Ronald Varden charged through his halfway house armed with a clipboard and a set of flex cuffs. A former Florida State Police Trooper, he embraced his new role as parole officer and commander-in-chief to a group of paroled ex-convicts. At five-foot-four and a hundred and fifty-five pounds soaking wet, Varden compensated for his lack of physical stature with strict discipline and zero tolerance for anyone who broke the rules.
He snapped on the lights in the men’s sleeping quarters and garnered a collective groan. When no one moved, he blew the whistle attached to a string around his neck.
As if on queue, seven rousted men assembled themselves in lackluster formation to prepare for the routine inspection. An eighth man, Terrence Montgomery, hugged a pillow on his head to shield his eyes and ears from the morning assault on his senses. His large feet extended beyond the end of the bunk.
“Let’s go,” Varden barked. His voice resonated with disdain. He approached Montgomery’s bunk while the other men formed a single-file line outside the hall.
“Move your fat ass,” a rebel-rouser hollered.
“Maybe he bought the farm,” an older ex-con piped up.
Varden silenced the crowd with a threatening glance. “Time’s up, Montgomery. You know the drill.”
Montgomery hummed The Star Spangled Banner. He bent his legs to draw his knees from the end of the bed. “Pick on someone your own size.”
No stranger to verbal abuse, Varden parried most insults with his thick-skinned temperament, which more often than not, kept his own response in check.
But this time was different.
Varden bastinadoed Montgomery’s bare feet with the clipboard.
Montgomery threw his pillow and snapped, “Fucking Jheri curl cracker! Can’t a brother get some sleep in here?”
The audience of peers chuckled.
“Move your ass!” Varden blasted the insubordinate parolee. “And I mean now!”
“Why don’t you kiss my black ass.”
The room went silent.
Varden toyed with the flex cuffs. “Your black ass is why I’m here.”
Montgomery looked up from the bottom bunk. “What are you saying?”
“You had your shot.”
“I’m not going back,” said Montgomery. “No sir. Not now. Not today. Not ever.”
Varden laid the clipboard on the top bunk. He lacked sympathy for the men in his care, especially someone like Montgomery who beat the system on a four-year stint for rape by convincing a brain-dead jury he was under the influence when it happened. “The judge signed the warrant, Montgomery. Get on your feet.”
Montgomery rolled out of his bunk and stood toe-to-toe with Varden. “This is bullshit, man. I did my time.” He motioned to the seven housemates who stood at attention, transfixed by the scene that some had already witnessed and a few experienced for the first time. “Which one of you motherfuckers ratted me out?” He shoved Varden aside with minimal effort and lunged at the group—until a pair of barbed electrodes hit him in the back, applying forty thousand volts to his neuromuscular system. The result was instantaneous and pronounced, inducing convulsions and large muscle twitching.
Sheriff Blanchart released the Taser trigger and plucked the electrodes from the big man’s back. He rolled Montgomery onto his belly and handcuffed his arms behind his back. “Show’s over,” he told the crowd.
Varden helped Blanchart escort the dazed parole violator to the unmarked cruiser outside.
“What took you so long?” Varden asked.
“I stopped for gas.”
“I still have his paperwork.”
“I’ll take him from here,” said Blanchart. He pushed his hand on the crown of Montgomery’s head and guided him into the back seat. “That’s two this month,” Blanchart said to Varden. “Fifty bucks says you won’t break the record.”
Varden shook the sheriff’s hand. “I’ll take that bet.” He watched the sheriff leave the parking lot as a black motorcycle approached with a smoke trail in its wake.
“Get inside,” Varden ordered the men gathered out front.
The rider parked the bike and dismounted.
“Can I help you?” Varden asked.
Lloyd unzipped his father’s Triumph leather jacket and ran a hand through his wind-blown hair. “I’m Lloyd Sullivan. I’m supposed to report to my PO this morning.”
“You’re late.” Varden gestured toward the house.
Lloyd followed him to an upstairs office inside the converted two-story home and handed Varden his prison paperwork. “I was told to report by nine.”
Varden slid his reading glasses on and scrutinized the court-ordered document. “This release was dated yesterday. If you learned anything in prison, I hope you mastered the art of reading.”
“I was told—”
“Save it. I give every convict who comes through my house one chance to screw up without penalty. You just spent yours. You may have played your get-out-of-jail-free card, but you still have a long way to go. The state of Florida has granted you a conditional release, pending successful completion of your supervised probation. Are we clear?”
“I see you did time at Marion and Leavenworth. That’s a tough schedule. You must have fucked up pretty bad to get transferred out of state.”
“I did my time.”
“So I see.” Varden scrolled through Lloyd’s file on his computer. “Are you a tough guy, Mr. Sullivan? I get a lot of tough guys through here. Most are back in prison within a week.”
Varden removed his glasses and pulled out a packet of stapled papers from the hulking sixties-era metal desk with an integrated file cabinet. A bulleted list descended from the title, HOUSE RULES, at the top of the first page. “This copy is yours. Read it, remember it, and obey it. Keep it under your pillow with your bible. Treat it with the same respect, and you might complete your sixty days without violating your agreement with the state.”
Lloyd flipped through the stapled pages. Each section outlined specific rules and regulations and the sanctions imposed for not following them. “Is there a test at the end?”
Varden frowned at the feeble attempt to humor him. He opened a closet drawer and retrieved a plastic bag with clothes and essential toiletries. “These clothes are state property. Two pair of jeans, two shirts, two pair of socks, and two pair of underwear. These items are clean and inventoried. You will return them in the same condition you received them. You pay a one time fee for the hygiene products whether you use them or not. I suggest you use them. Any questions?”
