted. “We could just make one. It’s only a flat surface with the alphabet and some numbers on it. Hell, even this thing would do the trick.” He picked up a cardboard box that had held the Ramen Noodles Oscar bought every week.

“Yeah, it might, but we’re not going to find out,” Oscar said with a stern look in his face.

“Damn straight,” Juan said. “This is not how I want to spend my Saturday night, even in jail.”

“Jesus, guys, come on! The worst thing that would happen is that we might get a little spooked.”

Neither man budged. Tom knew that if he was going to get his way he would have to pull out every weapon in his arsenal, and he was about to go nuclear. “I’ll give both of you guys a week of my breakfast trays if you’ll do it with me.” As soon as the words came out of his mouth he knew he had won. His cell mates ate like horses. They might complain about demons from Hell and the loss of their souls, but in the end they valued their stomachs more than said souls, and would capitulate.

“Damn you.” Oscar knew that Tom had played the trump card successfully and it pissed him off.

Tom’s cell mates looked at each other for a very long time before some silent signal passed between them. “Okay,” Oscar answered for the two. “We’ll do it, but you’re gonna be sorry.”

They waited until later that night. Oscar and Juan were deathly quiet as Tom worked to paste typing paper to the top of the paper noodle container. Tom understood that he was putting his friends in a situation in which they did not want to be, and he was using the idea of food in their bellies to do it. Knowing this did not give Tom a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Instead he felt like a total shit.

Once the paste had dried, he took a pen and began to write on the paper. He included the alphabet and the numbers zero through nine, as well as the word ‘Goodbye.’ He finished writing and sat back and looked at the board. Damn if it didn’t look almost like the real thing. He glanced at his watch and then at Juan and Oscar. “Hey, it’s almost midnight. We’re just in time for the Witching Hour.”

Oscar looked at Tom and held his gaze for a very long time. Finally he spoke. “Tom, you really don’t want to do this. It’s not a game. Listen. I’ve got a little bit of weed that I’ve been saving for a special occasion. Let’s get stoned and go to bed. You can keep your breakfast trays and we’ll forget all about Ouija Boards.”

“To hell with that. We made a deal. I’m going to keep my end of the bargain, and you’re going to keep yours.”

“So be it,” was Oscar’s only comment.

“So how do we do this?” Tom asked Oscar.

“We all touch the planchette.”

“The what?”

“The planchette. You know, the triangle you cut out of the cardboard with the little hole in the center. It’s the thing the spirit moves around on the board.”

Tom took the planchette in hand. “Should we say a prayer or something before we start? You know, for protection?”

Oscar laughed loudly. “That is about the dumbest thing that’s come out of your mouth all day, which is saying a lot. How are you going to pray to God to protect you from something He doesn’t want you to do in the first place? There’s no protection. The time for turning back is over. What we do is each put a finger on the planchette and announce ourselves.”

After each of them had placed a finger on the board, Tom spoke. “Is there anyone out there who wants to talk?” He wasn’t sure, but he could swear that for just a second he felt a tingle of electricity shoot up his arm.

As for the board itself, nothing happened. One minute passed; then two, and the next time Tom looked at his watch it was almost half past midnight. Just when Tom was about to give up on the entire thing, the planchette began to move.

“What the fuck?!” He watched in extreme disbelief as the triangle moved smoothly across the cardboard.

The planchette stopped at YES. Suddenly Tom remembered that he had asked a question, but the shock at seeing the board actually work had erased it from his mind. Finally he remembered asking if anyone wanted to speak.

“What the hell do I do now?” He shouted at Oscar.

“It’s your party,” Oscar smirked. “Ask it what you want to know.”

“But I don’t want to know anything! I just wanted to prove you guys were full of shit!”

“Well now you know that we weren’t.”

“What the hell am I going to ask this thing?” Tom thought. With a gulp he said aloud, “What’s your name?”

With almost no hesitation this time, the planchette moved again. S-A-L-L-Y was what it spelled.

“Oh my God,” Tom whispered to himself.

“What?” Juan almost screamed. “Who is Sally?”

Sally was Tom’s wife. Tom’s dead wife. They had married straight out of high school and their life together was perfect until Sally had been killed by a drunk driver two weeks shy of their twentieth anniversary.

Tom was paralyzed with confusion. One side of him thought that whatever was coming through the board was indeed an evil, demonic son-of-a-bitch. The other side asked, “What if it really is Sally?” Even Oscar had said that it was possible for genuine spirits of the departed to come through. Wouldn’t it be worth taking any chance, however slim, to talk to his beloved once more? Tom decided to continue.

