01 Feb My Cell Mate was Possessed
I was two years into a three-year jail sentence for robbery when I was transferred to Twelve Caesars Correctional Facility in New Mexico.
I remember the cell mate I wound up with, this guy called Hector Ochoa. He was an average looking Joe, part Mexican, part I-dunno-what, very low-key, used to spend most of his time reading his bible, or writing in this alligator hide notebook he kept tucked into his waistband.
I’ve had a fair few cellmates in my time, but this Hector guy was seriously offbeat.
He wasn’t violent or anything. He wasn’t dangerous in the conventional sense of the word, but he gave off this really creepy vibe. The other inmates steered well clear of him. Not even the gangbangers messed with this hombre.
The first few days sharing a cell with him I was tearing my hair out. I kept thinking there were huge bugs crawling all over my flesh. I couldn’t stop scratching.
Turns out the bugs were all in my head.
Hector slept on the bottom bunk. Every night after lights out he’d lie there praying in Spanish. He’d pray in this never-ending drone. It drove me crazy. Made it next to impossible to sleep.
A couple of nights in, I wake up suddenly. Its maybe two or three in the morning and for a moment I’m disorientated. I don’t have a clue where I am. I hear this woman whispering in the bunk below me. I can’t hear what she’s saying but I know it’s a woman, it sounds like Hector and this woman are whispering to each other.
That’s when I sit bolt upright.
Instantly the voices stop and when I peer into the bottom bunk I see Hector fast asleep.
I would have chalked the whole thing up to my imagination – but that wasn’t the end of it.
Not by a long shot.
Next day I met up with a friend of mine, Dave, in the prison refectory.
‘What the fuck is it with this guy?’ I asked.
Dave gave me this look so I lowered my voice and said, ‘you know my new cellie…?’
‘Hector?’ He nodded. ‘What about him?’
‘Dude creeps me out, man.’
‘Yeah, well, you seriously need to watch your back with that guy,’ Dave tapped his forehead with his finger, ‘he ain’t right, man.’
‘What do you mean “ain’t right”?’
‘You seen his tattoo? The one on his back?’
I shook my head. ‘He keeps his shirt on.’
‘Ask him to show it to you.’
‘Why, you know something about it?’
‘I know what it represents.’
Hector rarely spoke to me. He was the quietest cell mate I’d ever had. Most cell mates you couldn’t get to shut up, but Hector was different. He sat there on his bed and he might as well have been in solitary for all the fucks he gave.
I figured I couldn’t just come out and ask to see his tattoo, so I broke the ice by showing him a few of mine. I had an image of the Virgin Mary on my left bicep. A rose on my right calf. Bayonets crisscrossed against my belly.
‘Do you have any tats?’ I asked.
I waited, but when it became obvious he wasn’t going to say anything else, I pressed him, ‘can I see?’
He frowned. ‘Why?’
I shrugged. ‘Just curious.’
He stared at me for a while and then he set his bible aside and shrugged his shirt off as he stood up. He turned around so I could see his back.
As I stared at his tattoo I felt slow fingers of wtf creeping up my spine.
The tattoo took up the entire surface area of his back. It displayed a woman. She was tall and painfully emaciated, with bloodshot eyes that bulged horribly out of their sockets. Her flesh was corpse pale and she wore a grin that split her face from ear to ear. That grin was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen.
She looked demonic, I could literally feel her eyes boring into mine.
‘Jesus….’ I muttered.
‘Sonriendo Boca.’ Hector said as he put his shirt back on.
He turned to face me: ‘Lady Grinning Mouth,’ he said, ‘you heard of her?’
I shook my head.
‘You wear her image,’ he said, ‘and no one’s going to fuck with you, ese. ¿me entiendes?’
According to Hector, there were shaman in the rural areas of Mexico, bruja who could invoke spirits through something he called black tattoos, but you had to shed innocent blood before you got one of those tattoos, you had to cut the throat of a virgin, drain her blood into a copper vessel, the blood would be mixed with ink, the ink would be mixed with the semen of a black goat.
Only then could the tattoo be drawn.
If you survived the ensuing infection, you became a doorway.
Your guardian angel lived on the other side of that door.
Lady Grinning Mouth was Hector’s guardian angel.
Now, there were a lot of dangerous men in our jail, but one of them in particular, Diego Gómez aka The Machine, now he was the guy that bothered me the most, because no one else would fuck with me on account of Hector being my cellie, but Diego, he wasn’t afraid of Hector, in fact quite the opposite, he made it pretty clear that he wanted Hector’s hide hanging on his cell wall.
The fight between Hector and Diego Gómez went down like this.
