– of rot, mould, faeces, body odour, and a smell resembling rotting food.
The scents mingled together, resulting in an overpowering stench that seemed to be soaked into building itself.
An extended stay in here was enough to suck the soul out of even a healthy, young inmate, Yuto thought.
Yuto was ordered to stand with his back against the door.
When he did, the guards reached through the bars to remove the handcuffs and legcuffs from his wrists and ankles.
He could never get used to the sensation of being shackled, no matter how many times he went through it.
Every time he felt the cold metal against his skin and the irritating sound of the cuffs clinking against each other, he felt like he’d become something less than human – some kind of beast.
“This ought to help you cool off.
We can talk when you feel like confessing.”
The guard left.
Yuto glanced around his cell.
It was about four feet wide and eight feet long.
A yellowing toilet stood at the very end as if it were the centrepiece of the room.
There was nothing else, not even a bed.
There was only a blanket, folded and placed on the floor.
Yuto was curled up on the floor like a dog, wrapped in his blanket.
He was woken from his sleep by a noise from the corridor.
It was apparently time for breakfast.
A service wagon clattered past his cell.
Yuto shivered in his blanket.
His muscles were stiff and his joints ached from the cold.
Although the region was temperate throughout the year, it was still cool in the mornings and evenings.
Having to sleep on a cold floor with nothing but a single blanket was nothing short of unbearable.
But for Yuto, the toll it took on him was more mental than physical.
The cold made him feel miserable, and as much as he didn’t want to admit it, he felt some regret.
Sticking up for Micky was one thing, but it was reckless of him to have started a fight with Bernard.
Being trapped in here meant he had to halt his investigation.
As serious as he was about finding Corvus and getting out of prison, Yuto was well aware that there was no guarantee.
He knew he needed to be on his best behaviour in case things didn’t work out, so he could get good time or at least get out on parole.
But he had let his temper get the better of him.
He regretted his mistake, and yet felt a defiant justification for his actions.
He was no criminal, and yet felt the influence of the prison atmosphere beginning to rub off on him.
He was frightened of it, but at the same time felt like he had no choice.
Yuto’s heart was beset with one conflicting emotion after another, and along with the cold, tormented him at night.
The service wagon rattled to a stop in front of Yuto’s solitary cell.
There was a small slot at the bottom of the cell door, which the guard unlocked and slid open.
The mess hall inmate slid a tray of food inside.
Yuto recognized him – he was a Korean from Block A, called Park.
Park gave him a meaningful look, then glanced down at the plate.
Yuto nodded slightly and took the tray from him.
When the guard went on his way with the service wagon, Yuto immediately inspected his food.
Underneath a limp pancake, he found a small piece of folded paper.
Rip this up and flush it after reading.
Bachelor life isn’t too bad, is it? Catch a break from having to see your asshole roommate’s annoying face every day.
Relax and think of it as a special vacation.
Looking forward to having you back.
It was a message from Dick, written in miniscule handwriting.
Although it was just a casual note, it was enough to brighten Yuto’s glum mood.
Looking forward to having you back – Yuto read that part over and over.
It was almost strange how encouraged he felt by those words.
He wished he could keep the note, but he knew it would be a hassle if the guards found out.
Yuto went along with Dick’s instructions, ripping up the note into small pieces before reluctantly flushing it down the toilet.
After eating and washing his face, he suddenly found himself with nothing to do.
There was one tiny window in his cell to let the light in, but it was too high up to reach.
He couldn’t even catch a view of the outdoors.
Being left without anything to do was even harder than he had imagined.
He couldn’t help but wish for something – even a newspaper to read.
Yuto sat absent-minded with his back against the wall when he heard a light knocking.
Once, then twice.
Whoever was in the cell to the right seemed to want to tell him something.
Yuto moved closer to the door.
“What is it?” he whispered, pushing his face against the bars.
He didn’t know what his neighbour looked like, since he had been curled up in a blanket and sleeping when Yuto passed his cell to go in.
“How’re you holding up, newcomer?”
It was a calm, deep voice.
He couldn’t tell if the speaker was young or old, but he seemed to be a Latino judging from his Spanish accent.
“I’m hanging in there.
How about you?”
You’re the Japanese guy from Block A, right? The one who beat up Bernard?”
Did this inmate harbour ill will toward him for hurting a fellow Chicano? It was possible.
“So what if I did?” Yuto replied apprehensively.