He asked the board, “Do you mean my wife Sally?”

Y-E-S.

“What’s your middle name, Sally?”

A-N-N.

“Jesus. That’s her middle name, all right,” he thought. What’s more, he knew that he had never mentioned this to Oscar or Tom.

“Sally, are you okay?”

The planchette moved quickly to YES.

“Where are you?”

W-I-T-H Y-O-U

“Really?” Again the planchette made a non-wavering move to YES. Tom tried to hold back the tears in his eyes but could not.

“I miss you, Sally.”

M-I-S-S Y-O-U T-O-O

“I want to be with you.”

Y-O-U W-I-L-L B-E S-O-O-N

“How much longer until we’re together, Sally?”

D-E-C-E-M-B-E-R-1-9-2-0-1-3

“Is that the date I’m going to die?”

Y-E-S

“And then we’ll be together?”

Y-E-S

“In Heaven?”

Suddenly, the board violently jerked free from the hands of the three men and rose in the air. It spun in the air above their heads and hovered there briefly before bursting into flames. Tom heard Sally again, but it was if a very evil man’s voice had been combined with hers. At this instant Tom knew that he had never been talking to his wife. He was certain that he was conversing with a demon.

The voice changed to what resembled a chorus of little girls skipping rope in Hell. The song they sang was to the tune of Ring Around the Rosie.

“You’ll be with me-ee,

You’ll be with me-ee,

We’ll bu-urn and bu-urn,

We’ll all burn in Hell!”

Then the pitch of the voice dropped again, lost its musical quality, and sounded like nothing more than the servant of Satan that it was. “YOU’LL BE WITH ME IN HELL, TOM! ON DECEMBER 19, 2013, YOU’LL BE WITH ME IN HELL! YOU’LL NEVER SEE YOUR BITCH AGAIN AND YOU’ll BE WITH ME IN HELL!”

The sound subsided, and next Tom heard a sobbing the likes of which had never met his ears before. He glanced over toward the cell door. After everything that had happened up to this point, he was only mildly surprised at what he saw. Juan had become panicked and moved toward the exit, which of course was blocked by iron bars. What was hard to believe, however, was the fact that somehow he had managed to get his head stuck in between the bars. Blood poured steadily from the sides of Juan’s skull, which had caved in substantially. “What did he see,” Tom thought wildly, “that was horrible enough to make him run from it with enough force to catch his head in between iron bars?”

Juan was very close to death. The screaming had stopped but pitiful moans still came from the poor man, and barely comprehensible speech could be picked out here and there. “Ohjesusohjesusohjesusohjesus” was what Tom thought he was saying, but couldn’t be sure because the words were mixed with gurgles as he choked on his own blood. Clumps of brain tissue and bone were stuck to the side of his head. A few seconds later the pained mutterings became clearer and more insistent, as if Juan was trying desperately through his pain to warn Tom of something. “Run . . .Tom. Run . . It’s . . .behind . . . you.”

Tom didn’t want to look behind him because he knew that when he did he was very likely to come face to face with the demon that he had conjured. Finally he turned, and what he saw caused him to scream so forcefully that his vocal cords strained almost to the point of bursting. The demon was his best friend Oscar.

The most striking aspect of the creature was its eyes. The sclera had turned amber red. The pupils had deepened to a jet-black emptiness and expanded to the point that the irises were no longer visible. Its teeth were like a handful of razor-sharp needles that had been sharpened to dangerously sharp points. Smoke rose from its neck and shoulders. It laughed, and a twelve-inch forked tongue darted in and out of its mouth rapidly as it did so. The grin imposed on its face could best be described as maniacal.

It began to speak. “I tried to warn you. I always give several warnings. The rules require it. And since you chose to ignore my warnings you have given me permission to use your life and soul however I please.”

Finally the truth dawned on Tom. “You were never Oscar at all.”

“Bingo,” The Demon replied with a grin. “You always were smarter than that idiot over there,” he said and pointed at Juan, who was slumped against the bars in a semi-conscious state. “Of course in the beginning there was an actual Oscar, but just before he entered Cell 334 a year and a half ago, I popped inside his body for some fun.

