A newbie learns what prison is really all about
|Frigid tiles burned bare feet as Rael stood before the prison showers, clutching a coarse towel around his waist.
Hot water hissed, forming dense clouds of steam that curled from the entryway. Taking a shuddering breath, he prepared to step into that white haze when a callused hand gripped his shoulder. Rael turned to see an older man shaking his head, salt and pepper beard waggling in the humid air.
"Don't," The old-timer grunted. "It's a bad idea."
Nudging his hairy chin at the misty room, the stranger pulled the new kid aside. "They turned up the heat so it would get like that."
Rael frowned, eyebrows meeting in confusion. "Who? Why would they-"
A piercing shriek cut through the miasma. Vague shapes surrounded a figure, arms lashing at the victim’s body with savage ferocity.
Flinching, Rael turned to the greying man in shock. "They're... they're killing him!"
"Could be worse," The elder grunted. "Those animals can take more than just your life here."
Slumping to the stone floor, the victim ceased screaming and began choking until the horrible gurgling faded into the sound of running water. Metal clattered as the unknown assailants discarded their deadly tools and vanished into the fog.
Releasing Rael, the man gestured at the murky room. "Now if you see the showers like this again, you'll know."
He limped away, leaving the youth to process the brutal reality of his sentence.
The exercise yard was little more than a barren patch of dirt. Rael curled hands around chain links as he stared longingly at the world beyond the razor wire. Land of the free. Five years was a lifetime to spend in a place where society left human scum to rot.
Angry voices rose. Rael glanced to the right where two inmates stood chest to chest, eyes glittering with malice. The larger one lunged forward, grabbing a handful of orange jumpsuit and throwing his opponent to the dusty ground. Kneeling down, he continued pummeling the prostrate man with a massive fist.
The punching bag swung an arm.
Gripping his neck, the burly bruiser gasped as crimson fluid spurted beneath his fingers. He coughed twice. The skinhead rose to his feet, licking the knife. Sagging to the earth, the burly prisoner wheezed a final time.
Sunlight glinted off a bald scalp as the killer turned to stare at Rael. He put a gory finger to his lips, electric blue eyes crinkling humorlessly. Blood trickled over a neck tattoo of twin lightning bolts. A scar twisted down his face, curling lips in a permanent half-smile.
Metal flashed as the murderer tossed the weapon over the fence and casually walked back into the crowd.
In the canteen, Rael learned that nowhere was safe. The skinhead bumped into him and began apologizing profusely as an indifferent guard strode past. Once the correctional officer moved out of sight, the polite mask slid away to reveal the true face of menace.
“Give me your fruit cup,” The hairless butcher grinned. “I ain’t asking twice.”
Biting his lip, Rael bobbed his head nervously. “G-go ahead.”
A hand snaked over the tray, scooping the dessert up. “Pleasure doing business with you, kid. I’ll see ya round.” He winked and sauntered away from a trembling Rael.
At least there was one small comfort. When it was time for lights out, Rael discovered his cellmate was none other than the bearded guy he’d met earlier. He nearly burst into tears upon seeing a friendly face, feeling alienated and alone in those oppressive surroundings.
The oldhead didn’t share his relief, grimacing at the new face. “You again, huh?”
“Guess so,” Rael smiled sheepishly. He was surprised to see his cellmate glaring at him. “What did I do?”
Laying back on the cot, the man sighed wearily. “Don’t look so happy you fuckin’ idiot. Nobody smiles here. They’ll beat you senseless for that.”
Swallowing nervously, Rael leaned against the concrete wall. “What don’t they punish you for?”
“Ha,” His acquaintance snorted. “Anything and everything.”
A guard walked by, rapping on the bars with his nightstick. “You there, get in bed! Lights out in five minutes!”
Rael obeyed, crawling into the top bunk. He listened as the shouting died, harsh murmuring of prisoners as they begrudgingly complied with the scheduled curfew.
“Hey,” He whispered softly. “How do you survive this place?”
Silence fell over the dark cell. Rael was convinced the old guy fell asleep when his low voice drifted out of the gloom.
“You know how shrinks talk about your happy place?”
Rael leaned over the bed. “Yeah?”
“Well, you dig deep. Deeper than you ever have in your life. You find whatever makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, thoughts that illuminate pits of misery, dreams you cling to when the going gets rough. Picture a memory that never fails to lift your spirits. Can you do that?”
Rolling on his back, Rael stared at the ceiling. “I think so,” He muttered. Visions of his past swam before him, childhood friends, family holidays, picturing himself embracing a joyous girlfriend. “Alright, I found it.”
“Good, now I want you to pretend it’s real. It’s right there, a glowing ball that you can reach out and touch. Go ahead, stretch out your hand and feel its warmth.”
Rael lifted a hand, visualizing the pulses of heat emanating from it. “I’m with you so far.”
“Great,” The oldhead continued. “Cherish it. It’s your entire world, the only place where no one can touch you.”
Holding the sphere of light, Rael pulled it to his chest. It was oddly comforting in a way, a kind of meditation. “Is that it?”
“No,” His cellmate said coldly. “There’s one last step.”
“I want you to crush it in your fist. Grind that bundle of hopes and dreams until there’s nothing but dust left, until fingernails turn palms bloody. That’s how you survive this place.”
The bearded man turned over and went to sleep, leaving Rael in the suffocating darkness.