“That was quite something, to take down a massive guy like him.
I wish I was there to see that supposedly spectacular kick of yours,” said the voice with a laugh.
Yuto was relieved to hear that the laugh sounded genuine.
But he wondered how the man had come across this information while being in solitary.
He decided to ask.
“My man brings me the latest paper with my meal, three times a day,” the man joked in reply.
The inmate, who called himself Neto, was a Chicano.
Yuto was surprised to learn that he had been in solitary for one month.
Neto also seemed to be looking for something to do, as he took every opportunity to chat with Yuto.
He was a good conversationalist, and was at times almost philosophical.
Although inmates were technically prohibited from speaking to each other, the guard only came to patrol the cells once every hour.
There was never a boring moment for Yuto when he lent his ear to Neto’s deep, rich voice.
On the third day, after lunch, Yuto was doing push-ups in his cell to stave off boredom when he heard Neto faintly humming from next door.
Drawn to the familiar, nostalgic melody, Yuto knocked on the wall twice.
Over time, knocking twice had become a sort of code between them that meant, “Let’s talk”.
“Neto, sounds like you’re in a good mood,” Yuto said, bringing his face close to the wall.
“Was that ‘La Golondrina’ you were singing?”
“Yeah,” replied Neto.
“La Golondrina” was a famous Mexican folk song.
Yuto’s stepmother, Leti, also used to hum it from time to time.
“Today’s May 5, so I’m celebrating,” Neto said.
“Oh, is it the fifth already? It’s Cinco de Mayo.”
Cinco de Mayo was an official Mexican holiday commemorating the victory at the Battle of Puebla.
Curiously enough, it was celebrated more extravagantly in the US than its originating country of Mexico.
When Yuto still used to live with his parents, he would also enjoy Leti’s holiday cooking and go out to parties with Paco.
“What I’d give to eat some chicken with a good helping of mole sauce,” Yuto murmured nostalgically as he remembered Leti’s cooking.
“You like Mexican food?” Neto asked.
My stepmother’s a Chicana, so when I think of ‘mom’s cooking’, it’s Mexican food.”
“Is that so?” murmured Neto with a tone of surprise.
“Does that mean you speak Spanish?”
Neto suggested they converse in Spanish instead.
“Orale, amigo,” responded Yuto with a laugh.
Neto immediately switched to his mother tongue.
“Yuto, do you know what ‘La Golondrina’ is about?”
“Golondrina” was Spanish for “swallow”.
The singer wonders wistfully about where a free-flying swallow will go as he longs in despair for the fatherland he could never return to.
It was a sad song, but thanks to its gentle and beautiful melody, its mood was far from heavy and tragic.
“I’ve heard before that the swallows refer to seasonal migrant workers,” Yuto said.
“That’s what they say,” Neto said.
“But it’s actually a song of a captive man who seeks freedom during a revolution.
Pretty fitting for a prisoner, don’t you think? The swallow is a symbol of freedom.
Nothing holds it back, and it can fly wherever it wants.”
That was one way to interpret it, Yuto thought.
“I may be in prison, but I have the freedom to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in my heart,” Neto said.
“I’m free to praise the small but proud Mexican army that defeated the French in the Battle of Puebla when they were outnumbered many times over.
They can trap me in a tiny cell, but they can’t fetter my heart.
Don’t you agree?”
Yuto could sense Neto’s pride in his Mexican heritage in every word that he spoke.
One could also say it indicated Neto’s determination to push back against the various societal pressures he faced.
Although Mexicans comprised the biggest minority group in the United States, they faced discrimination from many Americans.
The discrimination ran so deep that when people referred to “illegal immigrants” in America, it often meant Mexicans.
But much of the land in the southwestern region of the States had previously belonged to Mexico.
As such, places like El Paso, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were all Spanish names.
One could even say that the continuous stream of Mexican immigrants crossing the border was like a form of Reconquista – an attempt to reclaim the homeland that was taken unfairly by the Americans due to the war.
“How long is your sentence, Neto?”
“Three years for assault.”
―Say, Neto, did you know that Mexicans have the lowest suicide rates in the world?”
Neto laughed quietly.
Suicide is not a way to go for us Mexicanos.
We’re jubilant, and we also never go down without a fight.
What about the Japanese?”
“It’s pretty high.
Twice that of the United States.
But the rate of homicides is only one-tenth.”
“So you’re saying the Japanese are kind-hearted pessimists?”