Diego was serving life for double homicide. No chance of parole. Nothing to lose but his life, and that life was a living hell. The only thing that meant shit to him was his rep.
He heard about Hector soon after he was transferred to our jail.
He knew the other prisoners respected Hector, were afraid of Hector. He wanted that respect. He wanted that fear.
He was a monster of a man. Six-foot four, two hundred and twenty pounds of solid muscle, and so many fucking tattoos he looked like the illustrated guide to end times. I passed him a couple of times in the exercise yard and I can honestly say Diego Gomez was one heathen son-of-a-bitch you didn’t want to mess with.
But when I told him Diego was gunning for him, Hector didn’t even glance up from his bible. ‘He don’t have no guardian angel,’ he said contemptuously.
A couple of days later Diego launched an unprovoked attack on Hector in the prison gym – almost cracked his skull clean open with a dumbbell – but the guards broke it up in time and Hector spent the next two days in the infirmary, high on morphine whilst they put twenty-one stitches in his head.
They would have stuck Diego in solitary but Hector wouldn’t snitch on him and the guards weren’t too clear on who started the fight, so in the end Diego got off Scott free.
When he came back to our cell, his head all bandaged up, Hector had this darkness in his eyes, like he could skin a rattlesnake with his raw teeth. I didn’t say anything to him. In jail you quickly learn when a man wants to be left alone.
But that look in his eyes.
Right at that moment I wouldn’t have traded places with Diego Gómez for all the whores in Detroit.
That night Hector is lying on his bunk, chanting all this weird shit in this language I’d never heard before. I don’t speak Spanish but I know what Spanish sounds like and this wasn’t Spanish. This was some tribal-sounding shit. It creeped me out.
The cell was cold. Things didn’t feel right. I felt those bugs crawling over my flesh again and I couldn’t stop scratching. Fucking things were driving me insane.
After a long while that sensation of insects started to fade until it got to a point it wasn’t a bother no more.
I was drifting in and out of sleep after that, and it was about an hour later when all of a sudden Hector stops praying. After the continuous murmur of his voice, the silence pressing down on my ears was almost ominous.
I lay there on the top bunk, staring at a spot on the ceiling, and slowly the ambient sounds of the prison began to reinsert themselves, the coughing, the snoring, the distant clangs, the echo of far-away voices, and then suddenly I felt the bunk shift slightly and I sensed someone standing up from the bottom bunk.
I figured Hector was getting up to use the toilet so I kept on lying there, eyes half closed, and I could just make out Hector’s shadow to the left of me.
He was just standing there.
That seemed a bit strange so I opened my eyes and turned my head to ask him what was wrong.
I swear to Christ I still have nightmares about what I saw standing there.
It wasn’t Hector.
It was the woman from Hector’s fucking tattoo. Only she wasn’t a tattoo no more. She was standing about a foot from me and she was staring down at me with those bulging bloodshot eyes, and she had this grin that split her face in half.
Oh, Christ, that fucking grin….
I can’t wipe the memory of it, doesn’t matter how many bottles of Wild Irish Rose I drink, doesn’t matter how many shots of Tequila I knock back, I can’t stop seeing that grin. It was the most horrific thing you could imagine. She had black lips and long yellow teeth, and her mouth was stretched so wide apart there was no way her jaw hadn’t dislocated.
I couldn’t move. I just wanted to leap up off that bunk, I just wanted to scream in fucking horror, but I couldn’t move, it was a wide-awake nightmare, and that demon’s face no more than a foot from mine. Pale corpse skin and long black hair plastered to her skull and that grin, neon bright and five miles wide, and my mind was caving in on itself, I was going insane staring at that thing….
And then, to my enormous relief, she turned away from me and slipped out through the bars of our cell.
A moment later I sat bolt upright on my bunk and dragged in a wheezing breath.
Jesus…What the fuck….
I jumped out of bed and instantly I saw Hector lying on his belly on his bunk. His eyes were rolled all the way up in his skull so I could only see the whites. His prison shirt had been dragged all the way up, exposing his bare back.
I crouched down beside him.
The tattoo on his back was missing.
The breath left me a low involuntary whistle.
His back was bare.
It was like that fucking thing had climbed right up out of his skin. I kept telling myself that was knee-deep crazy, but in my gut, in my balls, I knew that’s exactly what had happened.
I crouched, quivering, in a corner of the cell and waited until that monster came back. I knew sooner or later she would return. And I was petrified. I hadn’t felt this scared since I was a little boy. That grin. Those eyes. Jesus Christ, I was literally pissing myself in terror.
I kept whispering to myself: “please don’t notice me, don’t notice me, don’t notice me…please, Jesus-please, don’t look in my direction….”
