Swept Away & Left to Drown
A tsunami destroys a city but prisoners who were left to drown are saved. An allegorical short story about the criminal justice system.
By Chris Moore
“Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” Psalm 98:7
The Alaskan air was crisp, the sky cloudless and the sun shone with noon-like radiance. The sea’s swells licked and lapped the coastal shores like playful puppies while sullied gulls squawked and glided in tight, hungry circles above the frigid waters.
The coast was more cliff than beach, more snow than sand, and the awaiting sunset — the Northern Lights — would eventually cast the sky in swirling rainbows that danced like sweltering flames.
Three miles beneath the surface calm, in the black, abysmal depths along the Continental Shelf, the earth ripped and then shook — sloshing enough seawater to fill the Great Lakes twice and sending it surging through the Pacific Ocean like a trampling herd of bison.
The colossal wave of seawater surged through the streets of downtown San Francisco lugging cars and trolleys through the city like children’s toys. Mother Nature was reclaiming the coastal metropolis for herself, clawing at the compact city with giant, avenging hands that raked parts of San Francisco into the sea and, with malicious cruelty, reached back into the town for more.
Wave after enormous wave blitzed the hapless coast as far inland as two miles, and the receding seawater, tall as two-storied houses, foamed and fizzled like gallons of spilled soda — dragging people, pets and debris out into the open sea. Others clung to anything they could to keep from being swept away.
9:03 A.M. — NEW ALCATRAZ STATE PRISON, SAN FRANCISCO BAY
On a small, rocky island off the coast of San Francisco, a speckled seagull nipped greedily at a half-eaten halibut outside a razor-wired fence surrounding California’s newest prison for women.
Alcatraz, the infamous penitentiary that once housed notorious prisoners like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, was a ghost of its former self. The state had purchased the landmark site, demolished the old federal prison known as “The Rock” and in its place built a state-of-the-art prison complex , naming it New Alcatraz. Like the old Alcatraz, it was heralded to be escape-proof and designed to incarcerate the state’s most dangerous women.
“The Iron Rock” was its new moniker and from the air, it looked like a steel landing platform with five Millennium Falcons parked evenly in a half circle around a dirt courtyard for inmate exercise. In times of unrest, prison guards, dressed like green storm troopers, marched in ominous formation while inmates, in blue jumpsuits, desperately ran for cover.
In times of peace, on mornings of thick, coastal fog, New Alcatraz looked like an abandoned space settlement drifting on an asteroid through clouds of nebula in a sea of deep blue space.
Inside, ten inmates and four staff members gathered in a small classroom in the prison’s administration building.
“I can’t do it anymore,” cried Whining Wanda, an aging convict who was battling breast cancer and serving her thirty-fifth year in prison for killing her abusive husband. “I’m sick of doing time. I’m sick of being sick. I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. I wish I ...”
A small voice interjected from across the room. “Don’t say it,” the voice pleaded. “Please, don’t say it.”
Whining Wanda nodded quietly, rocking back and forth in a metal folding chair that faced the group, her knees together, her hands trembling.
“Why?” Judgmental Judy, the group’s critic demanded. Severe fault-finding, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, was what led Judgmental Judy to kill a woman in a bar fight several years ago. Even in her late sixties, she was strong and had a penchant for fighting, a trait she inherited from her honorable service in a M.A.S.H. unit during the Vietnam War. Now, in a twist of fate, she found herself battling a cancer that was as pugnacious and judgmental as she was.
“Why what?” retorted Freedom Florence, her challenging tone building the tension between the two. Freedom Florence was the consummate protector of the group and quick to run to the aid of the weak. No one knew what terrible deed she had committed to end up in prison, but it didn’t matter. She had earned the respect and admiration of those around her, except for a few.
“Why shouldn’t she say it?” replied Judgmental Judy, clearly annoyed. “Why should she keep it all bottled up inside of her. It’s how most of us feel anyway, so why shouldn’t she say it?”
Joyful Jenny, the one who had asked Whining Wanda not to say it, looked at Freedom Florence with curious, expectant eyes. At four-feet-six, Joyful Jenny was the smallest of the group members and the youngest. Just ten years old, she was one of three special child visitors in the group: Jealous Jessie, her slightly taller twin, and Brave Brittany, her best friend in the whole wide world. All of them were fighting deadly cancers and all of them were losing the battle, their petite bald heads evidence of failed radiation and chemotherapy.
