When Britt was a thief, he discovered a rule: the more you want something, the harder it is to steal.
It was kid stuff to break into an apartment and sweep out the electronics, anything he could just pawn and forget. It was easy to pull a stereo out of some asshole's Mercedes; it was fun. But things changed when he was looking for something in particular, for jewelry or drugs or a locked box. As soon as he set his sights on something in particular, every step he took felt obvious, every corner sharpened. All his rookie mistakes happened in those situations. He still thinks he should have been caught in Katie's apartment, before he knew her. Or after.
Telltale fingerprints always find their way onto the things he wants the most. In prison, he just wants out, so much that he doesn't dare look at a calendar.
The weird thing is, it's almost not as bad as he expected. Every day he wakes up gasping for air, but hey, that means he's sleeping a little every night. He eats his portions of macaroni and cheese, baked beans and patties that might contain trace amounts of chicken. He talks just enough to other convicts to keep the wheels moving. He doesn't talk to guards, but he looks them all straight in the eye. He dozes through a class in how to balance a checkbook, passes joints along discreetly in the weight room, endures a lot of jokes about getting fucked. Never gets fucked. Never even gets in a fight bad enough to earn a scar.
And Hank comes to see him every Saturday night.
"I was going to bake you a cake with a file in it," he says, this time. "But I don't know how to bake a cake."
"Betty Crocker mix," Britt says, resting his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand. "Don't buy it with your credit card, though. Too suspicious. You can't break me out if you get busted trying."
Hank holds up a fist. "We will take the system down from the inside," he says. "You hanging in there?"
Hank is wearing a flannel shirt that looks really soft, nice and broken in, and Britt is caught off guard by a wave of jealousy. His collar itches. That's something nobody thinks about: there's no fabric softener in the prison laundry. He scratches the side of his neck. "How's Winston?"
"Great. He missed you for about thirty seconds the other day, but I gave him a doughnut and everything was forgotten."
"Jelly doughnut?" Britt asks. Hank nods. "Damn, those are like doggie roofies."
Hank sits back, his fingers drumming on the table between them, the way they drum on a steering wheel during a long drive. There's no other sound; they have the room to themselves. "Katie's okay, too."
In a way, it's nice not to have to ask, the question being so big that it catches in the back of his throat. In another way, it's hell. Whenever Britt blinks he can almost see her, but she's a very long way off. So he keeps his eyes wide, eyebrows raised. "Okay," he says, "tell me."
"She's got this gestational diabetes thing, I guess. She's drinking gallons of water and giving herself insulin shots." Hank spreads his hands open. "She says it's very common and very manageable. Maggie says the same thing. And I asked, she's using clean needles. Gets her testing supplies direct from Wilford Brimley."
The idea of Katie pregnant enough to have a pregnant woman's problems is impossible to hold inside these walls. Britt wonders what she smells like, now, what position she's sleeping in, how her weight would feel lifted in his arms. Goddamn, he wants to walk out in Hank's shoes. "Maybe don't tell me," he says.
Hank's forehead creases. "You're gonna worry about her, anyway. Here's a thought: you could call her and hear it from the horse's mouth."
Britt kicks the leg of his chair, makes the metal vibrate underneath him.
"Not that I'm calling your girl a horse," Hank adds. "But she can put away a Grand Slam breakfast like a thoroughbred."
"I can't," Britt says. "I can't...hear her voice right now, man."
"She wants to hear yours."
A fluorescent bulb in one of the overhead lights sizzles and goes out. Britt ducks Hank's gaze, studying his knuckles. He thinks he might have fractured one of them back when he committed felony assault. Not that he ever had an X-ray, but it's still faintly sore when he flexes his fingers. He can't tell if it's crooked, though. You'd think you know the back of your hand.
"Everything's changing for her every day, you know?" he mutters. "The baby's got a heartbeat and eyelids and fingers. Gonna be kicking any time now, right?"
"Yeah," Hank says. "And she could be talking to you the minute that happens."
"Doesn't matter when," Britt says. "Because I don't get to feel that kick. I don't get to be there when Katie wants pickles at three in the morning, or when she cries 'cause she's busting out of her fat jeans. I'll be in here. Every day is the same."
Hank sort of frowns, a cop frown, the one he gets when he's picking up the pieces of an ugly puzzle. "So, by your impeccable logic, you're gonna miss her less if you don't talk to her for a year?"
