by Dave Ahlman

As the black of night un-shaded to gray—with the morning dawn light fighting against the cumulonimbus clouds and spinning winds outside—a glimmer of sunshine peeked through a needle-sized hole in the tempestuous billow above the isolated and once abandoned prison in Joliet.

This newly formed string of sunlight shot into a single cell window fifty feet above the dirty, weeded grounds on the outer east wall.

As it entered through the thick bulletproof glass, the ray enhanced, enlarging into a circular beam about the size of a man’s eye.

Within the cellar, the window rose roughly fifteen feet above the floor and was secured by slender, gridded, rusting, and unreachable metal bars.

Finding a gap between the bars, this tinge of light landed softly atop an equally slender, rusty creature curled penitently upon a fetid and grungy cot.

The cot—supported by a rotting wood bed frame—lay crooked and off-kilter in the center of the cell, and in the middle of this mattress slept this creature—a teenager.

Striking the top of the young man’s newly shaven scalp—spotted with numerous slits formed by aggressive cuts from his most recent shearing—the radiant stream steadily scaled down the prisoner’s pale and yellowing forehead toward his swollen, purple eyelids.

This small sensation of incandescence shot like a bullet through the young man’s baggy eyes to his brain, waking his restless mind before dissipating as quickly as it came.

Half opening his collapsed gaze, the juvenile flickered his long, youthful eye hairs while at the same time rolling the balls of his royal blues back into the black of his head in slumber; however, this did not satisfy—he was sick, shivering, and starving.

He rolled himself back-and-forth, side-to-side, right-to-left, then left-to-right on his dirtied and flattened bed in order to claim some sort of warmth, but soon recoiled once more into the furthermost center of the cushion in hibernation.

The miniature springs in the deflated bed stabbed through the top of the cotton fabric, pricking him incessantly with every minor movement he made.

These sticking prods, accompanied by the thundering electricity of the raining firmament outside, further urged him to wake against his will.

For the first time that morning, he released his shut, self-stapled eyes to reveal the shocks of red which scribbled across the white of his sclera and bordered his ocean-colored iris as they swirled perpetually in orbit around the black hole of his pupil—the gate to his soul.

He adjusted his legs and felt one last pinhole perforation split the mantle of the mattress into the crust of his flesh, entering unheeded into the meat of his back.

The thorn-like twinge forced a silent yelp out of his mouth as he simultaneously sprawled in painful annoyance, flinging himself helplessly upon the stony cold of the concrete floor.

The thud of his weightless body smacking the ground refused to make a sound.

All that could be heard (if one were to listen close enough) would’ve been the faint exit of empty air puffing out of his hollow lungs upon impact.

Though he was blanketless and nearly unclothed—wearing nothing but a holed, oiled, and once orange-ish jumpsuit (now gritted brown)—he took to the chilling surface of the slick and cracked gravel below him as if it were the same green-bedded forest he felt secure him in uninterrupted sleep just a month previous.

Relaxing every muscular fiber, his body allowed itself to droop deep into the tangible rock made corporeal by this sinking of his flesh which filled the fissures of the cellar floor with his skin, making him one with his circumstance, one with the cell.

His eyes clinched shut as his face shifted from stoicism to distress, to uncontained emotion, then unrelenting sobs.

Tears splashed the cellar floor, wetting the nadir with thick greasy residue formed from the eroded grime once stationed grimly between the creases of his tear ducts and cheeks.

His decrepit form compressed once more into fetality as the bottoms of his individual toes clinched, clutched, clung to the meaty bottoms of his forefeet.

His sickly hands and skinny fingers searched to warm his core, though his boney arms provided little if any radiance as a result.

Endeavoring to suppress his cries, the youth sought after a greater sense of solace through increasing his immediate suffering.

Grinding his flesh against the grated cement beneath him, he tried tirelessly to produce any type of torridity by means of friction and self-mutilation.

Perhaps he thought the warmth conjured from open wounds and his body’s natural healing processes would clot, scab, and callous against the frostbite gathering around his frigid limbs.

Only he, the walls, the ceiling, and especially the frozen floor he sunk himself into knew.

They heard him, for they held him through the moans of his sorrow, his starvation, and his coughing struggles.

They heard his cursings, his confessions, his prayers, and accepted them without judgment, condemnation, or response.

This place connected with him in this moment better than any human ear could or would.

This was his new home—it became his, and he resorted to being its.

The young man strained to pull himself up onto his knees and raised his face to the window—we can see him clearly now.

The scraggles of his pubescent facial hair were bubbling to the surface in patches on his chin, left jaw, and right cheek while a thin line of tiny whiskers dotted like a reviving forest sparsely above his upper lip.

His two dark brown (nearly black) brows were thick and merging gradually into unkempt unity.

His ears appeared normal-sized, though the effects of countless beatings from inmates and guards were manifesting themselves visibly and individually as the early stages of cauliflower ear: growing like a fungus under the skin and inside the encavements surrounding his earholes.

He opened his mouth, revealing his gums—blue, almost violet—in the initial phases of gingivitis.

His teeth (or what was left of them) were in the midst of decay; one was still white, most were yellow, others were a lighter brown, and the remainder either blackened or missing.

We can see his mouth moving, but no words can be made out—the walls walled out his voice.

He raised his half-life arms in anger, shaking his fists in apparent rage in the direction of the window, which permitted the trickle of light to sneak through the gloomy sky into his eye—who was he speaking to though?

He rose to his feet and stepped slowly, but indignantly—his brow bent downward, curving incredulously over his narrow gaze—as he closed the space between himself and the barred glass window above and in front of him.

He pointed his right pointer finger toward the window in supposed scorn; turned himself about and pointed towards (potentially outside) the white, paint-chipped gates of the cellar; then back again towards the window.

His screams were more felt and seen than heard as the veins in his neck pumped vengeful blood to his weakened appendages in an attempt to give their strains of contempt strength.

He wasn’t speaking to the walls, ceiling, doors, floor, or even the window though, but through them—at something, at someone without the structure in the stormy heavens.

He lifted and threw the oak chair in front of him out of the way to make his perpetual path to the window more accessible.

The chair collided with the immovable wall to his left and splintered.

The reverberation caused the toilet bucket in the corner nearest the wall to shake, spin, then tip over, spilling excrement across the cellar bottoms, running fecal matter and urine milkily toward his feet.

He looked down at the brown slush filling the cracks between his toes for a long time (what probably to him felt like an eternity) then back toward the window—the gate to his soul.

He turned away from the window for a split second, but quickly turned about in confusion.

His eyes eagerly searched through the window for something his shifting eyes said he heard.

He moved around the cellar to grasp a glimpse of the object that spurred the noise.

Chirp, chirp—a dove flew past the outer window bringing with it evaporated glum and a free azure sky.

The full vivacity of a new dawn blasted itself into the cell.

The lad closed his eyes to shade himself from the abrupt brightness blinding him, fell to his knees, and inserted himself into the flooding pool of his feces until he felt himself swimming in it—himself, free.