“You see, Tom, the job my Master gave me is to collect the souls of poor unbelieving bastards such as you. Eternity can become very boring, so in this case I eased the boredom a little bit by engaging in this little ruse. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a bite, but not with you, Tom. They say curiosity killed the cat and that may be, but curiosity will without a doubt be the cause of your eternal damnation. All I had to do was drop a couple of hints about Hoodoo and witchboards and voila, another couple of souls headed to Hell.”

“Oh no,” Tom said, growing angry. “You can’t have Juan. This was my idea. Take me but leave him alone. It’s not his fault.”

“No, I’ll take you both. He gave me permission just like you did when he agreed to play the game with us.”

At this news Juan continued his prayers with even more fervor. The Demon shot out its tongue and quickly closed the distance between itself and the poor Puerto Rican. It lengthened and thickened before it tightened around Juan’s throat, effectively cutting off any further petitions to Heaven. After several seconds it released the man.

“That’s enough! I don’t want to hear the name of your pathetic God. Let’s all take a moment to see if Juan’s prayers will be answered.” The Demon glanced severely upward and shouted, “Well, Christ, are you going to do anything to save this little worm?” It paused as if expecting an answer and then laughed. “Sorry Juan, looks like He doesn’t give a damn. I wonder why?”

The Demon glanced at Tom. “You see, Juan puts on a good act with his prayers and such, but that’s all it is, an act. Our boy Juan here isn’t nearly as pious as he makes himself out to be. He murdered his eighty year-old mother for her Social Security check, after all. He spent the entire sixteen hundred dollars, all the money she had in the world by the way, on crack. Isn’t that right, Juan?”

“It was an accident!”

“An accident? Are you really going to go there? Do you seriously mean to tell me that the rolling pin she was using to press tortillas flew into your hand and beat her brains out by accident?

“I didn’t mean to hit her that hard. It was an accident!”

“Keep telling yourself that. Maybe in a couple of thousand years you might actually believe it,” The Demon said scornfully. “I really couldn’t care less. I got what I wanted.”

“Are you going to kill us?” Tom asked.

“Not us. Just him,” The demon said and pointed to Juan. “And Oscar. Then I’ll simply fly away and jump into someone else.

“But you said I was going to Hell, too.”

“Oh, you are, but not now. Don’t you remember what the board said? It does tell the truth about some things, you know.”

Tom froze. He did remember, and slowly began to speak. “December 19, 2013. You’re going to frame me for the murders.”

“No, let’s be clear about that. You framed yourself when you started poking your nose around in places where it didn’t belong. But yes, you will be blamed not only for Juan’s murder but Oscar’s as well. Before long the guards will find two corpses in here with you. Since we’re on twenty-two hour lockdown, who else could have done it but you? Once you’ve been found guilty you’ll be sentenced to death and shipped off to death row to await your execution date which will be, as you have already guessed, December 19, 2013. While you’re waiting for your lethal injection you’ll have plenty to ponder, so let me give you one more really cool item to add to the list. If you had just left the board alone you would have likely done your time, changed your ways, and gone to Heaven when you died, where you would have spent eternity with your wife.”

With those words, the Demon swiftly lept upon Juan, who could no longer pray because he no longer had a head. After landing on Juan’s body, the creature pulled at it with all of its considerable strength. Because his head was still caught between the bars of the door, it detached with a ‘POP’ and fell to the floor outside the cell.

With one last grin the evil spirit looked up at Tom and said, “Be seeing you, but I’m afraid you’ll find me much less amicable the next time we meet.” Then it reached into Juan’s abdominal cavity, pulled out a section of intestine, and wrapped it around its own throat. It pulled tightly until the body it had inhabited stopped breathing and dropped lifelessly to the floor. A small wisp of black smoke detached from the corpse and exited the cell through its ventilation shaft. The Demon was gone.

Tom couldn’t have said how much time passed before his screams brought the guards running. When they finally arrived, one of them passed out from the shock of what she saw, and the other threw up every bit of the pepperoni calzone that had been his dinner. When he composed himself, he spit in Tom’s face. Tiny shards of green pepper and onion joined the blood and tears that were already there. “You bastard,” the man whispered. “They were your friends. How could you do it? You know of course, that you’re gonna burn for this.”

Tom simply looked up at the man. “Sergeant, you don’t know how right you are.”

x x x

Adrienne’s story was strange; Billy's is even stranger. It was a nose behind in the race for the month of honor. So I’ve placed it in November for your Thanksgiving enjoyment. Munch it with your cranberry sauce. Or not. But do place your comments (Turkey or treat) on our BBS. -GM

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