This time, Rick slept much more peaceful than the night before, knowing he didn't have to fear anyone. His cellmate would protect him. Nothing could happen to him. Hopefully, the man would at least tell him his name today. That would be another step towards a friendship. The prospect made his skin tingle; it had been a long time since someone had called him a friend. In his senior year he had lost most of his friends. With a heavy feeling in his chest he thought back to that period. How he had organized game and movie nights, without anyone showing up. How he had been alone with his parents at his 18th birthday, a milestone he had dreamed about for years and which he had wanted to celebrate big.
A piercing sound chased away the memories. Immediately, light filled their cell. Rick sat up straight, rubbing his face. When he heard the other bed crack, he lowered his hands.
"Good morning!" he said merrily.
His cellmate narrowed his eyes as if he was bothered by a hangover, then he glared at him as if Rick had been the one waking him up. Rick's mirth crumbled. Friendship felt like a dream that was further away than ever. To hide his disappointment he turned around quickly and started to clothe himself. He regretted his move as soon as he was facing the white wall; he would rather have caught a glimpse of the half-naked body of the man behind him. Oh, how eager he was to slip his hands across that muscular torso... His fingers started to tingle.
Quickly he put on his overall, then he sat down on the edge of the bed and waited until the cell door slid open. Unfortunately, not much was to be seen of that beautiful body.
A click sounded. Rick got up and followed his cellmate to the dining hall. Would he allow Rick to sit next to him? Everyone was supposed to know that Rick belonged to him, right? His shoulders however slumped down when the man sat down at a table without any other empty seats — the same one where he had been sitting yesterday during lunch and dinner. With a gnawing feeling inside his stomach, he wondered if he had chosen this spot so he could get rid of him.
A little crestfallen he kept standing next to him. "Can I — umm — can I sit with you?"
The man next to his cellmate started to chuckle. "You think you belong at the table for big men?"
A smirk flashed across his protector's face. Then he nodded aside. "Sit at that table. With the other pups."
Rick followed his gaze. Only now, he saw the other table standing close to the wall. There were two boys of his age sitting there. He recognized the small, blond boy with the fiery eyes who had been in the shower last night. The other had a familiar face too; it was the beautiful boy who was in his laundry group. Immediately, Rick felt much better. He walked over to them. Before he could sit down, another boy flopped down on a chair, moving so inelegantly his food was almost sliding off his tray. The boy had red dreadlocks reaching down to his shoulders and was the first one offering him a smile.
"Hey handsome." A wink followed. "Come join us!"
Rick sat down next to the boy. "Thank you. My umm — my cellmate told me to sit here."
The redhead wiggled his eyebrows. "You got a hot one?"
"You better don't tell him who it is," the blond boy said with a smirk. "I've seen plenty of versions of Tommy the past months, but I'm not looking forward to meet mr. Jealousy."
The redhead — Tommy — looked at him, slack-jawed. "O-em-gee! Is Mateo your cellmate?"
"He hasn't told me his name yet," Rick answered. "It's the one over there, at the corner."
Tommy leaned with his elbow at the table, his fist supporting his cheek. "Yeah..." he sighed. "My knight in shining armor."
The other boy started to laugh, looking Rick in the eye. "Only in his dreams."
Tommy's face grew gloomy and he sighed deeply. "Unfortunately. He didn't even accept my Christmas gift."
The blonde sniggered, shaking his head. "He means himself," he told Rick. "He offered himself, fully naked, with some colored ribbons tied to his hair. Mateo however had no interest in our local whore."
"Even though I give the best blowjobs," Tommy complained. Yet, his eyes were sparkling playfully and he leaned closer to Rick. "And the more handsome the man, the cheaper I am," he whispered. "And sometimes... I do all for free."
The boy's insinuations made Rick's cheeks flush.
The other chuckled. "Leave him, Tom. We're not all as gay as you are."
"You're the one to talk," Tommy huffed.
"I'm bicurious. To some extent. But only because my cellmate is such a great kisser."