Their visits were part of a year-long pilot program dubbed, “Women For Honor” that sought to bring together sick children with sick prisoners with the far away hope of unearthing the precious oil of inner healing.
It took the Cancer Institute and prison administrators seven years to start the program, and after only one year of weekly meetings, the program was now in jeopardy. The toughening political climate on crime gave prison management the excuse they needed to shut it all down. The group’s progress was inconclusive and fell suspiciously short of the expectations set by prison officials, not to mention the safety of the children. Still, like devoted protesters of the Civil Rights movement, the group continued to meet every week.
“Because they’re children. That’s why,” Freedom Florence answered emphatically, looking at the three girls sitting together. Her gaze softened, lingering on Joyful Jenny for just a moment longer than the others. Perhaps it was because Joyful Jenny was so little and wearing mechanical leg braces that made her seem more vulnerable than the other two, or maybe it was that she reminded her so much of her own daughter, from whom she had been exiled for the past twenty years.
Freedom Florence turned away, emotions creeping in. Children, she thought, innocent children who had been unfairly afflicted with the world’s most deadly disease and for what? To what end? She would gladly sacrifice herself and bear all of their illnesses, giving them all a chance to live long, healthy, happy lives. After all, her life was marred forever by a single, horrible act. Then that voice, that small voice, caught her attention, bringing her out of her self-reproaching inner soliloquy.
“We shouldn’t — ” Joyful Jenny began, speaking so softly that she had to clear her throat and start again.“We shouldn’t say it because it’s not true.”
“Why don’t you think it’s true, Jenny.” This time it was the prison’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ann. The group insisted on calling the doctor by her adjective name, Analytical Ann, since everybody was required to have an alliterative name that combined an adjective describing a personality trait with their first name, but Dr. Ann refused to be addressed that way. “It’s inappropriate,” she would say.
“What do you mean it’s not true, Jenny,” the doctor repeated.
Joyful Jenny looked at Whining Wanda with round, discerning eyes.
“It’s not true because she wants to live.”
Whining Wanda nodded greedily, feasting on Joyful Jenny’s truth like a famished nomad.
“She wants,” Joyful Jenny continued, “what we all so desperately want: Hope. The doctors tell me that I won’t be here come Christmas.” Joyful Jenny turned and looked solemnly at Healing Harriet, the oncologist from the institute who sat with tears welling in her eyes.
“They tell me that my courage is greater than my strength. But I would rather them tell me that I am as strong as I am courageous because through the strength of hope and love, I know we can all be healed.”
Joyful Jenny redirected her gaze at Whining Wanda, her eyes deep and compassionate. “You are immeasurable love, Wanda. Please don’t let life’s short-lived miseries take that gift away from you.”
Gloomy Gloria, a young, reticent prisoner who resembled a chubby Lucille Ball, covered her mouth and wiped her eyes, hiding tears and her astonishment at Joyful Jenny’s insightful and compassionate answer.
Gloomy Gloria was a victim of pancreatic cancer. She was also a murderer by accomplice. During a home-invasion robbery, her partner in crime senselessly murdered one of the occupants — the husband, and although she hadn’t killed anyone, the state saw to it that she shared equally in the guilt and in a lifetime of punishment.
Gloomy Gloria was a manic-depressive whose life was a dichotomy symbolized by her arms. Her right limb, decorated with artful tattoos, heralded her as a fighter, but her left, riddled with grizzly scars, accused her of being a quitter.
“I love your answer, Jenny,” chimed Helpful Hanna, one of the two counselors who was also a successful writer with a best-selling novel titled “One-Eyed Jackie,” “but what about when bad things happen to you and you feel sad like Whining Wanda?”
Joyful Jenny’s expression changed. Her eyes grew sad, her lips pursed in a way that only a child could purse them and her rosy cheeks grew rosier.
“To me, sickness and the awful things that happen are not lifelong condemnations but are dreams that remind me that life is about healing and forgiveness. It makes me want to embrace life, not to let go of it.”
The group was pin-drop silent. It was an incredibly simple answer, uncomplicated by the hamartia of grown-up reasoning.
9:47 A.M. — D-BLOCK, NEW ALCATRAZ PRISON
In the main living quarters of the prison, inmates milled about. Some played cards, others just stood around, all of them wore blue jumpsuits with the words “CDCR PRISONER” stenciled on the back of their uniforms in large, yellow lettering.
