‘Happy Birthday Léonardo.’ Leon’s mother texted. ‘I know things have been hectic, but if Ángelito were here, he would want you to make the best of it. We’ll call later. Te quiero. <3 (Have you gotten our care package yet? ó_ò)’
Leon sat on his bed staring at his phone just as he had been for the past three days. He let his parents know that he ‘fixed’ it when it was never broken and that he ‘found’ it when it was never lost. He told them good morning and good night. He let them know he was safe and how he felt–not great.
The one thing he couldn’t bring himself to tell them was that he knew where his brother went. Every day since he got his phone back, he convinced himself that it would be the day he told them. Now, his birthday had come around, and he completely forgot. He just couldn’t find it in himself to say the words.
And how could he? How could he tell his parents that their son snuck into the military? That he’s pretending to be an adult? That he lied to them as Leon? His heart broke hearing them worry so much about Angelo’s safety. He wanted his brother to be safe, too, but telling the truth at this point felt like pulling teeth.
Leon thought reaching out to friends for advice first might make things easier, not anyone on the ship but people he knew from high school. Most were busy with jobs or starting college. Those were the ones that responded, anyway.
His last option would be telling his crewmates. He’d have to do that eventually, and he wanted to believe that things would turn out alright, but the more he thought about it, the less sure he became.
Angelo’s actions were bizarre, hurtful, and dangerous. How on Earth did he manage to sneak into the IF? For one, he needed a birth certificate to get in. Leon once read that Jun managed to get in by changing their gender marker to male, but age couldn’t be changed. That’s why the freshmen at his high school used to ask if he knew how to get a fake ID.
…Did Angelo get a fake ID? No, that’s silly. Leon breathed a sigh of relief knowing that his brother would need faked documents to actually get in.
He used fake documents, didn’t he? Horror welled up in the pit of Leon’s stomach. Forged documents sounded like really bad news. He might go to jail for this. Leon’s brain struggled to think of a scenario where his brother avoided that. It also struggled to think of someone as sensitive and frail as Angelo surviving. Picturing his mugshot felt like an absurd joke.
Things had to turn out okay in the long run, right? Maybe jail wasn’t as bad as he heard. Maybe it got a bad reputation! Unfortunately, he couldn’t know for sure without talking to someone with first-hand experience.
Fortunately, his roommate, who did have first-hand experience, walked into the room.
Aiden looked surprised at first, then tired.
Leon continued. “You’ve been locked up before. What’s it like? Was it better than you expected? Were there things about it that you liked more than you thought you would like?”
The taller ranger squinted. “...You know I broke outta there, right?”
“Yeah, but… It wasn’t all that bad, was it?” A desperate smile crossed Leon’s face.
His smile fell. “There’s nothing good about it? At all?”
“Why do you want prison to be fun so bad? Are you tryin’ to go? I don’t think much of the IF, but I came here to get out of having to go back there.” Aiden leaned toward him. “Get. It. Through. Your. Thick. Head.” He poked his own head for emphasis. “I don’t like prison.” Finally, he turned toward the door.
“Wait, don’t go!” Leon stood up. “Can you at least tell me what it’s like?”
Aiden looked over his shoulder.
“Please. Tell me.”
He looked confused for a moment, then stepped back inside of the room. “Why do you need to know?”
“Uhhh.” Leon looked down at the floor, then sat back on his bed. “I have a friend… whooo might be going.”
Aiden eyed him suspiciously. With one smooth motion, he snatched the chair by the desk and sat on it backwards across from Leon. “So you wanna know what it’s like in prison?”
“Yes. Please, tell me anything!”
“Okay. But don’t expect to like what you’ll hear.” Aiden thought for a moment. “Prisons have a 5-level scale. 1 is minimum security, 5 is max security. I was in a level 3.”
“Right in the middle. I don’t remember exactly what you went in for,--”
“Oh yeah, that’s not bad at all!” Leon felt himself smile despite Aiden’s glaring. “Does that mean level 3 isn’t that dangerous?”
“No, it is. Really shouldn’ta been there, but the judge had it out for me, and there’s some weird 3-strike law they got me in on.” He talked so casually. “Anyway,” he held his hands out, “imagine taking a buncha guys in there for assault, attempted murder, theft, actual murder, fraud–”
“Fraud??” Leon didn’t know for sure, but that sounded close to what Angelo did.
