Leon’s Last Meal
by Shayna Coplan
“The thing from Planet A-80 is talking about hanging himself.”
I glanced up from the open folder on my desk and found Officer Harring casting a shadow into my office. I removed my glasses and tried to blink away an hour’s worth of eyestrain. “How does a life form that breathes through its skin go about that?” I asked.
He shrugged and the movement sent ripples down his impressive midsection.” I don’t know, but I got in trouble last time I didn’t report an inmate’s threat of self-harm.”
“My degree is in social work, not extraterrestrial psychiatry,” I told him. Harring always found excuses to stick his double chin into my office. I would have been flattered, but I was the only human female employed at the prison.
Harring leaned more of his body past the doorframe. “Dr. Sinclair ain’t in today, so I figured a prison counselor was close enough.”
I wasn’t close enough by a light-year, but I’d have to do until the government either abandoned their hard line on alien crime or upped our budget. I sighed. “Hold on, I think he’s new to my caseload.” I pulled one of the manila folders from the middle of the stack and two more slid from the top. “Are you talking about the inmate from A-80 named Leon?”
“I think that’s him. They choose the stupidest earth names.”
I wondered what he’d choose for a name if he ended up being booked on Planet A-80. Their language sounded like breaking glass. “I’ll talk to him, send him my way.”
Twenty minutes later a vaguely human shaped blue blob named Leon sat handcuffed on the other side of my desk. The harsh florescent lighting bounced pleasantly off the flecks of silver in his skin. It looked like crushed diamonds floating on a glacier fed lake.
Leon had all the parts of a person; legs, arms, torso and head. But the proportions weren’t human and his skin never quite sat still. It reminded me of blue Jell-O in a clear plastic bag. Leon could take any shape he chose, and I appreciated that he remained sort of person shaped for our meeting. And I was glad he had eyes, even if they were more goat than human. Dealing with eyeless creatures was unnerving.
“Hey, Counselor Johnson. What’s happening?” He didn’t have a mouth to move, but the sound came from a set of mechanical vocal chords barely visible in the viscous near his throat. They were doing amazing things with voice box surgery those days.
I tried to maintain eye contact. “You can call me Sydney. What’s this I hear about you threatening to hurt yourself?”
He looked to the ceiling. Maybe he was silently seeking divine intervention, or maybe he was looking toward home. “I’d rather be dead then starving in this hellhole. The gray walls are killing me.”
I looked at him over the tops of my glasses. “I know for a fact you’re receiving three meals a day.”
Leon sat up straighter in his chair. “Yeah, but they are feeding me legal textbooks and equipment manuals!”
I subtly skimmed the planet brief on top of his file. “It is our understanding that individuals from your planet consume information for sustenance.”
He shook his head and I couldn’t help but watch the blue waves travel down his body. “No, that’s a common misconception. We feed on creativity. More specifically spent creative energy.”
It took me a minute to comprehend the difference. I opened the top drawer of my desk and took out a book of poems left behind by the last occupant. I held it up so that he could see the stylized waves on the front cover. “So, something more like this, then?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “May I?” He lifted his bound hands toward the book.
“Be my guest.”
Leon plucked the book from my hand and ran his stubby blue fingers across the cover. He opened to the first page and brought the book to his face. A full three minutes of slurping and contented sighing followed.
“Thanks, I really needed that,” he said as he returned the poems to my side of the desk. I half expected the words to have been ripped from the page, but they were still in their neat little rows.
Leon leaned back in his chair and made a sound halfway between a hiccup and a burp. “Excuse me,” he said with a giggle. His eyes closed and dreamy smile spread a tiny bit too wide across his face.
“Are you okay?” I asked. He looked kind of drunk. I really didn’t need a suddenly drunk inmate stumbling out of my office.
The sound of cracking knuckles filled the space as Leon’s arms re-absorbed into his torso. The handcuffs tumbled to the floor and landed on the carpet with a soft thud. It was like watching a spill happen in reverse. I looked from the handcuffs to the freshly unrestrained, armless extraterrestrial.
His chest vibrated and arms shot out once again. Leon tilted his small head. “Oh, woops. I can put those back on if you want,” he said and gestured toward the restraints.
“Please, it’s just that protocol requires you to be cuffed.”
He nodded and nearly fell out of his chair retrieving the handcuffs. It took him three tries to get them secured around his wrists.
“I have to ask, if it so easy to evade our restraints, then why did you allow yourself to be arrested in the first place?” We’d never had a creature from A-80. It was notoriously difficult to get something that could transform into a fast moving puddle into the back of a police car.
“I like the law system you guys have set up here. You live in this world of limited resources, but you’ve created this whole system to make sure they are as peacefully and evenly distributed as possible.”
I leaned forward. “So you allowed yourself to be arrested because you respect human law?” I’d been counseling at California’s only exclusively extraterrestrial prison for four years and the creatures were overwhelmingly arrogant when it came to our criminal justice system.
Leon’s eyes flicked down to where his feet dangled a few inches from the carpet. “No, I got arrested because I’m old and slow. But I do. Respect human law, I mean.”
“How old?” We weren’t supposed to ask, if only because the answers usually prompted existential crises in the staff. It is difficult to sit across a desk from something that was already old when the pyramids were new.
“Old enough that my little stunt in the elementary school should have been my last meal. I must have miscalculated, but I’ll be dead sometime in the next day or so. You might want to warn the janitors.”
Shock was a common part of this job. I dealt with creatures that came in far more varied shapes and colors than earth provided. Even so, Leon’s nonchalant mention of his own demise made my gut tighten. “You think you’re going to die in here?”