"I don't know, Hank. How has talking to Gretchen worked for you?"
"Nice." Hank's jaw clenches. "I'd tell you to go fuck yourself, but you don't have anywhere to go."
They glare at each other for an infinitely long time, infinitely far apart.
Britt's shoulders slump. He offers Hank a half-smile. "Okay, so which one of us is supposed to apologize now?"
The corner of Hank's mouth quirks up into the other half of the smile. "I'm not sure either," he says. "If it's me, just put it on my tab."
"Same." Britt sprawls back in his seat, exhausted, even though the hardest physical work he's done lately is sitting through the Dr. Phil show. Working is one of the things he misses a lot, though not, of course, the most. "I can't be there for Katie right now," he says. "I know that's my fault, and I'll wear it, but don't tell me to try, okay? What I need you to do is..."
"Be your eyes?" Hank chuckles, but those lines on his forehead are dark as ink in the broken light.
Pathetic as it sounds, Britt doesn't have anything better. He screws his face up against the threat of tears. Most of the time, he wins that fight. "This diabetes thing," he says. "Are you sure she's all right?"
"Yeah. She's looking good."
He should open his eyes, but he lets them stay shut, lets himself fall without moving. "She got that special glow?"
"Oh, sure, so bright she's being stalked by moths."
"Hank." Heat washes up into Britt's face. "For real."
Hank hesitates. He's probably not doing it to be cruel. "I'm no expert, but yeah, I think she does. She hasn't put on that much weight, yet, maybe twelve pounds. Says she's sweating like a pig even when it's chilly out. But she looks, you know, she's beautiful."
Britt slides his hands off the table and down to his lap, hands clutching up just above his knees. There is so little to see in prison, so much boring gray in the walls and the food and the air, that his imagination shines like a switchblade. He can see Katie against his eyelids. Taste the salt of her sweat on his tongue. "Are, uh," and he can't help licking his lips, "Are her tits bigger?"
"Jesus," Hank says.
"What," Britt snaps. "Like you wouldn't notice?"
The memory of Katie's legs wraps itself around his waist, pinning him to the chair. "Yeah, you wouldn't notice, or--"
"Yeah, a little bigger. Up to a C, I'd guess. That's all I'm saying, okay?" Hank slaps his hands down on the table. "You want a conjugal visit, it'll cost you extra."
A muscle twitches in Britt's thigh. His dick is more than halfway hard and it's, fuck, so tempting; he wouldn't be the first guy jerking off in the visitors' room. And it wouldn't take much to bring him over the edge. Just one stroke. Just one good kiss.
He forces his eyes open. Takes in Hank's familiar face, the new white hairs speckling his beard. Under that, if the light can be trusted, he's blushing. Be my eyes, Britt thinks, and startles himself with a laugh.
"I'm gonna have to kill you for looking at her like that, you know," he says.
"Uh huh." Hank looks up at the ceiling, spotting a security camera, or just rolling his eyes. "Don't share that plan with the parole board."
Britt shrugs, shrugs again, trying to wake up his body above the waist. The air is very dry and it's getting colder. It's December, it's been December for a while, but he can't remember if it's officially winter yet. The world will tell him when it's Christmas, whether or not he wants to know.
"When I call Katie," he says, "I need to be able to say I'm getting out. The day and the hour. And I need her to be ready to say I can come home."
Hank leans forward, closing some of the gap between them. "That is what's going to happen," he says. His voice is heavy with conviction. One hundred percent sure. Britt finds it comforting, although he's heard Hank say things in that voice that turned out to be complete bullshit. "Believe me now," he goes on, "or find out when you ask her. That's what you both want."
Britt brings his untrustworthy hands back to the table. Curls his right into a fist, covers it with his left, holding on to nothing as tight as he can. He can feel his pulse throbbing in his thumb and his balls and his temple. "What if she changes her mind?"
"She won't," Hank says, in that final voice. Then his eyes brighten. "But if she did, well, there's still Mexico."
Mexico appears in Britt's mind like a postcard. Clear skies, clean water, Negra Modelo and no way home. Britt figures they would get killed in short order down there, or kill each other. Hank must know that, too, but as long as they're on this side of the border, it's a pretty picture. "Si," Britt says. "Vamos."