The prisoners lived in one of the five buildings that looked like a Millennium Falcon — a two-story concrete structure that curved in a half circle at the back and tapered to a V-shape point at the front. Small, two-person cells lined the rear, rounded portion of the unit and extended two hundred seventy degrees toward the guard’s station at the front, giving the sentries a clear, unobstructed view of all fifty cells.
A second-story, inner-observation tower was built into the front of the building and was posted by an armed guard who could shoot any target in or out of the unit. The cavernous interior space, the “dayroom,” was where inmates regularly assembled for recreational activities.
A group of inmates had gathered to watch a recorded episode of “Orange is the New Black” on a wall–mounted television in the dayroom. They laughed and made crude comments. Ten minutes into the show, a breaking news banner flashed across the screen followed by a news anchor’s urgent tone.
“A nine-point-six earthquake was registered off the coast of Alaska. The epicenter was thousands of feet beneath the ocean. Tsunami warnings have been issued for Pacific coastal areas and are to remain in effect for the next twenty-four hours. We’ll have more on this late-breaking event.”
Dozens of inmates gathered to watch. A young, tattooed gang member with braids called Scrappy asked, “Hey, are we part of the coastal areas?”
Several prisoners turned with scowls on their faces that read, “What are you, stupid?” Yet, for all their collective brilliance, no one realized the horrible catastrophe heading their way.
The television suddenly went black and a collective “aw” rose from the inmates. An awkward silence followed. Static crackled over the public address system, then a guard’s voice commanded all inmates to return to their cells.
The inmates were complying with the command until a terrifying realization crashed into Scrappy like a massive wave. “Hey,” she shouted, “the tidal wave is coming this way!”
Tidal wave was a misnomer. Most people imagine a tidal wave as a towering wave that sweeps inland and causes great loss of life. In truth, tidal waves are often small, harmless waves that fluctuate with tidal conditions, hence the name.
Tsunami, Japanese for “harbor wave,” on the other hand, is a giant wave spawned by an undersea earthquake or other event. In the open ocean it may take the form of successive waves, traveling up to five hundred miles per hour but at a deceptive height of only three feet. As they approach coastal shallows, tsunamis slow down and grow to enormous heights, becoming the gargantuan walls of water depicted in Hollywood movies.
One by one, mental lightbulbs flickered on in the rest of the prisoners. “They’re gonna lock us all up and leave us here to die!” one yelled.
More commands were given for the inmates to lock up, but more inmates joined the uproar. Then, all hell broke loose.
10:13 A.M. — ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
Freedom Florence broke the silence. “I had a dream last night.”
“What kind of dream,” Whining Wanda asked.
“I was falling, but I wasn’t afraid. Someone was holding my hand on the way down. It seemed like I was falling forever, then I landed softly on a blue cloud.”
She looked around to see the group’s reaction, but there was none.
She went on. “I don’t know what it all means, but in my dream, I felt truly free for the first time in my life. I mean really free.”
Judgmental Judy rolled her eyes.
“Love is knocking on your door,” Joyful Jenny responded. “Answer it and you will find the love that cast out fear and it will set you on a soft eternal cloud of freedom and truth.”
Judgmental Judy had endured enough. “Stop it with the philosophical BS. The truth is that we’re all locked up doing life, we’re all sick and we’re all going to die in this miserable rat hole. And don’t think for a minute — ”
The prison’s alarm blared. The doctor and counselors stood up, checking outside the room for signs of a disturbance.
Fearful Frances fidgeted in her chair, her hands sweating. “Does anyone have an Oreo cookie?” she asked weakly.
The group shook their heads, used to her unusual request. Whenever Fearful Frances became scared, she would ask for an Oreo. It was her strange, almost humorous, way of coping with her own trepidation. Occasionally, she would get the cookie, but most of the time she was forced to deal with her fear without it.
An ear-piercing scream came from down the hallway, just outside the room. Everyone jumped. Freedom Florence scurried over to Joyful Jenny and knelt beside her. The doctor locked the door and returned to the group.
“Look, something’s going on,” Dr. Ann said. “We’re going to stay put until we know what’s going on or until we get instructions. Okay?”
The group nodded as the staccato of automatic gunfire sounded from outside and the building rattled under the deafening booms of flash grenades. The acrid smell of pepper spray seeped into the room.