"I'm sure I'm better," the redhead answered, sounding aloof. "What about you? Do you prefer boys or girls?"
Tommy's grin widened. "You're my new homie."
Rick's heart made a flip flop. It felt like he was still dreaming. Suddenly this place felt no longer like hell, now he had found boys of his age who apparently also found protection in other inmates. His glance wandered to the third boy. Just like yesterday, he avoided eye contact. He had bent his head and stared at his plate. There was a sandwich on it of which he had only taken a few bites. There was a sadness radiating from him that caused a lump in Rick's throat.
"I'm Rick," he said, hoping the boy would at least look up.
"I'm Ace," the blond boy answered.
"And I'm Tommy."
Expectantly, Rick looked at the other boy.
"That's Aaron," Ace told him. "He barely speaks. Just let him be."
There was a sympathetic look in the grey eyes of the blond boy.
"If I were you I would get some food, my friend," Tommy said. "Couple more minutes and work starts."
Rick had been so eager to make friends that he had forgotten about the food at all. Quickly he got up, walked to the side of the hall and filled his plate with a cheese sandwich, an apple and Wheaties.
"To who do you belong?" he asked curiously as he sat with his new friends again.
"To Emeril," Ace answered. "He's diagonally across from Mateo."
Rick looked over his shoulder. It was a handsome young man, probably in his late twenties, with beautiful blue eyes that contrasted with his tan skin.
"I've been very lucky," Ace admitted. "He was nice since the moment we met. I had just turned 18 when I was sent to jail and he protected me from the start."
Tommy sighed dramatically. "So romantic. I wish my cellmate was as hot as yours. But mine is close to his 80's and all he does is sleep." He pouted. Suddenly, something moved across his leg. The grunt that followed, told him that Ace had kicked his friend's leg, signaling to Aaron with his eyes.
"Sorry," Tommy said quickly. "I got no reason to complain."
Aaron didn't respond, his glance still glued to his plate. Rick felt a stab in his stomach. Actually, he wanted to give the boy a squeezing hug, but since Aaron didn't even dare to look up, it sounded like a bad idea.
"My cellmate wasn't very friendly at first," Rick said hesitantly. The silence started to make him nervous. "But when someone wanted to... attack me yesterday, he stood up for me." A bit dreamily he thought back to how steadfast Mateo's voice had sounded. "And then he told the other man I was his."
"Yeah, rub it in my face." Tommy elbowed his side, sticking out his tongue. "He acts all tough 'n shit, but secretly he's really sweet. Last year there was also a boy who was attacked by two men in the shower. I have no idea where the knife was coming from, but he stabbed them both. The two disappeared and Mateo never got any punishment. Since that day, most lie low when he's around. He seems to have a lot of friends among the guards."
A deep warmth filled him when he heard that Mateo had saved someone from being raped before. Secretly, he fantasized that Mateo had purposely stayed in the shower to make sure nothing would happen to him. That would be so, so sweet!
He turned to Tommy. "And who's your protector? I assume it's not the old man?"
"I don't need a protector," the redhead boasted. "I give 'em what they want anyway, as long as I get something nice in return." He smirked, then he nodded to the table where Mateo and Emeril were sitting. "But that redhead over there... that's my brother. He is close with the other guys, so most days they leave me alone. I think we can all call ourselves lucky."
Suddenly, Aaron stood up, grabbed his tray so tightly his knuckles were turning white and rushed away. Ace gave Tommy a dark look, who flinched.
"I keep forgettin' he's around too," he sighed, guilt written all over his face. "Because well — it's not like he's sayin' much."
"What's eating him?" Rick asked quietly.
"He can't talk."
"You mean — he's a mute... or does someone forbid him to talk?"
"The man he's sold to."
Rick's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "Sold?"
Tommy nodded with an earnest face. "They call him Moloch. He's there, in the corner, alone."