“Or probably weak to pressure.
I was born and raised in the States, so I couldn’t say.”
“So was I, but I have no problem understanding other Mexicans.”
Yuto gave a wry smile at Neto’s prompt response.
The man had grown up being surrounded by fellow Mexicans, immersed in the culture of his country in everyday life.
He wouldn’t understand how Yuto felt.
Yuto lacked a sense of identity that was rooted in race or ethnicity.
Describing himself as Japanese wasn’t quite a perfect fit; neither was being called American, which to him was simply his country of citizenship.
Although he carried characteristics of multiple groups, he never really belonged to any.
Yuto had lived all his life harbouring this sense of discomfort.
“To me, Japan is a really faraway country.
Not just in terms of physical distance, but emotional distance, too.
To be honest, I feel closer to Mexico.
When I was younger, I don’t know how many times I used to wish that I could become a Chicano like my brother and mother.”
“Why don’t you, then?” Neto said simply.
“Starting today, I declare you a yellow Chicano.”
Yuto knew he was joking, but his heart was warmed nonetheless.
It felt like Neto was welcoming Yuto into his circle.
“Neto, muchas gracias,” Yuto said.
“De nada,” Neto said, in an exaggerated haughty voice.
Yuto was sure he would have had a mental breakdown if he had no one to interact with.
Thanks to Neto being next door, he was able to keep his mind occupied.
He had made a good friend in an unexpected place.
Yuto leaned back against the cold wall, feeling heartfelt gratitude for this serendipitous meeting.
One week went by, and Yuto was still in solitary.
He wondered when he would ever be released.
Yuto’s mental distress worsened with every day that he lost in his search for Corvus.
Yuto was pounding the wall of his cell with his fists in frustration when he heard Neto knocking.
As Yuto sat down in his usual spot, Neto began with an encouraging tone.
“Ground yourself, Yuto.
Getting frustrated isn’t going to change anything.
You’ll be released soon.”
“How do you know?”
“People only get a week tops in solitary for fighting.
And Bernard’s been discharged from the infirmary.”
Yuto felt anxiety set in at the news.
He wondered if Bernard might seek revenge against Micky.
“Is Bernard the type to hold a grudge?”
He’s tenacious, like a snake.
…Are you worried about Micky, or whatever his name was? He’s the one that stabbed Bernard, right?”
Although Yuto couldn’t see Neto’s face, he couldn’t help but stare in his direction in astonishment.
“You’ve got quite an information network.
Nothing slips past you, does it?”
I know you’re cellmates with Dick.
You were hit on by that bastard BB the day you came in.
Oh, and I know the sisters gave you a shave.”
I didn’t know you knew about that, too.”
“Yuto, don’t worry about Bernard.
He won’t mess with you or your friends again.”
Yuto asked what he meant, struck with suspicion at Neto’s strangely decisive tone.
The man was clearly saying this based on some concrete reason.
“Right after he was sent to the infirmary, the senior members of Locos Hermanos dropped in in person to give him a warning.
They also told him that Locos Hermanos would come after him if he snitched anything about this incident to the guards.
Bernard doesn’t have the balls to stand up to us.”
It wasn’t until then that the realization finally dawned on Yuto.
He finally knew who the man was, the friendly Chicano with whom he had huddled with every day and had confided almost everything to.
The man’s real identity―
“…Are you Libera? The boss of the Locos Hermanos?”
My full name is Ernesto Libera,” Neto said promptly, throwing Yuto off-guard with how easily he gave himself away.
Who could have guessed that Neto was the charismatic E.
Libera of the Locos Hermanos?
“Why did you keep it a secret all this time?”
“Keep it a secret? I never withheld anything.
You just never asked.”
“Yeah, but… no.
Neto was a nickname for Ernesto.
He had given his real name all along – Yuto had just never caught on.
If Yuto had been a black inmate, Libera might have had a reason to conceal his identity because of the feud between their gangs.
But he had no reason to hide himself to Yuto.
“But why would you do that? Isn’t Bernard a fellow Chicano?”
“I know he raped one of your guys.
He deserves the consequences,” Neto spat, his voice filled with disgust.
“He’s given us Chicanos a bad name for what he did.”
“I see…” Yuto said.
“And when are you going to be out?”
“I don’t know.
At first it was only supposed to be for ten days or so, but it’s been dragging on.
The guards are probably too afraid to let me out.
