When I came here a month ago, the intake guard told me I’d sit here in prison for the rest of my life and pay for my sins. I can’t imagine life after lunch, let alone 40 years. It hurts my skull just thinking about it.
All I know is, I miss my grandma. I miss her blueberry pancakes, her perfume and the way she used to yell, “Boy, get your ass in here and give your grandma a kiss before you run them woods with those hooligans!” The only thing I don’t miss is her pink flyswatter. She’d named it the Wrath of Maggie and if anything could get you to repent, it was the Wrath of Maggie’s sting on your bare leg.
The last time I saw my grandma was in the trial. She cried when they wouldn’t let her hug me goodbye. And I cried because I didn’t understand any of it. I said I’s sorry. I told Shelly over and over, I didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident. But she didn’t believe me and she told me to rot in hell. The judge and those people they call a jury believed Shelly and her people over me.
Gabe was my best friend, and I never wanted to hurt him. We grew up together in a trailer park outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Gabe and I were always hunting something in the woods out back. Our favorite was crawdads. Right after a big rain, that’s when the crawdads came out, and we’d wade through the overflowing ditches along Miller’s backroad, huntin’ for those yummy little critters. Gabe used to say, “Brody, we gotta start ourselves uh-business. We’d be so stinking rich from selling crawdads, we could buy a Lamborghini!” But neither of us had enough common sense to pull it off. It was just what Grandma called wishful thinking.
Gabe and I’s trailers were so close we could throw paper airplanes into each other’s bedrooms. When Grandma was in the living room watching her shows, and it was after dark, Gabe and I would sit at our windows and throw things into each other’s room. The trick was to throw the stinkiest, grossest thing you could find and then the other would have to pick it up to throw it back or away.
I won the window war that last night, with Cami’s used pads. My older sister wasn’t much for taking out the trash and those nasty things were always smelling-up the bathroom, so I thought I’d recycle them as bombs. They were perfect ammunition for our window wars, too. Who wants to pick up those nasty things?
The pads are probably still there, stinking up Gabe’s room; he never got a chance to clean them up since he never came back after we snuck out that night.
“Brody Smith!” a voice barks from the open doorway. “Chore time!”
Sickness gets my belly, and I want to throw up at the sound of his voice. “Yes, Sir,” I say because it is my place to respect adults.
My eyes lock with my roommate, Kyle, as I get off my bed and face him. “Don’t drop the soap, kid,” he says with a smirk. Kyle is fourteen, that’s three years older than me, but he acts more like he’s five.
I walk out into the hall and Bruce tells me to head for the showers. “Time for a little spring cleaning,” he says too happily.
We pass a large black kid named Leviathan, mopping the floor. We look at each other for a second but I look away, cause I don’t want no trouble and he’s scary, freaky, scary. They call him Levi to his face and Leviathan behind his back. He looks like he could play football for the Chiefs, he’s so big, but I reckon his skin would scare the fans away. He was burned up real bad, the skin on half of his face is melted and bumpy and he’s missing an ear. Leviathan never talks to anyone, he’s always reading a book or off by himself or doing his chores. And for some reason, no one messes with him; he’s immune to all that goes on here.
We get into the shower room, the other boys are here cleaning, and Bruce points me to the mop, then he sits in a chair and watches us as we work. “Alright, that’s enough,” Bruce barks when we’re done as he takes out his phone. “You little runts are all sweaty…shower…now!” I look at the other boys and they obey without question.
The next day, the bright lights turn on, and I shield my eyes. “Rise and shine, boys!” A man’s voice yells from down the hall. “Counselor’s here to talk to your little pansy asses. Be ready to go when your name’s called.”
Bruce stops at our door. “Brody, get packed up and ready to be out the door in ten. They’re moving you to Texas.”
“Will I get to see Ms. King before I leave?” Ms. King is my counselor. She reminds me of my grandma minus the flyswatter, cigarettes and bad language.
“Doubt it.” Bruce shrugs as if he doesn’t care.
“Oh, dude,” Kyle says as he leans over from the top bunk. “My condolences.”
“What do you mean?”
“It means, you’re going to the big house. You’re better off slitting your throat now, little dude. You don’t have a chance.”
I pack what little I have, and step outside where they put me in cuffs. They do the same to another kid and the Leviathan. He gives me a mean look as they cuff him. I turn away. Within a few hours the three of us are in a van with caged windows, driving down a highway to Texas. I watch the woods go by the window and wish I could run in them again. To feel a leaf in my fingers or rub my feet in the dirt would be a dream right about now.