“Yeah, if it’s a big enough deal.” Aiden rested his goatee on the chairback. “Not all of us went in for violent stuff. Even some of the ones that did were chill. But we all ended up in the same place, and you never know what someone’ll do when they’re pushed over the edge.” His eyes widened. “We all knew that. You had to watch your back 24/7 ‘cause it was every man for himself in there.”
Every man for himself. Leon couldn’t picture his brother surviving in an atmosphere like that. Still, he searched for a silver lining. “But all you’d have to do is not push someone over the edge, right?”
Aiden looked him dead in the eye. “We were always being pushed over the edge. Try going to sleep with a buncha guys down the hall hollering the entire night, tryin’ to ignore your cellmate struggling on the toilet a foot away from your bed ‘cause the cafeteria spaghetti didn’t agree with him in a room half the size of this one all while the lights are still on and see how you feel when you wake up.”
Leon cringed. “That sounds, uhhh… Was it like that every night?”
“I was lucky enough to get a cellmate with butt problems.” Aiden sneered. “You think I got a bad attitude now? You shoulda seen me then.”
“Well, Án–” Leon nearly blew Angelo’s cover, “I mean, m-my friend, he sleeps a lot during the day. So–”
“He probably won’t. If he goes to school or takes any jobs, he won’t have the time. If he doesn’t, then he’ll have to deal with the COs.”
“What does CO stand for?”
“Correctional officers.” Aiden’s lip curled in disgust. “They hate you. They’ll use whatever power they have to make your life miserable.”
“Hm.” Leon thought for a second. “What if you get on their good side?” Knowing Aiden, he probably never tried that approach.
“Pffha!” The older ranger laughed in his face. “Once you’re behind those walls, you’re not a person to them, you’re the zoo animal they can throw peanuts at. If they have a bad day, they take it out on you. If they have a good day, they celebrate by taking it out on you. If they’re bored? Guess what.” His finger pointed between Leon’s eyes. “You’re the entertainment.”
Something about that felt eerily familiar. Angelo dealt with enough of that kind of thing when they went to their grandfather’s place every month. He didn’t need any more.
“The ones who treat you half-decent are few and far between, but don’t expect to be buddy-buddy.” Aiden leaned toward Leon. “You will never be their friend.”
“Has anyone ever tried?”
“What do you think??” He leaned back. “Of course someone did!” Of course they did. Leon told Angelo to do the same. “They saw right through it!”
“And what did they do…?” The question escaped Leon’s mouth before he decided whether or not he wanted to hear the answer.
Aiden’s face went blank. “Nothing.”
Leon barely got a sigh out before Aiden continued.
“They did nothing when the other inmates jumped him.”
He grimaced. It didn’t work out with Angelo, either.
“What?” Aiden shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say. People don’t go to prison to have happy fun times.” His fingers wiggled. “It’s prison. And it should’ve been a step up for me. I was living on the street before then!”
“You were homeless??” Leon didn’t know.
“That’s why I had to do petty theft.” Aiden sighed. “Yeah, prison gave me food and a bed, but you’ll never know how it is until you’ve been there.” He shook his head. “You’ll never know. Trapped in a rat cage with guys who have nothing left to live for. Dudes with families they’ll never get to see again on the outside.”
“I was lucky enough not to have that, and I still wanted out. If I had to spend 25 years in there, I woulda lost my mind!”
“25 years?? For petty theft?” Leon couldn’t believe his ears.
“You might think I’m tryin’ to mess with you, and any other time you’d be right. But I want you to know that if you’re looking for hope, you won’t find much in prison. I don’t care if your friend’s in there for 5 or 50 years, he’s gonna come out changed. And that’s if he survives.”
“Did you change?” He looked up at Aiden.
Aiden’s eyes shifted over to the side. “Not much. I broke out in less than a year. Don’t cry for me. That’s another thing you’ll wanna tell him. Don’t cry. The inmates smell tears like sharks smell blood.”
That’s a strike against Angelo. Leon sighed, frustrated. “Do you know anyone who could survive?”
“That depends on the person and the crime.”
He thought for a moment. “Well, my friend might be going in on fraud, so what about that?”
“How bad? Is it a felony?”
“I dunno? That sounds bad enough, so… Wait!” Leon remembered something. “You said Jun was almost gonna go to prison for the whole thing they did, right? How serious was that? My friend might go in for the same amount of time.”
“How do you know that?”
“Uhhhhh. He, uhhh, did something close to that.” His eyes shifted around.
