I never knew it was possible to feel like time was dragging in forever yet still feel like there was not enough of it. Mistress blows a whistle signaling the end of the first hour. I drop my sand bag in the snow, fall to my knees, and place my hands behind my head. I fail to meet the first quota. Mistress finishes her count and switches out with Dominique. I watch her disappear from view as she heads back to the building.
I moved 26 bags in the first hour. I must move 54 bags in hour two if I wish to catch up to the pace needed to earn a coat for tomorrow. Dominique is surprisingly tame. She looks uncomfortable moving in the snowshoes and based upon my experiences, she likely hasn’t fully woken up yet. After about 5 minutes she turns and heads back to the prison building. I feel a sense of relief. The final 14 bags from the first stack are the hardest as they fall just out of reach. The final 5 require me to lie on my back and move them with my feet so that I can reach them.
Upon finishing the 40th bag I stand and raise my arms. I feel time slip away as I wait for Dominique to arrive from the building for inspection. She’s in no hurry to comply. To my surprise she walks right past the sandbags and approaches me.
“I swear to God I will bring my whip on the next shift.”
I feel a pit in my chest. She still makes me afraid.
“Turn around, inmate.”
I follow her instructions. She startles me with a shove to the back that sends me toppling down the incline face first into the snow. I rise slowly, her cackles fill the air. I wonder if she is touching herself. She departs for the building without a word. The bags move easily now that I can reach them all. Each repetition helps me improve. I figure out the best way to lift the bags, the best way to carry them. I learn more efficient ways of moving quickly and the best ways to navigate the inclines. As the snow packs from my repeated steps, each trip back and forth becomes a little bit easier. I miss the quota again but I managed to move 39 bags and I fall 15 behind the pace.
The second hour ends with a full guard change. Tabitha and Lauren replace Mistress and Dominique. The latter 2 hop on the snowmobiles and head to Dominique’s home. Tabitha is more vocal than both Mistress and Dominique. She stays with me step by step breaking me down verbally like a drill sergeant.
“You deserve to suffer like this, you sissy sack of shit.”
“Prove to me that you’re worth saving. You look pretty useless right now.”
“You can only blame yourself for being here.”
I speed up my pace to escape her words. I toe the line between the true reality and this make-believe reality. Her words sting. I find myself believing them as they creep their way into my heart. I start to feel worthless. I start to feel like I deserve this.
“Halt, inmate. Get on your hands and knees.”
I freeze in my tracks, set the sandbag in the snow, and fall to my hands and knees. My knees and fingers start to sting after a few seconds in the snow. She approaches me; her steps crunch the snow beneath her feet. I brace myself, expecting the sting of her strap or a kick to the ribs. She turns and sits on my back, crossing one of her legs over the other.
My back strains under her weight. She isn’t heavy but my muscles are sore and tired from the pains of this fruitless labor. I hear the click of a Zippo. A pop. I glance up and watch clouds of smoke circle up in the cold air. I am her chair for her cigarette break. Her body heat slowly reaches me. It feels nice as it shields me from some of the cold. A few minutes pass as she inhales and exhales slowly. Anxiety builds as I realize this steals from my quota time. I am truly helpless.
She rises off of me and paces away. I climb to my feet and continue moving the sandbags. Tabitha stays with me the entire time. The inspection goes faster than with Dominique. Her words continue to rain down on me every few steps. Even if I’m not truly a criminal, I am still her prisoner and completely at her mercy. My mind inches closer to acceptance. Do it, or else…
The 3rd hour ends with 42 bags moved. I meet my first hourly quota. I feel my spirits rise slightly knowing that it is possible. Lauren takes over for Tabitha on guard duty. She moves with me silently, gliding. Her motions aren’t aggressive, it’s almost like she’s out for a stroll. I feel like she is studying me. I feel my inner motivation kick up a notch, almost as if I wish to impress her.
I continue moving bags, tuning out the aches and pains of my muscles and the sting of the cold. On a return trip I stumble on the chain locked to my belt and take a spill headfirst into the snow. Lauren rushes to my side. She takes me a little by surprise.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” I lift my head and nod.
“Are you cold?” I nod again.
I feel her hand press between the belt and my uniform. Something warm against my body. She removes her hand but the warmth stays. I figure it must be one of those heating packs. She pulls up her mask revealing her face. She holds her finger in front of her lips.
“Shh, don’t tell anyone.”
I rise to my feet. The heat from the warming pack feels like it reaches my heart. It seems like forever since the last time I experienced kindness. The feelings energize me. I manage to move 49 bags this hour. Lauren’s voice hums with pride as she does her final inspection count. I miss lunch by 4 bags but I bask in the glow of her approval.
