This story is by Zeina Bazarbachi and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Prison is nothing like in the movies. It’s filthy, noisy, boring at best and a warfare against sanity at worst. I must’ve been born under one lucky star.
Today is the last time I wake up in this bed before I’m transferred to solitary confinement. I take a good look at the cell I share with Stevie. It’s made up of a sink, a toilet, a window, and bunk beds. Stevie’s tall, but he doesn’t act like it. I smile as I remember how he called me “Mr. Erik” on his first day. He’s innocent, unlike most people here. He begins his day with a prayer while I trim my beard. I know he’s worried about his sick mom. Today is visiting day, and she’s not coming. I, on the other hand, want to look presentable for my daughter, Lila. She turns six next Monday.
I try not to think about the two detectives who visited me yesterday. They proposed to reduce my sentence in exchange for intel, and they seemed to believe that reuniting me with my daughter followed by solitary confinement would compel me to cooperate. They seemed to forget that if I offer them any leads, I would reduce my time here without their help: if any mafioso sniffs out that I’m a rat, I’ll be serving my sentence from the local cemetery.
I try to direct my attention to Lila. Soon enough, I’ll hold her against my heart and feel the warmth of her tiny hands. In the three months that I’ve been here, this will be the first time I get to touch my daughter, an exceptional courtesy of the detectives.
Stevie and I head to the cafeteria and line up for breakfast. I look over at him and see that he’s anxious. L.C.—who technically has three life sentences—stands in front of us. I tap my roommate’s shoulder, and his body eases. Mr. lunch lady fills his tray with gourmet delicacies and then gestures “next.” Stevie steps off the line and unintentionally lands on L.C.’s foot. L.C. jerks backward and glares at him. Trembling, Stevie steps back. Instinctively, I grab his plate and lay it on L.C.’s tray. Tough guy’s lips curl upward; is it too optimistic to call it a smile?
“No harm, no foul?” I ask, but he leaves without a word. I pat Stevie’s back, “We’ll share my breakfast.” He smiles and thanks me.
Back in our room, he asks if my wife changed her mind about visiting me today.
“No, I don’t see her coming again soon,” I reply. “She seemed serious about separating.”
“Yeah, me too.” I think about Joanna’s last visit. “I’m sorry, Erik,” she had said, “but I can’t do this anymore. I love you. I’ll always love you, but this is too much. This is my last visit. Lila can come if she wants to; it’s up to her.” It’s hard to say I was mad or surprised. I just felt… alone. I can’t blame her; she genuinely tried to make it work, but she came to the rightful conclusion that she deserves better. Being married is work enough when a couple’s under one roof. Besides, it’s not like there’s a section for us two at the bookstore. Or perhaps, there is; I can’t say I checked.
“Hey, Stevie, sorry your mom’s still sick. Hopefully, she’ll make it next time.” Stevie drops his gaze, worried. “I’ll pray for her,” I add. He nods, forcing a smile just as a guard comes to accompany me to the visiting area.
Lila bolts in as soon as the guard opens the door. “Daddy!” She jumps into my arms. I bury my face in her shoulder, enjoying her warmth, the smell of her braided hair, and the sight of her Dora backpack. “Look, Daddy! I lost a tooth!” she points at the empty spot in her mouth, pride shining through her chocolate eyes.
“Wow, look at you!”
She giggles and says, “Daddy, let me feel your beard,” she tugs on it. “It’s spikey like a cactus!” She laughs. No one laughs in prison, not like this. She then takes a book out of her bag and turns to me, “Can you read it to me?”
“Do you want to read it with me?” I tap my lap and she climbs on it.
“But I’ll mess up the hard words.”
“That’s alright, Cinnamon, we’ll do it together.”
About halfway through, she looks up at me and says, “Daddy, can I ask you something?”
“Do you still love me?”
My heart breaks, “Of course, Lila, why would you ask that?”
She hesitates then says, “Mommy said she’s not coming with me to visits anymore. I thought maybe… maybe you don’t love Mommy and me anymore.”
“Lila,” I hold her as tightly as I ever have, “I love you very much, more than anything in the entire world. I love you more than the number of stars in the sky. And I love your mommy. I’ll always love you both. Mommy and I are just going through a tough time right now.”
“Oh,” Lila tilts her head, pensive, “Miss Becky said there are BILLIONS of stars… which means you love me VERY much.”
I chuckle, “That’s right.”
“Then can you come to my birthday party?”
“Lila… you know I can’t. I have to stay here, remember? We talked about this.”
“But Vanessa’s not coming anymore. She said she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore because the other girls are saying my daddy is scary and mean. I told her that it’s not true and that my daddy is very nice, but she didn’t listen to me. So now it’s only me, Mommy and Grandpa on my birthday. So, will you come, please?”
“But DAD!” she jumps off my lap, “I’ve been a good girl, I promise! I do all my homework. I never eat cookies before dinner, and I eat my vegetables, I promise. Even when Mommy’s at work and Grandpa Dave falls asleep at the table. I-”
“I know you’re a wonderful girl, Lila.”
“Then why can’t you come?”
To my dismay, tears fall down my face. I haven’t cried in years.
“I made you cry. I made my daddy cry. I’m a bad girl. I’m a bad girl, and this is all my fault. They’re keeping you away from me because I’m a BAD GIRL!” She punches my stomach repeatedly, and I have to use both hands to stop her.
“No, Lila, no,” I try to be as soft as I can, but I know it’s no use, “you’re not a bad girl; you’re a wonderful girl.”
“No, no, I’m not. I’m a bad girl, and this is why you’re here. And this is why you fought with Mommy and why Vanessa doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”
I’m almost relieved when the guard and Joanna’s father, David, show up for Lila. Seeing her leave in tears shatters my heart.
The scenery of my new cell isn’t any more Feng Shui than my previous one: a tiny bed, a sink, and an exposed toilet seat, but there’s no window, not even a crack. A five stars hotel if I’ve ever seen one. I lie on the bed, but I can’t seem to get comfortable.
The choice sounds easy, natural, obvious: just cooperate, rat the bad guys out. I hate that I know better. Unlike Stevie, I’m not innocent. I did the right thing and pleaded guilty, and I’d do it again. Probably.
I was a chauffeur, but working for a drug lord involves breaking laws beyond running red lights. My chief, Joe ‘il Pericolo’ Bruno, is infamous among cops. Working for him has stained my hands in ways no water can clean, no matter how many times I sing “Happy Birthday” while washing them.
Hiding a body, destroying evidence, bribing a witness or a juror… For a decade, I did it all. The only thing Joe thought I was too soft for was killing someone myself, but in no way did that mean he was sentimental. No walls nor cops can protect me or my family from Joe and his men. He made sure I didn’t forget that after I was caught. His message was clear and concise: “You’ve got a lovely family. Don’t mess up.”
I feel the room shrinking. Pain blazes through my head and sweat drips from me like a leaking faucet. I try to find anything to focus on. I hear a faint sound—probably a vent—and I try to hum along.
Despite everything, I know what I have to do. I can’t mess up. I have to stay quiet if I want to keep my daughter from being an orphan. A locked-up dad is better than a dead one, right?
I hear a loud buzz. It’s lunchtime, or maybe dinner. I have no idea how long I’ve been here.