Rocks by Stacy Stepanovich

At the Opportunity Complex on the edge of the city, the prisoners bury their dead just outside the compound under mounds of rocks. There is a large, densely wooded area in the back where the earth is always too dry or frozen to dig a single grave. The mounds on the far side of the lot are difficult to build because the ground slopes dramatically towards the flats where the row houses sit empty.

The rocks come from the riverbed near the mill. They are palm sized and smooth. Most are plain and grey like the Northeastern sky, but some are the color of rust and have flecks of gold in them that glitter in the light from the security tower.

Each body is marked with a handmade tombstone: crosses fashioned from smuggled scrap metal, melted plastic and any other items salvaged from the Complex or the mill. The monuments never last long. Guards are fond of destroying them and occasionally a scrap is stolen from a grave with the hopes of fashioning a tool used for escape or suicide. Either method brings freedom. The only monuments that remain are the rocks and the smell of death.

The rocks are carried in long slings. The men heave them across the railroad tracks, over the iron footbridge and up the stairs to the complex. They carry the rocks in the same slings that are used to carry the dead. The rocks are carried first and are always heavier.

Few words are spoken.

Then the men return to their barracks, carrying with them a secret envy of the dead.

Stacy Stepanovich is a writer who lived aboard a boat until it sank. She has a waning tolerance for unsolicited advice and friends who call her Shipwreck.  She has an MFA from Goddard College and a BA from the University of Pittsburgh.  Her work has recently appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Molotov Cocktail and Banango Street.