They probably won’t until the infighting within the Black Soldiers has died down.”
Neto was rational and calm through and through.
He knew very well that his very existence could risk setting off a riot.
Although he was imprisoned alone with no end in sight, he did not easily succumb to anger or frustration.
The leader of Locos Hermanos was as tough as nails, with an emotional resilience that surpassed many.
“What are you going to do if the Black Soldiers start a war with you? Will you fight?”
“If we’re threatened, we’ll have no choice but to defend ourselves.
Of course, we’ll avoid a full-out war as much as possible.”
Henry Galen’s face suddenly rose in Yuto’s mind.
Perhaps Neto, being the leader of the Locos Hermanos, would know something about other opposing group bosses.
“Are things fine between you and ABL?”
“They’re cunning guys.
They want the Chicanos and Blacks to destroy themselves fighting.
They probably plan to play the spectators while the browns and blacks fight it out, and swoop in to finish off whoever remains.”
“What kind of leader is Galen?”
“He’s sharp, but it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking.
He’s the secretive type; I hear he doesn’t even let the senior members in on his true intentions.
Tonya dated him for a while, but even she said she didn’t get him.”
Neto’s sudden mention of Tonya reminded Yuto that the two were in a relationship.
“Oh, right,” Neto said.
“I haven’t thanked you yet for helping Tonya.”
Yuto wondered what it was, then realized that it was the time Tonya almost got attacked by Giverly.
So Neto was even privy to that.
Yuto inwardly rolled his eyes.
“I didn’t do much.
He was a coward.
All I had to do was tell him that the guard was watching, and he just shrivelled up in fear.”
“Still – it takes courage to talk down someone with a lethal weapon.
If it weren’t for you, Tonya might have been hurt.
I’m really grateful.”
“No need to thank me so much, you’re putting me on the spot,” Yuto said sheepishly.
“…You must miss Tonya, huh, Neto?” he said.
She’s my only little brother, after all.”
“What?” Yuto brought his ear right up against the bars in disbelief.
“Did you say ‘little brother’? I heard that you two were lovers.”
“Tonya wants it that way, so that’s what we let people think.
Our parents divorced when I was seventeen, and we were forced to live apart.
We don’t even share the same surname anymore.
But we reunited here in prison, and now we can live together again.
Strange, isn’t it? …But she’s ashamed of herself.
Says she doesn’t want anyone to know that I’m related to someone like her.
There was pity in Neto’s voice, but a sort of tenderness as well.
Yuto felt like he could understand Tonya’s perspective.
She was proud that the Chicanos looked up to her brother, but was afraid that she would become a source of shame and a stain on his reputation.
“You sure you should have told me that?” Yuto said.
“That’s supposed to be your secret, isn’t it?”
“I told you because I felt like I could trust you.
Tonya’s taken a liking to you, and so have I.
You’re a friend to me now.”
There was not a hint of doubt in Neto’s voice.
It wasn’t carefree optimism that made him trust someone he’d never met.
Neto was a man who had fought and survived in this dangerous world despite the threats to his life.
He probably had absolute confidence in his senses and instinct for getting him this far.
Yuto wanted to return the trust with trust.
He hoped he could give back to Neto by trusting him, too.
With a sense of resolve, he began to speak.
“Neto, do you know if Galen has a burn scar on his back?”
“A burn scar? Why?”
“…I’m looking for a certain man.
I can’t say why, but I need to find him at all costs, whatever it takes.
My life depends on it.
And I think Galen might be who I’m looking for.
If he has a burn scar on his back, that makes it even more likely.”
“Hm,” Neto sniffed before murmuring, “I see.
You have your own issues, huh.
Well, I don’t know about burn scars, but I’ve heard he has a scar from a gunshot wound on his lower back.”
A gunshot wound.
It was possible to suffer a burn from being shot.
If he was shot with a larger calibre gun, it might have caused a significant laceration that healed to look like a burn scar.
It was a stretch, but it was possible.
“You should ask Tonya once you get out,” Neto said.
“I’ll give her my word to help you out, too.”
“Thank you, Neto.
I can’t begin to tell you―”
“Shh,” Neto hissed in warning.
Yuto noticed the guard’s footsteps approaching.
He quickly stepped away from the bars and moved to the back of the room.
The guard stopped in front of Yuto’s cell.
Stand up and get over here,” he barked in an overbearing tone.
“You’re going back to your regular cell.”
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