The van drives until dark and we arrive at a place that makes me want to cry just at the sight of it. Bright lights give it a scary, fake day-like feel. It’s much bigger than the juvenile center. Large towers with black glass windows catch my eye. Those must be look-out towers. Guards stand on top of the buildings with big guns and scan the grounds. Barbed wire surrounds everything.
We get inside and they take us in a room where they search every inch of my body. They give me new clothes, but they are for men not kids my age. The man handing out the clothes says they don’t carry boys clothes, and to just roll up the sleeves and pants.
The three of us walk to the area where they keep the other prisoners and it’s loud. The men yell things that make me flinch like, “Fresh ass” and “Sweet young thing.” I just follow Leviathan and keep my head down.
The guard points the kid ahead of me to a cell. He then takes Leviathan and I to door number 22. Oh god, he’s putting me in with the Leviathan, he’ll kill me. The way he looks at me is proof of that. After they unshackle me, the guard with a mustache tells me they’ll keep me here for a while and see how I do. I don’t know what that means.
I follow Leviathan into the little room. It’s not near as clean or nice as Juvi. Paint is peeling off the walls and it stinks like piss and shit in here. The door slams behind me. The Leviathan gets first picks and takes the bottom bunk. I don’t argue and climb up on top. My eyes stay wide open the whole night. When Leviathan makes a noise or moves, my heart starts pounding.
The next morning at breakfast, it’s worse, the men say things that are wrong and not right. They whistle and my head sinks lower and lower. I imagine Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak protecting me, and I can walk through this place without being seen.
When we go outside to walk the yard, I watch the two men in front of me jack with the Leviathan. The big crocodile monster, as some had called him, doesn’t say anything and ignores them. He’s like a statue and made of stone. They taunt him over and over about his melted, amour-like face.
It’s really pissing me off, too. I hate bullies. That’s how Gabe and his brother died that night, I was just trying to protect Gabe from his big brother and his stupid friends, and then it went all wrong. “Hey, candle face, what happened to ya?” This man says to Leviathan as he pushes him from behind. “You playing with daddy’s matches, were ya? I gotta match for ya to play with.” This makes me so mad. Leviathan has done nothing wrong. He’s just walking. He pushes him again and again. I forget my size and my respect for adults and before I know it, I run and jump on the man’s back. “Leave him alone!” I yell and bite his ear so hard it draws blood.
He yells, “You little fucker!” and I hear someone behind me laugh. Before I know it, we are surrounded by people and this guy pulls me off, and I’m hit in the eye, and then I see Leviathan come to life and hit the guy that hit me. And then Tasers come out of nowhere and all the men around me, including Leviathan, fall to the ground and like fish tossed onto land, they flop around. The guard with the mustache extends his hand, “Kid, you got balls, that’s for sure, but they’re no good when you don’t have any brains. Don’t pick fights with grown men.”
“He was the one picking!” I defend myself. “He deserved every bit of it!”
That night, I lie in bed and stare up above my head at something someone wrote on the ceiling. You deserve to be happy and loved and treated with respect. Don’t let know one tell you any different. Don’t let them turn you into animal. Don’t let them beat you. Read, educate yourself and most of all overcome. – Darnell
“You’re a brave kid.” I hear Leviathan say from his bunk below.
I’m not sure what to say and finally whisper, “Thanks.”
“Why’d you do that?” he asks. “Those men could-uh killed you.”
“I don’t know, just hate seeing people get picked on, I guess. You weren’t doing nothing wrong. You were minding your own business.”
“You get used to it after a while,” he responds.
The silence comes back, and I can’t stand it anymore. I lean over the bed to see him. “How long you been in prison?”
“I went into Juvi when I’s eight. That was nine years or so ago, I think. Hell, I stopped counting. What’s the point, ya know? It just makes it more miserable knowing how long you been in here.”
“What’d ya do?” I ask, curious to know his story.
He’s slow to speak. “I set my daddy on fire. He needed to go to hell. He was always beatin’ up my mamma and my sisters and doing things to us that I can never forgive. How about you?”
