Tucker watched as the red-headed man walked to the side wall and, shaking his head and muttering to himself, turned and walked back. Thick, matted hair clung to his scalp like an oil slick, and he held a plastic crucifix in his hand, his thumb nervously rubbing over the suffering Christ as if somehow the act would produce a puff of smoke and a materialized Savior would whisk him away, save him from inevitable.
"Please Jesus." Tears filled the man's eyes. "Please give me the strength."
The man reached the other side of the holding cell and the pleas stopped, but then started up again as he turned and walked back the other way.
Next to Tucker, another inmate groaned. It wasn't a groan of agony, though, something common to most of the inmates here; rather, it was the aching groan of frustration. Tucker learned this one's name was Jackson. Only Jackson. In the holding cell, everyone thought it best to keep things on a last-name basis, clinging to the hope that anonymity would provide some protection. Learning their first names, or even where they were from, could only make it worse. Connections were not a person's best friend.
Jackson shouted at the red-headed man. "Shut up, will ya?" He then leaned into Tucker, and his rancid smell, like old shoes corrupted by months of sweaty, sock-less feet, bit into Tucker's nasal passages. "Jeez. The way he goes on, I don't know why they didn't just kill him on the spot."
"Leave him alone," Tucker said. "He's not hurting anyone."
"He's about to drive me crazy."
Tucker sighed. "With what's waiting for us on the other side of those bars," he said, "I think we can all be a little more tolerable."
It had taken years to reach this point. The Christians were first, which came as no surprise to Tucker. As the saying went, what comes around goes around, and the Christians were certainly overdue for their season of retribution. If the Muslims had to endure the Crusades, the Jews the Holocaust, pain and suffering would eventually make their way back to the Christians. They couldn't realistically think their time of persecution with the lions in the coliseum was a one-off. Never satisfied with just one helping, sooner or later the spirits of the world and of men always came back for more blood.
It didn't stop with the Christians, though. Eventually, the government rounded up everyone it considered a threat, which included anyone who didn't agree or support the ruling class.
"I don't know," Jackson said. "I don't think I can stand his rambling any longer."
"Then don't." Tucker nodded his head toward the back of the cell, which was packed with roughly a hundred men, women, and children. Most of the inmates were asleep; a few just stared forward in shocked silence. "Maybe some of them will make room for you."
For a moment, the only sound in the cell was the red-headed man talking to himself. Tucker didn't know the man's name, and that was probably okay, too. Considering their mutual path, there was no need to even get that close.
"When's your hearing?" Jackson asked.
"Tomorrow, I think."
Jackson nodded. "What are you going to tell them?"
"Maybe nothing at all."
"Well, I'm not going to fight it. I'll just give 'em what they want."
"It won't make a difference."
"What do mean?"
"We're all dead anyway." Tucker looked him in the eyes. "Or haven't you figured that out yet?"
When the government picked him up, the men carrying the guns told Tucker he would be held until a panel of inquiry could look into his case. That was two weeks ago. It was their way of sobering him up, make him reconsider his loyalties. The problem was, though, nobody who ever left the cell came back, and the guards wouldn't talk about any of them. If people had changed their minds, Tucker could see it, but not everyone would change their minds; the percentages were against that. So it was clear that, one way or the other, this government had dealt with its issues the way all governments down through the ages deal with issues. It didn't matter how much governments said or promised. Eventually, they all looked alike.
Jackson stood and looked down. He shook his head and flipped a thumb toward the red-headed man. "You're just as crazy as he is, you know that?"
Tucker looked at the red-headed man, who turned and made another pass. Light from the hallway outside cast long shadows into the holding cell.
Jackson turned away, leaning from one side to the other as he stepped in between a few of the inmates. He cursed at one man who didn't move fast enough, and for a moment the air in the cell was filled with the sounds of both Jackson and the red-headed man. Tucker felt sorry for both of them.
As the red-headed man made another pass, Tucker stood up and walked in front of him. The man looked at Tucker as if seeing him for the first time.
"Are you Jesus?"
Tucker shook his head.
"I need to see him. Can you help me?"
Tucker nodded and placed his arm around the man's shoulders. He guided the man toward the wall.
As they sat down, Tucker pointed to the man's hand. "You mind?"
The man looked for a moment at the plastic crucifix in his hand. He then held it out, and Tucker took it.
"Thank you. What's your name?"
"Meade. And yours?"
Tucker nodded. The guards and the inquisition panel would think what they would.
"John Tucker," he said. "From Willow Creek, Iowa."