The day continues in cycles. The guards change each hour and every 2 hours they cycle back to the house. Mistress continues her cruelty. Dominique continues to avoid being outdoors as much as possible. Tabitha continues her verbal onslaught and makes sure to take her cigarette break sitting on my back. I find myself looking forward to seeing Lauren. She is my symbol of hope.
On our second rotation she pats me down and checks me for contraband. She slyly uses this time to sneak me more heating packs. The warmth enters my collar, my mittens, my boots, and my tights. She lifts her mask and cracks a smile, again holding her finger in front of her lips. The sun peaks its way through the cloudy sky. The second cycle passes more quickly than the first. I finish with counts of 41, 40, 39, and 52. If there really are bonuses, Lauren is winning. I hope I am making her proud.
I watch from a distance as the four of them play rock, paper, scissors, for the next cycle. I watch Mistress and Lauren depart on snowmobiles. My spirits fall as they shrink into the distance. Dominique doesn’t even approach me this time around; she just heads straight to the building without a glance. I feel relief that her threats to bring her whip were empty. Being alone out here makes time seem to drag. I move 40 bags. It could have been more but I had to wait for 10 minutes for her to inspect my completed stack.
Tabitha’s negative energy has come down a notch. I sense her growing boredom. I lose time as she sits on my back for two cigarette breaks. I manage 40 bags again but I feel helpless as I realize that I am not supposed to win this game today.
My eyes light up as Lauren takes over. She again finds a reason to pat me down and manages to replace the worn out heat packs with fresh ones. She lifts her mask and rubs her hand across my mask-covered cheek. My eyes reach out to her, telling her about my fatigue, the pain in my back, arms, and legs, the constantly rumbling of my stomach, the fear and hopelessness of this situation. My heart reaches out, starving, searching for anything resembling a connection.
She leans forward and whispers in my ear.
“It’s okay, I’m on your side. Everything will be okay, just do your best.”
Her words answer my call. Lauren is kind. My insides warm up as she saves me from this desperation. It’s amazing what morale can do; I feel rejuvenated.
I have done my best to keep count. If I finish this stack and the next I will meet the quota of 480. Under Lauren’s watchful gaze I feel like I can do anything. I power through this stack and into the next one with ease. I move 55 bags, leaving 17 to complete in the final hour.
Mistress replaces Lauren for the last stretch. The sun has long since set and I work under the moonlight and a handful of floodlights mounted on posts surrounding the field. I pace myself, giving my body a chance to rest and recover what it can. I will be sore tomorrow. Mistress moves with me, pacing her strides to match my speed.
My eyes beam as I place the last bag on the pile. Mistress approaches them for inspection. I close my eyes and breath deeply; the day is finally over. Her voice breaks the silence.
“Inmate, these bags aren’t stacked neatly enough!”
I watch in horror as she topples the stacks of bags with her feet.
“Drop and give me 50!” Is she serious? I look over at her. Bad move.
Mistress takes the strap from its hook on her belt and slaps it against her palm a few times. Terror enters my heart. I quickly drop to my knees in the snow and get into a push-up position. I lift my body with my arms. As I near the top I feel pressure on my back that stops me. My arms quiver and shake under the strain. She presses down with her leg and her foot drives me back down to the snow. I try again, this time I reach the top.
“Hold that position, inmate.”
My arms feel weak and exhausted. Please, Mistress, don’t do this. I feel her hand grip my collar.
“What the fuck, inmate?”
I feel her fingers ruffle through the fur. Panic charges my body. She found a heating pack. Smack. The strap lands on my back. I grunt from behind the gag on its impact. Smack Smack Smack Smack Smack. I shriek in pain and tears fill my eyes.
I quickly stand up. I keep my head down and my eyes on the ground. I feel her hands frisk my body. The warmth leaves as she takes the packets one by one. A quick shove gets me moving toward the other side of the field. As we approach the center I feel my waist chain snag.
“On your knees, hands behind your head.”
I comply with her orders. She tugs at my wrists, the sound of metal clatters behind me. The handcuffs click behind me, cleverly threaded through the eyelet of the metal post, suspending my hands behind my head. She wraps the excess chain from my belt around and around my body and the post. The metal links are painfully cold and the discomfort easily passes through my uniform. Around and around she continues with the slack. After a number of layers she tugs on the chains, making sure they will hold me in place. She drops the slack and walks away toward the building without a second look.