“I shot some boys. It was an accident though. I’s out in the woods with my best friend, Gabe, and we ran into his big brother at this old barn where they were shooting with this stolen Uzi….Gabe’s step-dad was always gettin’ a hold of these cool guns and sellin‘em…their trailer was like, full of them…but anyhow, that night they started givin’ Gabe crap and then they were goin’ to tie him up and use him as a punchin’ bag. Gabe’s big brother was mean as hell—that cock sucker almost drowned me once. But I grabbed the gun that night; he wasn’t getting’ over on us again. I wasn’t gonna shoot, I swear. I just wanted to scare’m, ya know, so they’d leave us alone. But the thing went off and it sprayed and killed Gabe, his brother and two other kids…the fifth one lived.”
“And they put ya away even though it was an accident?”
“Yeah, I told ‘em over and over, but they didn’t care. Shelly, Gabe’s mamma, wanted me to pay for takin’ her boys. She made me out to be this bad kid and they all believed it.”
“There’s no justice for the poor in this country,” Leviathan says in his slow talk. He takes a notebook out of his bag. “You know in the Scandinavian countries, they’d never put us in a place like this, they actually help their prisoners to become better people… and they do become better. And you know, they hardly have any prisons in those countries.”
“Europe.” Levi sits up and pats his bed. “I’m moving there, to Denmark, as soon as I get out.”
“What’s Denmark?” I climb down and sit on his bunk facing him.
“It’s a Scandinavian country.” He flips open his notebook, and I see pages full of writing.
“Do you think they’d let me come, too?” I ask. “You know, when I get out.”
Levi’s big shoulder shrugs. “I don’t see why not. We just gotta promise to be good people, ya know. They won’t want us if we’re causing them problems.”
“I’d never be a problem. Just ask my grandma. I’m a really good kid, despite what happened.” I look down at his book. “Levi, how’d ya get so smart, how do you know all this stuff?”
“I read a lot. And the internet is like going to a library. When those other kids got their net time and spent it playing video games, I’s looking stuff up. You know they make money on us being in prison, right?”
I shake my head trying to understand.
“Yeah, it’s true. This is a business, people can buy stocks in it, too, and this business gets paid taxes dollars for every bed filled. It’s like they just looking for any reason to throw us in here so they can get rich. I don’t quite understand it all, but I do know, it’s not right.”
“Those sons-uh-bitches.” I say trying to sound like I get it. “They’re making a stealin’ off us. No wonder they wouldn’t forgive me.”
“Yep. That’s why I’m leaving this crazy country. I’m living somewhere that makes sense.” Levi’s eyes perk up for the first time and he gets excited. “And you know Denmark was voted the happiest country in the world and it has free college.”
“Wow, no, shit? Well, I’m going to Denmark, too. If we get out the same time, you wanna go together?”
“Yeah,” he nods his head and a big yucky grin forms on his ugly face. “Let’s do it.”
We stay up late that night whispering about our plans and all that we gonna do when we get to this cool place called Denmark. For the first time since that awful night, I smile and laugh. I’m going to Denmark, and I’m going to be okay. I have a future.
We spend every day talking and horsing around, and at times, I forget I’m in prison. Levi makes it all better and the loneliness isn’t so bad. Levi reads all the time. He is the smartest person I’d ever met, he knows about everything. And when we get internet time, which is just once a week, we write down a bunch of information and look at photos of Denmark. We promise each other we will learn three new Danish words every day. It’s fun, and I find I really want to learn. We figure by the time we get outta here, we’ll speak the Danish language and fit in no problem.
I’m glad Levi’s around, too; he protects me from the others. Not many want to mess with Levi, only the Skulls, a gang of men with skulls tattooed on their faces. They don’t come around often but when they do, they want to fight everyone to prove they’re in charge. Honestly, I don’t think Levi is the kind of guy that wants to get into fights. He’s actually really nice. He just looks mean. Half the time he’s a big goofball like me and we have a good time playing and be kids inside our cell. It’s like we’re not in prison and we’re just hanging out in a bedroom.
We go to take our showers, and while in there, the Skulls walk in. Levi and I exchange looks as one comes up to me and starts talking trash. Levi jumps in, “Leave the kid alone.”
“You think you can take us big boy?” The man with a tattooed face asks. Levi ignores him and gives me a look like he’s getting tired of these people. “Come on; show us what you got, big guy.” He pokes Levi’s chest over and over.
“I don’t what any trouble,” Levi tells him then turns to me. “Get outta here.”
“No. I’m staying with you.”
