This story is by Jana Tolentino and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A shivering man in tattered clothes sat in the furthest corner of a run-down cell. He hugged himself, desperate for warmth but at the same time, acknowledged its futility. He got used to the pain churning in his stomach, his migraines splitting his skull in half and the wretched stench of himself and the cell shattered his sense of smell. He thought back to how he got there in the first place. It felt like years since he felt the cold air by the porch, his neighborhood quiet and peaceful. He vaguely remembered the sand beneath his toes, the salty water itching up his nose, and laughter. Pure and soft laughter of his innocent children. How long has he been in here? How much have his children grown? How was his wife? Had they moved on from him? Was he forgotten?
A pathetic whimper escaped his lips. He closed his eyes, not letting the tears fall. Broken sobs echoed in the cell, reflecting the broken man inside. His heart ached as it thrummed violently in its own bony cage as if trying to break free. His breathing uneven, burning his lungs. It took him awhile but he managed to pull himself together.
A moment of weakness was all he needed. A second where he could let it all out was more than enough to clear his head. Tear tracks were evident in his dirt-covered cheeks. He rested his head on the wall, looking up at the ceiling. He was tired. His limbs were numb; all his energy left his body along with his cries. Now he was just empty.
“Hello, son.” A voice rang in his ears. It was muffled as if the voice came from underwater.
The man peeked through his long greasy hair. A blurry figure of a man came to view. He blinked multiple times, shook his head, as he tried to clear his vision. A familiar face morphed onto the figure.
For the first time in a long time, he smiled. “Old man. What are you doing here?” His voice raspy and raw.
“You messed up real bad, haven’t you?”
“I know, I know. No need to rub it in.” He rolled his eyes, smiling nonetheless.
The older man sat next to him, laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. It was warm and he couldn’t help the wetness in his eyes. It’s been too long.
“I’m sorry,” the dirty man whispered. His heart aching as he remembered every bad thing he has done in his life. From childhood to adulthood. From honest mistakes to bad choices. In thirty years, he has a lot of things he’s come to regret like running away from home at the age of ten when neither of his parents was on his side.
He regrets dating a woman in his college who took advantage of his desperation for love.
He regrets not working like he should’ve and ending up living in his parents’ basement.
He regrets being involved with drugs when his wife was pregnant with his second child.
Worst of all, he regrets getting caught in a terrorist attack.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. A high-pitched scream pierced through the air, his head turned to the source of it and BANG!
Then all of a sudden, he was in front of a dead body. A gun in his hand that wasn’t there before. The body had a mask on and curiosity made him pull it off only to freeze at the shooter’s face. It was a kid. He looked seventeen at most. Behind him, was the woman who screamed earlier. His senses slowly come back to him. He gagged at the scent of blood. He dropped the gun and staggered backwards. Sirens rang loudly and panic filled him. He tried to leave the scene but the cops came and tackled him to the ground.
With his hands cuffed behind him, he was sentenced to life in prison. He fought for his innocence, but his history of drugs did not help.
Prison was the worst place to be in, he thought. The guards were cruel, the food was dank and it was overpopulated. The fellow inmates were violent and cranky and honestly he couldn’t blame them. He was feeling the same hatred and bitterness bubbling up inside of him. Eventually, he lost himself and took his frustrations out on fellow inmates and prison guards. After that, he got himself locked up in solitary confinement. Years have passed with no human interaction whatsoever. He always wondered, is my family okay? Were they happy? Without me?
The man’s lips quivered at the thought. He curled in on himself, his long nails digging and scraping into his arms like a form of self-harm. Of course they were. Seeing them in the trial, the look of disappointment and disgust on his wife, the confusion in his children’s faces, not knowing what was happening to their father. The hand on his shoulder tightened. He almost forgot there was someone with him. As odd as the thought was, he no longer cared. This was the first human contact he ever had in years and he won’t let this chance go to waste. The man gave up on his already shattered pride. Feeling like a little boy again, diving into his father’s chest and hugged him as tight as his malnourished arms could manage. He sobbed his heart, babbling incoherent apologies to his father.
“My son,” the father whispered softly into his ear. “My precious boy.”
“I fucked up so bad,” He sobbed. “I’m so sorry, Dad. Oh God, I’m so sorry!” His body shook in physical and emotional pain.
The father started humming as he ran his hand over his son’s head. Ahh this song... An image flashed before his eyes. His wife, beautiful lady with flowy black locks. She looked absolutely surreal as she was holding a baby. His baby. Their baby. He walked up to them and hugged her from behind. Singing a song to his wife and child. A song his father sang to him when he was younger.
”And I… I will be here…” The father softly sang.
He let out a breathy chuckle. his father’s voice was just like how he remembered it. Low and raspy but pleasant. His mother would sing with him. In contrast to his father, she has a softer voice. The total opposite of when she nags. He smiled through the tears. Happiness filled his heart, although the prior anguish was still there, he couldn’t help but feel the joy he never thought he’d be able to experience again.
Gradually, his tears ceased, his vision went hazy, all his feelings drained yet he felt at peace. His breathing slowed, calming down under his father’s touch. His body dropped, his mind went blank and he closed his eyes one last time. Darkness enveloped him in a tight embrace.