Lloyd shook his head.
Varden pointed to the House Rules packet in Lloyd’s possession. “Leave your John Hancock on the last page. You keep the original and make a copy for me. The library has a machine you can use.”
Lloyd followed Varden downstairs to the recreation room, where men groused about Montgomery’s unexpected departure and the new guy’s arrival.
The conversations ceased in Varden’s presence.
“For those who haven’t figured it out yet, we have a new guest in our house. Lloyd Sullivan. He’ll be joining us for a while.”
“A short while,” a convict chimed in.
“What happened to Montgomery?” another convict asked.
“Montgomery broke the rules,” Varden replied. “He made his choice.”
The other ex-cons made eye contact with Lloyd.
“This ain’t the Hilton,” someone hollered.
“I’ve slept in better dumpsters.”
“You got a sister?”
Varden blew the whistle to derail the random banter. “Enough. Show a little respect and you might earn a little in return. You’re not in prison any more so stop acting like it.”
Lloyd followed Varden on the nickel tour of the former real estate title company converted into a state-run halfway house.
“Take a look around, Mr. Sullivan. This is your home for the next sixty days. A transition point from the life you knew on the inside to the real world. While you’re here, you will respect my rules. If you do not have a job lined up, I suggest you find one. Idle minds are the devil’s playground.”
Varden continued toward the laundry room. “You do your own clothes here. The machines are coin-operated. If you don’t know how to use them, ask someone. If you can’t find something, ask someone. Don’t come to me unless you’ve asked someone else first. I’m not here to hold your hand. I’m not your mother. I’m not your father. I’m not your friend. You want advice, see a lawyer. You want to make a confession, see a priest. Don’t come to me with your problems. I’ve got enough of my own already.”
Varden killed the lights in the laundry room and dropped an empty detergent bottle in the trash. “If you want food, you buy it. If you want a home-cooked meal, you cook it. You make a mess, you clean it. Curfew starts at 2200 hours and ends at 0800. That’s ten o’clock p.m. to eight o’clock a.m. for you civilians who can’t tell time. During those ten hours, you will be present and accounted for. Understood? You break curfew once, I write you up. You break it twice, and you’re gone. If you think I’m bullshitting, call Montgomery and ask him yourself.”
Lloyd rolled the House Rules booklet in his hands. The house reeked of sweat and dirty socks. In less than twenty-four hours he’d gone from sharing a cell with one prisoner to sharing a house with seven. Still, his life had changed for the better. No more bars in his face every morning. No more strip-search events from guards on a quest for illegal contraband. Compared to his prison bunker, the house felt like a castle. The view from every window was priceless. Even the stale, testosterone-laden air smelled like spring flowers compared to the stench of incarceration.
Varden snapped his fingers. “You still with me, Mr. Sullivan? You look baffled.”
Lloyd shook his head. “Just soaking it in.”
“Well soak on this. Women are forbidden inside the house at any time. That goes for friends and family too. No pornographic material of any kind. That includes picture magazines, computer files, blow-up dolls, or anything else you can jerk off with or stick your dick inside. If you get the urge to beat your meat, do it on your own time away from here. I have a zero tolerance policy for any drugs or alcohol on the premises. No exceptions. That applies to the possession of firearms as well—or weapons of any kind as defined on page six. Random room inspections occur at my discretion, at any time without notice. And don’t think I won’t find what you’re hiding. I know every inch of this place like I know my own johnson. Still with me?”
“You’re allowed two showers a day. I suggest you take them. This house is air-conditioned, but I don’t keep it cold.” Varden pointed to the telephones in the lobby entrance. “You can make local calls. Long distance is on your dime. Trash goes out on Monday and Thursday. I don’t care who takes it, so long as it gets done. Same goes for the lawn and outside maintenance. There’s a chore chart on the front door. Make sure your name gets on it—in several places. There’s plenty of work to go around.”
Lloyd followed Varden to his room—complete with a desk, a chair, and a bunkbed against the wall. On the top bunk, the sheets were folded tight and square beneath the mattress. The bottom bed remained a shuffled mess from the morning altercation. A photo of Montgomery’s wife and son remained on the dresser by the bed.
“This is your space now,” Varden explained. “I’ll introduce you to your bunk-mate later. Any questions?”
Varden snatched an electronic ankle bracelet from the top of the bed post. “Pull your left pantleg up.”
Lloyd tugged on his jeans. “What’s that?”
Varden strapped the GPS tracking device to Lloyd’s ankle. A green LED came on to signal the operational status. “An invention to make my life easier.” He passed a hand-held scanner over the tracking device. “In accordance with the conditions of your early release, you will be required to wear this device at all times day and night. No exceptions. If you leave the city limits, it’ll tell me, and I will revoke your parole. If you try to remove this device or tamper with it in any manner, I will know about it and—”
“I get it,” said Lloyd. He rubbed his ankle where the strap fit snug above his boot.
Varden shot a scathing glance at Lloyd. He’d seen the same look of contempt before. Contempt for the new surroundings. Contempt for the rules and regulations. Contempt for authority itself. “I’ll be watching you, Mr. Sullivan. Sooner or later you will fuck up, just like the man you’re replacing. And when you do, I’ll throw your ass on the short bus back to prison. Most men who come through this house don’t last ten days. Recidivism runs high. If you don’t know what it means, look it up. None of you belong here. All of you belong behind bars. This is my house, Mr. Sullivan. You might be out of prison, but the state of Florida still owns you. And for the next eight weeks, so do I.”