He nodded. “I know I will. It’s why I was making such a fuss about the meals. I really don’t want some dry legal textbook to be the last thing I absorb.”
“And that’s why you broke into the elementary school?”
“Yeah, I was headed toward the library. You know my kind is banned from libraries? I’ve never been in one. But I got distracted by the kindergarten finger paintings.” He closed his eyes and if he’d been human I think he would have licked his lips. “Those little guys have an entire universe worth of pure creativity. It’s completely unrestrained and delicious.” He opened his eyes and they were glazed over with wonder. “I’ve bounced all around multiple universes, but I have to say I like humans the best. Wish I’d gotten here sooner.” Regret weighed down his voice and I felt an answering lump form in my own throat.
I straightened my suit jacket and cleared my throat. We weren’t supposed to get emotionally attached. “Well, my usual role is to help inmates return smoothly to earth life, or alternatively to help them secure passage back home. You claim that neither will be necessary. I can talk to your public defender about securing a compassionate early release, but it will take days. In the meantime, I’ll see if we can scare up something a little meatier for you to absorb.”
Leon stared at me for long enough that I got uncomfortable. “You know, your planet has a bad reputation for being violent, but I’ve never met more empathetic creatures.”
The day progressed quickly after Leon left. I had only two more appointments and thankfully both were standard meetings. The first was arrested while vacationing on earth and didn’t realize that eating wildflowers would cause hallucinations. He seemed more embarrassed than anything. The other was his planet’s equivalent of a runaway teenager and we were sending him home on the next commuter ship.
I didn’t usually pass through the cells on my way out, but I wanted to check on Leon. I’d asked the officer in charge to grab him something from the library. I even suggested a few of my favorite titles. Officer Pernel had only nodded and gone back to his crossword. It didn’t bode well for Leon’s appetite.
I tried to walk along the red line running directly down the middle of the pathway. It was meant to keep visitors at least an arm’s length away from anything in the metal cages. I knew the prison architects hadn’t been able to anticipate the reaches of some of these creatures, and so I continuously scanned the cells. A high pitched whistle from the shadows to my right made me jump.
I finally found Leon sitting on the floor near his cot. A manual for the coffee maker sat on a metal tray a few feet away. “Did they not get you the books I requested?”
Leon’s head jerked up and made his entire body jiggle. “Sydney, you startled me.” He glanced toward the tray. “Unless you requested another manual, then no. But it’s fine, really.”
“It’s not fine, Leon.”
There should have been a guard sitting at the small wooden desk as the beginning of the hallway, but it was empty. “Excuse me?” I called. My voice ricocheted off the cement walls and bounced down the hall. “This is Counselor Johnson and I need some assistance,” I called again, louder this time.
Pernel rounded the corner, still wiping his freshly washed hands on his uniform pants. “Sydney, what can I do for you?”
I pointed toward Leon’s tray. “I thought we agreed to get him something from the library.”
Officer Pernel followed my finger and rolled his eyes. “We didn’t agree to anything. I fed him according to protocol.”
I lowered my voice. “Look, he’s dying. Those manuals are like having dry toast for your final meal. Can’t we skirt protocol just a little?”
He sighed. “This is why women shouldn’t work in prisons.” He waved his hand near his chest. “You get all emotional. Protocol is protocol.”
Leon stood and moved quickly enough that he glided rather than stepped. “Being compassionate is not a gender specific attribute. And being an unfeeling bastard makes you worse at your job!” he yelled through the bars.
Pernel stood, looking between us. “Harring said you were frigid, but I never guessed it was because you were an alien lover.” He shook his head in disgust and walked back to his desk.
I stood trying to breathe through the intense anger surging through my chest. Leon reached through the bars and a little bit of his torso disappeared as he made his arm longer. He put a surprisingly warm hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently.
I slammed my purse on the dirty cement floor near my feet. I flicked my eyes between Leon and my open purse, just hoping that he understood my intention. He tilted his small head like a confused dog, but gave me a very small nod.
I left the purse leaning against his cell bars and stalked toward Pernel. “You are a sexist behemoth and I intend to file a harassment complaint against you.” I positioned my body between the guard and Leon’s cell so that he couldn’t see past the angry set of my shoulders.
It wouldn’t have mattered since he didn’t even look up from his newspaper. “You do that sweetheart.”
A frustrated growl slipped past my lips and I turned back toward Leon’s cell. I retrieved my now heavier purse and walked quickly out of the prison. Hopefully the cameras would think it was anger rather than fear that fueled my steps.
I waited until we were three blocks from the prison before I said anything. “You’re in there, right?”
“I’m here,” my purse answered in Leon’s voice. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. Isn’t this going to get you fired or put in prison or something?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But then it would become public that they can’t really keep inmates from A-80 contained properly. Paperwork in extraterrestrial prisons tends to get lost when it doesn’t reflect well on those in charge.” I tried to convince myself as much as Leon. “Plus, what do they have evidence of? You climbing in my purse when I was dozens of feet away with my back turned.”
I eased into a parking spot and killed my car’s engine. “Just be quiet for a few minutes, okay?”
A small blue hand appeared above the zipper and gave me a thumbs-up.
I hoped I didn’t jostle Leon too much as I walked. The front doors were partly obscured by a sign that read, “No Food or Drink”. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“We close in five minutes,” the librarian told me as I moved past her desk.
I smiled and adjusted my purse. “I’m just dropping something off.”
“Leon’s Last Meal” © Shayna Coplan
Shayna Coplan is a middle school history and creative writing teacher in southern California. She spends most of her waking hours gleefully outnumbered by adolescents, and uses the accompanying insanity to fuel her fiction. You can experience some of the madness at Twitter.com/CoplanShayna
Digital illustration © Omnia