"We'll bring Winston," Hank says. "Los tres caballeros."
He mangles the double L, makes Britt wince. "Seriously? You gotta learn some real Spanish, or you'll end up in a donkey show."
"End up?" Hank's face goes blank, except for the twinkle in the eyes. "How else am I gonna keep you in the style to which you're accustomed?"
Now they can both laugh, hard and unburdened. Now, of course, their hour is almost up. Britt's heart has settled down, as close as it gets these days to normal. He wipes his face on the sleeve of his prison scrubs, a blur of steel blue across his eyes, the coldest color he's ever seen.
"Shit," he says. It seems to cover all the bases.
"Shit," Hank agrees. He eases himself to his feet, dusts himself off. "Time," he says. "Is there anything you need? Anything you need done?"
If Britt started going down the list, he would never reach the end. "Tell her I said–"
His voice gives out. This is where he's always gotten stuck, always gotten scared: when he wants something so fucking bad that it's love.
Hank looks steadily down at him, kind of sorry for him, cutting him no slack. "She knows that."
All Britt can do is shake his head.
The last of the hour ticks away. Hank sighs. "Be a good soldier," he says, and raises a hand in a mock salute.
Britt pushes his chair back, makes it screech against the concrete floor. His knees tremble when he stands, like he's been running a long way. His skin is just another dirty layer under the scrubs, and inside it all he's numb. He's nothing. This is the longest minute of every endless week. In fifteen minutes he'll be in his cell, his back on the hard shelf where he spends his nights, staring at the ceiling to see if it's finally going to descend and crush him. That's when the numbness will wear off and everything will start to hurt. He'll be so angry at Hank for lying to him, for telling him the truth, for having the right to go home. He'll fall asleep hating his best friend. It will last deep into Sunday afternoon.
"Hey." Hank snaps his fingers. "I almost forgot, Katie wanted me to ask you something."
Britt's chin jerks up. Maybe he'll get a head start on the hate tonight. "Spit it out," he says.
Hank hooks his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and grins. Huge, shit-eating grin, lights up his whole face like his own personal sunrise. "Do you want to find out if you're having a son or a daughter, or do you want to be surprised?"
Britt rocks back on his heels, tugs at his ear. Maybe he didn't hear what he thinks he heard. Maybe Hank is speaking a foreign language.
"Her words," Hank tells him. "She says it's up to you."
The tremor in Britt's legs amps up to an earthquake. He gropes for something solid to keep him upright, braces himself against the chair and swallows hard. "You serious?" he says.
"Serious as herpes. The ultrasound's January third. So you have until then to decide."
Britt's hands grip the top of the chair so hard that the metal heats up; it could melt. He stares at Hank, stares through him, through the cinder-block walls and steel doors as easily as if they were water. He would never have imagined making this decision, not even if he'd been lying next to Katie in their bed. He would never have asked for this, couldn't have stolen this. This is a gift.
His mouth is hanging open. He closes it, his eyes focusing on Hank again. "You almost forgot?" he asks.
Hank runs a hand through his hair, hiding behind his forearm. "I'm not a carrier pigeon."
That's how he knows Hank saved this up for him, saved him something for the lowest point of the long night. Britt is going to take this to bed, curl up around it like a puppy with a bone. He'll still be locked up tomorrow, pacing through the showers and the cafeteria and the yard, but he will carry this with him at every step. The idea of a daughter or a son, not just somebody's baby. He smiles, and when he does, somehow, Hank's grin finds room to get even wider.
"I'll think about it," Britt says. His voice is all shaky, blown off its hinges by the possibilities.
"I know you will," Hank says, and he's hoarse, too. He takes a backward step. "Call me. Call her. Call Ghostbusters."
Britt chokes on a laugh. "Lame," he says. "You get so lame without me."
They've never worked out how to say goodbye, so they don't say it. They just sort of wave, and Britt turns his back so that he doesn't have to watch Hank walk out unchained. He's in serious danger of crying again, wrestling with it as the guard comes in for him. He holds his wrists out. Gets cuffed. Gets marched back toward the wing, navigating blind by the sounds of boots and buzzers. Every time he blinks, he can see, already, the faces of his possible children.
A gift from the outside world, from the only two people in it that matter.
January seems very soon. Very real. With his eyes closed and his hands locked behind his back, Britt begins to count on his fingers, numbering the days.