The guy laughs at him and then spits in his face. With lightning speed, Levi pops the guy in the mouth and he falls backwards. The guy’s two friends come up on Levi and homemade knives come out of nowhere. I go for the little guy’s leg and bite the hell out of the inside of his thigh. He screams and hits me in the head so hard I almost let go. Alarms sound, and within seconds guards are pulling me off his leg.
“You’re going to be a troublemaker, huh?” One of the guards says to Levi as the Skulls sneak out of the room. “No, sir.” Levi puts his hands up. “I don’t want any trouble. Brody, run!”
“You think because you’re big and ugly you can go around picking on people.” The white guard, the one with Marine haircut, turns around and smacks Levi in the back with his stick. Levi yells out and falls forward. One of them says, “It’s time we show you who’s the boss around here. See in our Constitution, it says you lose your rights once you break a law. That means, I can do what the fuck I want to do to you. This is an eye for an eye society, we don’t forgive.”
Three guards come up and take swipes at Levi with their sticks. They hit him on his head, back, stomach and legs. They kick, too. Levi peeks at me and mouths go. Over and over his body takes the blows. It’s too much. I realize now, blood is all over the floor. I scream for them to stop but my voice isn’t loud enough. Someone pulls me back. I don’t know who, but they restrain me. I fight to get away to help Levi, but I’m not strong enough. When they finish with Levi, they walk away as if he’s just a piece of trash. I run to his blob of a bleeding body on the wet floor. “Levi! You okay?”
Levi’s eyes are closed and he whimpers like a dog. “Levi!” Blood runs out his mouth, ears and nose as his face swells up. One eye opens just halfway and he whispers, “Denmark.” He takes a few more breaths and that’s it. He’s quiet.
Someone pulls me up and tells me to get on back to my cell. I can’t, all I can do is wait to see Levi get up. One of the guards walks over and yells at him to get up. Levi just lies there. He kicks Levi, “I said to get up!”
He doesn’t move. My throat feels like I swallowed a whole orange. The guard leans down, puts his fingers on Levi’s throat. “God fucking damn it. You guys went too far.” He stands up and looks at the other guards. “Well, you better think of something quick to tell the Warden.”
“What?” I search the adult’s faces. “I don’t understand.”
“He’s dead, kid.” A prisoner tells me as he shakes his head.
People are talking all around me but I can’t hear what they are saying. None of it make sense—he did nothing wrong. I put my head in my hands and rock back and forth. Someone grabs me by the arm and takes me to my cell. It’s empty and lonelier than ever in here, and I ball my eyes out like a girl.
A few hours later, the guard with the mustache, the only nice one of them all, gets me and tells me to grab my bag; I’m going to a new cell. I get my few things and I also grab Levi’s notebook on Denmark. “Warden thinks you’ll be safer in solitary.” The guard says as he walks me down a dark hall. “We can’t leave you out here with these savages now that your buddy’s gone, or they’ll get you every second you walk out your door. Your lights will be on for eight hours a day and we’ll let you out once a day for an hour. Sorry, kid, but it’s the only way we can protect you.”
“It’s okay.” I say without care. “I’ll be getting out and going to Demark soon.” I am reminded, my one and only friend is gone, and it’s my duty to go to Denmark for him.
The guard stops and looks at me. “Son, who told you were getting out soon?”
“I don’t know, they said I’d be in prison for a long time, it’s been a while, I thought it was close to time.”
“They gave you forty years. Do you understand what that means?”
I heard the judge say a lot of things, but I didn’t understand any of what he said. I don’t get these words like parole and first degree. I think about forty years, and I wonder, what does that mean, I won’t get out of here until I’m fifty? I can’t see myself an old man. I can barely picture a year from now.
I walk into a small room, no bars, just walls; there is one bed, no window and a bright greenish light that flickers up above. The guard with the mustache throws some coloring books on the bed and a few crayons. “Sometimes…” He shakes his head. “I think this country is more concerned for the rights of unborn kids than they are the living.” The guard puts his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The door slams shut and the lights disappear.
The Rights of a Boy is part of a human rights anthology titled The Rest of Us. The entire anthology is not available at this time. I was inspired to write this story after learning that there were over 10,000 kids between the ages of 8-18 being held in adult prisons and most often in solitary confinement in order to protect them from predators. These kids have spent years in these closet sized rooms, having a few hours outside a day and with very little interaction with humans. I cannot imagine what this does to them mentally. We need #prisonreform
Featured photo from Pexels.