All that while Hector lay on his belly, his eyes rolled up to whites, and every now and then he’d undergo this violent series of convulsions, or else he’d start whispering in Spanish, but for the most part he’d lie there, still as a corpse.
I kept my attention fixed on the bars of the cell, the small square of passage visible beyond.
My heart was pounding against the walls of my chest.
My lips were moving silently and I realized I was praying.
I hadn’t prayed in fifteen years.
After about ten minutes or so I felt the air grow chill and tense and the hairs started crawling on my scalp.
She was coming back.
I knew she was coming back.
I made this involuntary mewling sound and tried to push myself further back into the shadows but the wall of the cell was pressed right up against my back. I’d reached my limit. I was trapped in my own nightmare.
The lights in the passage started flickering violently, like Morse code, and then suddenly, without warning, she was there, peering at me through the bars of the cell.
I could see that grin like a ghastly wound splitting her face. Eyes burning into my soul.
Voice whispering in my brain, telling me “it’s a joke…It’s all a joke…everything’s a fucking joke…” over and over, and after a while I realize I’m grinning, wide as a lunatic, and weeping blood, I can’t stop the tears from flowing, because everything’s a joke….
God help me, my whole life has been a fucking joke….
The monster slips back through the bars of the cell and glides across to the bunk.
She pauses for a second, staring down at Hector….
I’m slamming the heel of my hands against my head, trying to get rid of the voices; I’m hooking my fingers into my mouth, digging into my jaw bones, trying to erase that grin, can’t stop fucking grinning, can’t stop weeping…Blood – blood, Jesus, I’m bleeding from the eyes, haemorrhaging regrets, dear fuck, I’m sorry – SORRY – hello…? Anyone out there? Anyone reading? Everything is real, nothing – nothing…nothing …don’t you see, the joke, I’m dreaming me dreaming you dreaming me…fuck-fuck-fuck….
And then the monster lays down on top of Hector and there’s a moment of intense visual distortion, like a movie with several frames missing, and then she’s gone….
I continue to sit there, staring at Hector, and slowly but surely, I feel the pressure easing in my jaws, the grin slowly relaxing, fading, and then I’m dragging in huge gulps of air as I scramble to my feet….
I peer down at Hector.
The tattoo has appeared on his back again. The demon glares up at me from his flesh, grinning wide as the moon, and quickly I reach out and drag Hector’s shirt down across it. Covering it. Erasing it.
It’s all a joke….
Rumors are like contagion in a prison, neither walls nor bars can stop them.
I can’t sleep the rest of that night.
No one can.
Five minutes after the demon returned, Diego Gomez started laughing.
He was six cells up from me and at first he started chuckling, real low, like the way somebody laughed when they’d remembered something funny, that kind of chuckle, and then, after a while, he was laughing out loud, and convicts calling out and advising him he better shut the fuck up, and other convicts laughing as well, like they kind of got the joke…but no one got the joke like Diego got the joke, by this time he was literally shrieking with laughter…I’ve never heard anything so unnerving…He wasn’t laughing the way a sane person laughs, you could actually hear the desperation in his voice, like laughing was the only way he could scream, I don’t know if that makes sense, I don’t know what the hell makes sense anymore….
Everyone was awake. You could see them standing in their cells, peering silently out through the bars, but no one was yelling out for Diego to quit laughing anymore. You only had to hear Diego’s laugh to know something wasn’t right.
After a while the lights went on and the guards came to see what was wrong.
They passed my cell on the way to Diego’s.
I was standing close to the bars. Hector was standing with me by this time.
We watched the guards rush past, yelling and cursing, and then, when they got to Diego’s cell, they stopped yelling and they stopped cursing and I heard one of them say, “Holy fuck!”
And that’s when everything went nuts. The guards rushing about like lunatics, calling for paramedics, calling for restraints, everyone screaming at once, and through it all Diego never once stopped laughing.
I turned to Hector.
Hector was nodding as he listened to Diego laugh. He was nodding like he got the joke.
‘He don’t have no guardian angel,’ he said softly.
Diego Gomez, aka The Machine, strangled his cellmate, a guy called Chad Beacon, to death with his bare hands. Rumor told me Diego Gomez exerted so much pressure that Chad’s eyes haemorrhaged and his skin literally turned black.
He was laughing whilst he strangled Chad.
After killing his cellmate, Diego reached up and tore his own eyes out of his skull.
He kept on laughing all the time.
No one knows why he did it, but some inmates in close-by cells swear to Christ they saw a woman in Diego’s cell shortly before things went crazy. She was whispering to him. She must have been telling him something pretty funny because Diego was grinning from ear to ear.