The order to release number 1041 finally came. When the message was received from the top ranks, officer Kanto couldn’t believe it. 1041 had been one of the good ones in a place where everyone was bad. He trusted none of them however because he saw like he could see the sun shining in the sky that when you dig deep enough, bad was waiting for the opportunity to show itself. That’s why these scums deserved everything they got. But Kanto had spent many times examining 1041. Something was different. He had never snapped, not even risked talking back. Even when the Chief Commander had kicked 1041 in the ribs for slipping in the shower, he hadn’t cried out like some of the cowards would have done. He simply picked himself up and stared at the commander’s shoes. Kanto could hear a thousand accusations in the silence. Somehow they weren’t pointing at 1041 but instead, the Commander.
Please God, help me forget how cold this world is. He missed the sun like he missed his mother. He missed homecooked meals that his wife use to cook after long hard days in the office. He missed hearing a good song on the radio. He missed feeling like he was alive. He missed and then there was nothing. Meanings had all changed the first day he walked into prison. 30 years was the number tattooed on the back of his brain, the remainder of a sentence given in exchange for one second of a mistake. He didn’t regret anything though. He was too far deep in his misery to regret. All he could do was accept and walk the tightrope of choosing life over death.
Kanto walked to the cell which was the cleanest in the prison. Probably even cleaner than the officers quarters, which didn’t say much since it was cleaned by the prisoners themselves. As he went he passed the bottom floor which was full of lifers and those on Suicide Watch. Some type of shadiness was always happening with these folks. Throwing shit on walls. Skin and bones refusing to eat. Animal noises all throughout the day and night. This was the floor that made the ranks grow cold in their hearts. Years on the first floor would change a man straight into a maneater. He thanked his ancestors for the luck of being a floater instead of a babysitter for these crazy crooks. Kantos mind wandered to the many times when they opened a cell door to a dead body suffocated with clothes, bedsheets, or smuggled plastic. Sometimes he wondered if his brother officers had any influence on how that plastic made its way inside those cells. But that was just one of the unspeakable topics, and there were many… He reached the 3rd floor and went to the room of 1041.
Sometimes 1041 couldn’t remember what it was like to be free. The other day an officer had asked him if he had a wife waiting for him. Wife. Did I have a wife? He said yes, but with all the mental effort going on he could not remember what her face looked like. Neither the smell of her hair or if she had been soft to hold or an absolute bitch. Yes, sir. I have a wife. She’s waiting for me and she’s beautiful. 1041 carried on doing all his choirs and duties all the while putting together the image of a woman who might or might not be his wife. When he was stressed or sad he liked to clean. He wasn’t supposed to be cleaning all day, but the guards were tired of beating him for something they couldn’t quite justify. So instead they let him clean and only gave him a few licks when the higherups were in site. Although he cleaned like his life depended on it, he always felt dirty. He could feel the stink and decay deep in his bones, surrounding him on every single surface.
Kanto looked into the cell of 1041. Spotless with not a cup or plate out of place. The bed could have been a perfect example for any military barrack. The floors actually shined as if he had used a cleaning product instead of a simple rag and water. Sadness overwhelmed him and for the first time in his career, he wondered if he had lived his entire life wrong. He thought of the thousands of times he had made this trip to an inmate who was about to be released. Sometimes he felt disgusted because some of these animals didn’t deserve to be pardoned. They’d be back in a heartbeat once they got caught stealing food to survive or cash to get high. Other times he actually felt happy. Last week he had given the good news to a young kid who was in for Grand Theft Auto. He wasn’t a bad kid. Misled, but he had the potential to go out and start a new life for himself. It was really unfortunate when less than a week later that same young man’s body was found in the Shinano River. He had hoped things would be different, but no matter how much you hope, fate happens.
Nowadays he couldn’t remember much. The only thing he knew was that he was a dirty person in a dirty place. He was 1041 and he had to clean. Sometimes things would flash in his head. I remembered. He remembered things that could have been from books he had read or it could have been his life. Beautiful things that made him cry and hope that he had been so lucky to have a family and times which would always be greater than his hardships. These remembrances were random but when they hit, they hit harder than any storm mother nature could throw at him. When they hit, he lost it. My lady. How lovely she was with her dark brown hair and light almond eyes. She used to sing while she took a shower and we use to walk our kids to the park every Friday. But they stopped coming and then the letter came. Dear Frank, I’m sorry but we’re starting our life over. We love you but you should also do the same. No. When I remember how she use to touch me and how my kids use to smile, how the hell was I suppose to start over? No. No. No. But I’ll forget about them tomorrow. Then they’ll come back and haunt me. I’ll rot here from the inside out, and always they will haunt me. 1041 thought about whether life was really worth it. He remembered that he had many, many years to go and the number 30 burned like blue fire on his brain. I won’t let these bastards have me. They might think I belong to them but I am free. Free in my mind. I am not an animal. I would rather kill myself than let them kill me. It was a very bad day when he remembered his name because he remembered everything else. He also remembered that eventually, he would forget. And the day before the commander released his number to the officer Kanto with orders to be brought back to his country and freed, he realized that he was done walking the tightrope. 1041 was no coward. He was no sheep. When he remembered, he also remembered that he was a man who lived above the influence of others with core values that could be traced back deep in the roots of his family tree. I’m a good man. I’ll die the best man I can be. 1041 stopped cleaning.
Kanto looked at the floor and stared at the pale face of 1041 who was looking straight ahead. He wondered how long he had been dead and what kind of reaction 1041 would have had if only he had been alive to receive the news that today he had been giving a special release because evidence had been found which had brought light to the real killer. A man who was already on level 1. He was sad and after 45 years of working for the prison, he decided that today he would put in his resignation and live a life that had more meaning than seeing dead bodies pile up in prison cells.
1041 was named Frank Tam. His last thought was the skin of his wife and how he loved when she kissed him on his neck. Before that, he thought of sunshine and the smell of the sea.