Several inmates coughed, their eyes watering with the sting of loose mace.
A cacophony of noises was taking place in the hallway just outside the room. Screams and shouts, commands and orders. None of it made any sense. The dreadful sound of multiple struggles — grunts and shrieks — and then gunfire.
Brave Brittany and Fearful Frances sobbed hysterically. Others strained to contain their fright. Dr. Ann got on her cell phone, speaking something before hanging up.
Freedom Florence gathered the children into her arms to form a tight circle.
The door shook, its knob rattled and a fist pounded desperately for entry.
There were more shouts, struggles and gunfire. The door stopped clattering and an eerie silence followed.
Everyone was afraid to move. Freedom Florence quietly ushered the children into the safest corner of the room, away from any sudden breach of the door. The rest of the group followed.
The room was windowless, a concrete bunker buried deep inside the prison’s command center where, like a bomb shelter, they could hear the muffled explosions of warfare.
They sat on the floor in a semicircle looking like a battered group of survivors from a plane crash and for thirty minutes no one said a word. They just listened to the carnage outside the walls.
Then they began to make small talk, which evolved into laughter which evolved into sadness. Soon their sadness became resentment. Their resentment turned into anger and anger turned into shouting and fighting. Like a vicious cycle, crying and forgiveness came last and then it started all over again. It was an attempt to distract themselves from the insanity beyond the walls. But the war on the other side would not be ignored.
The sound of exploding grenades and screams jolted the group back into silence.
It was difficult to imagine that guards had lost control of the prison, but the screech of rubber soles on a polished floor as a lone inmate skipped down the hallway, shouting the lyrics of sixties songs and rapping the walls with a guard’s baton, was sufficient proof that the unthinkable had happened.
It was five long, tortuous hours before Dr. Ann’s cell phone rang. She listened, nodded and hung up, looking anxiously at the door. Six times someone had tried desperately to enter. The last time was over an hour ago.
Dr. Ann turned to the group whose eyes pleading for answers.
“There’s a tsunami headed toward the west coast,” she said. “Evacuations have been ordered for all coastal cities but widespread panic has made it almost impossible. The inmates at the prison have risen up — ”
“Damn right!” Judgmental Judy interjected.
“We have to make our way to the roof where we’ll be safe and can wait for help,” Dr. Ann finished.
“There’s a stairwell just down the hall that accesses the roof,” said Silly Sandra. They agreed to stay in a group to make their way to the door.
Huddling together, they crouch-walked through the smoky corridor, bodies of inmates and guards littering the floor. Shrieking alarms blared incessantly and rapid fire gunshots could be heard in the distance. Somewhere, a roar of inmates erupted with more crackle of gunfire.
They reached the stairwell.
Freedom Florence picked up Joyful Jenny in her arms. Jenny’s crippled legs dangled like loose shoestrings over Florence’s straining arms.
Three flights of stairs was all that stood between them and the roof where they would safely wait for help. Joyful Jenny wheezed and coughed. Freedom Florence quickly covered her mouth with a T-shirt.
“Hang in there, baby,” she urged.
They reached the roof as a helicopter whirred in the distance. They wildly waved their arms at the heavily-armed SWAT officers, who were perched like hawks on both sides of the chopper.
As they approached, the officers pointed at the children and waved everyone else away. Freedom Florence gently laid Joyful Jenny on the ground and stepped away.
“Don’t leave me, Florence,” the girl begged.
“I have to go, baby, but I’ll see you again. I promise.”
Tears in her eyes, Freedom Florence nodded as her clothes flailed in the chopper’s draft.
The helicopter landed and the SWAT team dismounted, rifles pointed. They grabbed the children and ushered the counselors and doctors onto the helicopter. Freedom Florence took a step forward. An officer pointed his weapon at her head.
“Get down! Get down, now!”
Freedom Florence and the rest of the inmates got on their knees, hands behind their heads.
The SWAT team retreated to the helicopter, still aiming their guns at the inmates. The chopper rose into the air and then banked up and away. Joyful Jenny could see the wave in the distance stalking the prison like a giant crocodile. She let out a bloodcurdling scream that went unheard, drowned out by the popping rotor blades, then watched in horror as the massive wave hit the prison with a roar. Frozen in terror, she watched the water swallow Freedom Florence, kneeling with outstretched arms, in one enormous bite.