Rick looked aside. He saw a man who was in his mid-thirties. With his dark eyes he seemed to taunt everyone around. There was a swastika tattooed on his neck. A shiver crept down Rick's spine; darkness seemed to live inside that man.
"Poor Aaron," he said softly.
"Yeah." Tommy sighed. "The moment Moloch saw the boy, he wanted him. He paid a fortune to get a cell transfer and ever since, Aaron is only a shadow of who he used to be."
"One day, he came to sit with us," Ace told him. "I don't wanna know how he earned that right." His voice sounded bitter. "And when it will be taken from him again, so he can't even listen to the conversations of other people anymore."
Rick stared at his food. Suddenly he wasn't hungry anymore. There had to be a way to help the boy, right?
. . .
During the rest of the day, the words of the two boys about Aaron kept haunting him. He thought of how scared he had felt in the shower yesterday. Imagine you were in a cell with a beast like Olav every day — and Moloch was probably a whole lot worse. Rick loved mythology, so he knew where the name was coming from; it had been a Canaanite god that was associated with child sacrifice. A nickname he had not just earned.
His stomach in knots, Rick folded the laundry. Again and again, his eyes wandered to the boy. Nobody paid attention to him, nobody talked to him. He carried out his tasks in silence, his sleeves rolled up to ease the work. It felt like an electric shock ran through his body when he saw the boy's arms; the skin was covered in bruises. His heart ached for the boy. Oh, how much he wanted to take his sadness away from him, giving him a reason to smile.
When Rick was finished with his own pile of laundry, he decided to help Aaron. His fingers were moving clumsily, and Rick noticed they were swollen. He had to be in a lot of pain. The boy didn't say a single thing when they worked through the laundry. Aaron's shoulders were tense, not for a moment he looked up.
"I'm going to help you," Rick whispered. "Not only with this. But we — we will find a way to help you."
For the first time, Aaron raised his face. His eyes were amber, almost gold, soft as honey. For a moment Rick's breathing faltered. The look in them was so... melancholic, so... broken. They screamed for a hug.
"You can't help me. Watching how he will let someone suffer for trying to help me will hurt more than whatever he does to me physically." His voice was shaking, he was clearly fighting the tears. Skittishly, he looked past Rick. "Do what everyone else does, Rick. Bury your head in the sand."
But Rick shook his head.
He couldn't. He would find a way to help.
. . .
Rick was sitting on his bed, his legs crossed. Mateo was lying on his own bunk, again immersed in his book. Rick wanted to talk to him about Aaron, but he wasn't sure how to bring it up. After all, they hadn't had a single normal conversation.
In the end, Mateo lowered his book and glared at him. "What?"
"I think Aaron is abused by his cellmate," he blurted out.
Mateo raised his eyebrows. "So?"
"So?" he repeated indignantly. "His cellmate is a monster! Aaron's arms are covered in bruises!"
"It's none of your business," Mateo answered roughly. "And it sure as hell isn't any of my business."
Rick crossed his arms. "I know you're not as uncaring as you want me to believe! Tommy told me you stabbed two men because they were about to rape someone."
Mateo kept his glance, his jaw thickened. "I can't exactly make a habit of it."
"But you have to do something!"
"Because — because he's sweet! He doesn't deserve this."
Mateo swung his legs over the edge of his bed and leaned forward. The look in his eyes sent shivers down his spine. "And what the hell can I do about that?"
"People are afraid of you."
"Only pussies are afraid of me. Moloch fears nothing and no one. The only thing you can do to help, is kill the man. Fine by me if you want to give up a lifetime of freedom for that, but I'm not gonna risk it."
"He is my friend. I have to help him."
Mateo huffed. "You're in jail, little brat. You're not at the playground. No one around here is going to be your friend. It's every man for himself."
"But Ace and Tommy..."
"Will stab you in the back, sooner or later. Mark my words."
In defeat, Rick bent his head. Mateo's words spread through his veins like poison. He just refused to believe them.
"We're not all monsters."
"No. We're all human."