“...You’re lucky I don’t care enough to pry.” Aiden tilted his head back. “Yeah, that was a felony. I dunno if they decided on his sentence, but it would’ve been at least 10 years. He probably wouldn’t have gotten sent to a prison as bad as mine, but you can never be sure.”
“Hm. I see. Do you know someone that could’ve survived that?”
“Depends on the person. Jun probably woulda.” He lifted a finger when he saw Leon’s reaction. “I’m not sayin’ it wouldn’t have messed him up. Heck, he was already starting to fall apart right before he got caught.”
“Really? Jun is so calm and cool all the time. I can’t imagine someone like them ever falling apart.”
“He started getting jumpy right before his injury. But that situation was way different. He’d have done better if he got locked up. Plus I gave him some pointers on what not to do. The only thing is, he probably would’ve ended up in a women’s prison, and I dunno how they roll. But I still think Jun would’ve made it.”
“How nice of you to believe in them!” If Leon could get Angelo to act more like Jun, maybe he’d stand a chance! “What about,” a lightbulb went off in Leon’s head, “what about the rest of us? The rest of the crew?” He didn’t know entirely where he was going with this, but it should be good for something.
Aiden’s eyes searched his brain for thoughts. “Mia already lives like her life is a prison. She minds her business, doesn’t look at anyone, and keeps her mouth shut when she sees something weird. She should be okay.”
“Uhhhh, o-okay.” Leon didn’t expect that answer, but he committed it to memory. “What about Roxie? She has really strong arms. If she had to fight someone–”
“She’d lose.” Aiden cut in. “Yeah, she could probably knock somebody flat if she wanted to. But she wouldn’t. Fighting is just as much about where your head is at as it is muscle. Roxie’s a complete weirdo, but not enough to scare off someone who had beef with her.”
“Yeah, Roxie’s too interested in safety to hurt anyone. But maybe she would make friends with everyone. She’s good at that!”
“Making friends with inmates is how you wind up in a gang. I could see her getting in trouble not knowing that. Stay independent if you can.”
“Oh. I guess I wouldn’t have done too well either if you hadn’t told me.” Leon scratched at his neck.
“Even knowing that, you’d still get smacked around within the first week. And robbed!” Aiden laughed, but the laugh faded. “You’re too goofy to not try and talk to people. I like messing with you, but they’d probably take it too far and break you or something.”
“Hm. That’s kinda upsetting.” Still, it sounded like Aiden cared about him. In fact, in his own weird way, the way he talked about the others’ chances made it sound like he cared about them too. Maybe Leon imagined it, but a little pride came through his comments about Mia and Jun, and concern for him and Roxie.
“What are you smiling at?”
“You’re a terrible liar. Makes you an even bigger target. Plus, you’re short, and squishy, and–”
“Geez, you don’t have to rub it in.” Leon decided to change the subject. “What about the captain? He hardly talks to anyone!”
“I could see him lecturing somebody on the rules and getting decked.” A satisfied smile filled Aiden’s face. It would’ve been nice to see him this happy had it been about anything else. “Or he’d snitch. Never snitch. Nobody likes a snitch. ‘Snitches get stitches’ is very real.”
“O…kay then. I’ll keep that in mind. How do you think Emil would do?”
The smile disappeared. “Too goofy. I could see him joking around with the wrong officers or the wrong inmates and getting jumped.” His mouth twitched downward. “He’s kinda scrawny, too.”
“Ah. So much for Emil winning everyone over with his all-natural charm.” Leon sighed on his behalf.
“Don’t worry. Rich kids like him and his brother have a knack for staying outta prison.” Aiden rubbed his fingers together as if he held a dollar between them. “But I’d hate to see him end up there.”
“Yeah. I wonder what it’d be like having a dad with that kind of money. I bet their house must be huge!” Leon pictured a cool space house. “Wait, are there houses in space?”
“It’s all spaceship apartments.”
“Oh yeah! Then they probably have a cool one of those.” Leon fantasized about living in one and getting to see Earth from his bedroom window. “Gosh, I wonder what it’d be like if my family had a place like that. Me and Ángie could get to have our own rooms for once in–!”
Right. Angelo. He had gotten so lost in the conversation, he forgot what he started it for. By the time he realized, Aiden was in the middle of putting his chair back under the desk.
“Back to the jail conversation!” Leon got his attention again. “How do you think my brother would do?” The bucktoothed ranger watched intently for a reaction, any reaction at all, but he didn’t expect the one he got.
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