Everything had been swept away.
ONE YEAR LATER — SOMEWHERE IN THE PACIFIC
The sun hung in a velvety, azure sky like a glittering diamond, beaming warmth onto a tiny island that was rich in lush, mountainous foliage. The ocean’s salty scent wafted on brisk winds through the island flora while streams of fresh water coalesced at a cliff’s edge and spilled into a blue lagoon thirty feet below.
A couple stood at the cliff’s edge, their hands linked like connecting cables, their eyes lost in each other’s dreamy gaze.
“I now pronounce you united in holy matrimony,” a voice said solemnly.
Tears flowed down Freedom Florence’s face as her gown fluttered in the wind.
She looked from her soulmate to the two people standing next to her and stifled an urge to cry, letting out, instead, a tearful chuckle. Her daughter, Florina, smiled and reached out for a hug.
Her dream had finally come true.
Natives serenaded the couple with hand drums that rapped a catchy, Caribbean tune.
“Three,” a voice began counting down.
Freedom Florence looked at the bright, orange life vest strapped to her chest. She didn’t know how to swim, but that was okay. She had never felt safer in all her life.
The couple turned and faced one another, reuniting their dreamy gaze. The drumbeat rose into a crescendo.
Freedom Florence closed her eyes, started whispering and holding on to her mate’s hand, leapt off the edge of the waterfall. As she plummeted, she recited the adjective names of the friends who had touched her life in a tribute to their lives, struggles and search for freedom.
“Whining Wanda, Gloomy Gloria, Silly Sandra, Loveable Linda, Insightful Isabel, Helpful Hanna, Analytical Ann, Fearful Frances, Angry Alexis, Dramatic Dorothy, Brave Brittany, Jealous Jessie…”
Still falling, she opened her eyes, the thoughts about the loss of her friends falling with her. She whispered the last of the endearing names: Joyful Jenny, who was standing at the edge of the cliff with Florina, watching her splash into the water below.
“The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty wave of the sea.” Psalm 93:4
“Swept Away” is based on the amazing things that I have seen and heard in the creative writer’s workshop hosted by Christopher Lynch. It was a privilege to build a moving and dramatic story that conveyed a message of hope, but also incorporated elements of personal experiences from the classmates themselves.
“Swept Away” is both a literal and an allegorical story. In a literal sense, it is a story about a group of women and children who struggle with illness and incarceration in a prison setting, when suddenly, their lives are threatened by a catastrophic tsunami. It ends with two of the characters being reunited on a tropical island and living out their dreams.
Allegorically, it is a story that symbolizes the deeper truths of the criminal justice system and the inextinguishable human drive to persevere and discover hope.
New Alcatraz represents a criminal justice system built on a rock of old, draconian precepts that seeks to incarcerate people far more than it seeks to free them, and treats the incarcerated with cruel indifference, as expendable objects rather than irreplaceable human beings with limitless potential.
The group represents prisoners everywhere who struggle to find change and also the many facets of the human condition. Cancer is the incurable and fatal stigma placed on those who are incarcerated and upon those who attempt to help them.
The children symbolize the deep, nagging, insightful truths of our inner child. It is that part of us where forgiveness, love and compassion lie locked away in a cage of tragic experiences and can only be unlocked by the key of recognizing our own childhood innocence.
The tsunami represents change and how it rumbles in the deep recesses of our being, rippling through us and sweeping us into a new life with new meaning and a new way of thinking. Like tsunamis, change comes in waves, washing away old habits that we often fight to hold on to. It is something we see coming from afar, but there is little we can do to avoid it until it is right upon us and crashing into us with its transformative power. Nothing is ever the same after a tsunami.
The tropical ending symbolizes…FREEDOM.
Writer Chris Moore, whose own adjective name is Caring Chris, is a strong advocate of criminal justice reform. He is serving his tenth year of a life sentence under the Three Strikes Law, and in the last several years, he has discovered the transformative and healing power of creative writing.
His stories are often set in prison and are meant to enrich the lives of their readers with engaging plots, dynamic characters, profound dialogue and deep, provocative themes. Chris has helped instruct a creative writing class in prison and in his spare time, he is a barber, an athlete, a chess player and a friend who helps others rediscover their own capacity for compassion and hope. Feedback can be sent to him at AK6450 A3–133, P.O. Box 4430, Lancaster, CA 93539–4430.