My breath was ragged in my throat, pain laced across my back and neck and I couldn't see straight. My vision swam as I fought for breath. I gulped in fresh air and lay there, so exhausted I couldn't move. There was nothing I could do, for a while at least. Maybe I could get strength enough to move...
My thoughts wondered to her, and where this had all started. Where everything had changed...
She was fragile; tears made of dewed crystal, ready to fall at any moment. I couldn't touch her. He had done that. I didn't know if she wanted me to. I ached to touch her, to bury her tears in my shoulder and make her smile again. Her eyes were broken, shattered in pain and loss of innocent, a betrayal of trust I could never heal. I watched her shoulders shake with something I couldn't stop. Her grief; her sickened, betrayed soul.
Mary sat in front of me, fifteen years old. I was her best friend. Her only true friend. Her others dumped her in an instant the second she needed them. Because "she needed her privacy." I hated them for that. We sat by the river we'd both played in as children. Her tears didn't stop, and I couldn't halt them. There was pain and anger etched in the stone of my face, but when Mary looked up, I held only concern for her.
For as long as we could remember, I was her Knight in shining armour. When the boys picked on her, I'd make them stop, when she couldn't stand it at home any more, I was always able to sway mum to let it slide and provide a pillow. I was in love with her, always had been. I felt wretched and wrenched between hatred, anger, anguish and sorrow. My guts ached with clenching them in. Mary's head rose, and her reddened cheek shined in the waning sunlight. I looked away, and she stared at me. I felt my rage building, but buried it. I needed to be strong for Mare.
"It was like he didn't even consider it to be wrong. He's my father, for god's sake. He's not supposed... n-not supp-pposed to..." I shushed her as her lips trembled, and I wanted to hit something. I reached out without thinking, and she flinched. I felt it like a knife slamming into my gut. I had frightened her. I shut my eyes and let my hands drop. There was silence for a moment, and I stood up. "You can stay with us. Its settled." I opened my eyes, but Mary was still on the ground, her rich auburn hair shining like vibrant red gold in the last flickers of sunlight.
The intense flicker of the sunlight off the dancing wavelets of the river shone in a brief sparkle of brilliance before they faded. As the darkness began to fall, Mary shivered. I shook my shoulders out of my jacket, and draped it over her shoulders. Her cheek lowered and she sighed. She reached a hand up to let me help her up, and I pulled her up towards me. I could feel her hand trembling, and I let go as soon as she was on her feet. I felt the darkness building in me, and I smiled weakly at her. We walked slowly back up the trail towards my house.
There was a slight, warm breeze, calming me with the scent of the sun-warmed river. I felt her pull away from me, an emaciated kid with bony, oversized hands and dark brown hair that kept falling across gray eyes almost constantly unless held under a cap. I terrified her, and her father had done it. He'd taken away even what comfort I could give her. I felt useless, completely without aid for my friend in her darkest moments.
We walked without speaking or touching, feeling the evening lose it's warmth as the fog and mist began to descend. Mum met us at the door, a warm smile and a hug for Mary. Mary broke down again, and began to cry. I felt myself ache for her, and my face screwed up. I turned back without a word, and left. I began to jog, moving down off the road, and further away. I heard the thunder, but didn't pay any attention to it. The fog began to move away, and the stars blinked out as thunderheads rolled in like harbingers of doom.
I was outside of Mary's place before I realised what I was doing. The rain began to come down, softly at first. I lifted my head up, feeling the cold drops cascade over me. Calmness began, finally, to seep inside me, as though the rain, drop by drop, was washing away my anger. I heard faint popping sounds, the metal rattle of tin cans being pelted with stones or something. There was a sudden curse, and then silence for a moment.
I heard a familiar dry squeal of metal as the old, rusted hinges on Mary's screen door swung wide. I heard heavy footsteps and could almost see the steps of the one person in the world I actually hated. There was a grunt of surprise, like something a man says when he sees something he isn't expecting.
"Where's the cunt? Little bitch always brings the pipsqueak as her bodyguard." There was a meaty heave and weaze as Mary's father laughed at his own hilarity, and I opened my eyes. There was another grunt of surprise, like the kind an animal makes when it's instinct warns of danger suddenly. I shook my head at him and felt my hands begin to shake.
He shook his head, I don't even remember his face. I can never remember his face. I hit him. Once. As hard as I could. He fell back a few steps, clutching at his throat. I remember the rage on his face. The pure hatred. That I should so dare to strike him. There was a thick, greasy grin on his face as he coughed and reached around behind him. The gun was huge, I've no idea what sort it was, some sort of revolver with bullets the size of Ohio.
I felt the bullet hit my shoulder, but I didn't feel anything else. There was no pain, no nothing. I looked down, at the blood beginning to stain my shirt. I looked back up in time to see the but of the gun smash into my eye socket. Blindness followed, but still no pain. My hands moved forwards, fighting for a hold on the gun. I just watched, detached from it all, as I slammed my hand into his elbow, smashing it out of it's socket.
The gun dropped to the floor, and I blinked away the blood that was clouding me. Mary's father was on his knees, his face going blue as I choked him. My hand was wrapped around his throat, choking him as he gasped for breath. I heard sirens in the distance, and someone screaming, a high pitch, like a small animal's. It was Mary's father, gibbering in fear as his pants soiled in his terror. I blinked as the blood came into my eyes again, and I felt my soul wrenching in two as Mary's pain tore into me. I heard something, a car door, or something, and felt my own hot tears on my cheek.
Someone grabbed hold of my arm, and tried to move it, but my arm wouldn't move. I turned my head, and saw someone, a cop, shaking his head and talking strangely. He was speaking, but I couldn't understand his words. The cop was shaking his head and talking soothingly, and I smiled. I could still feel the tears on my face, and blinked as the blood eased it's pounding in my ears. I felt whatever was rushing through me slow, and felt the rain as it hit my face, easing the raw redness of my eyes with cooled drops.
I swallowed as the officer gently pulled my hands behind me, and felt Mary's father slide from my grip. My head, feeling like packed wool, tilted to the side. My voice sounded quiet to me, and I know I barely whispered. I also know he heard every word. "Don't ever let me hear you've touched her again. I'll kill you. I'll just end you. Just like that."
I barely remember the trial. Or the conviction. Eight years. My actions and obvious lack of rational thought and reactions when the police arrived convinced the judge and jury that I was not myself at the time. And the fact that half the jury members, while overwhelmed by the evidence that I had committed the act, didn't know whether they would have done something different in my place.
The first six months were hard. They were really hard. Mary's letters were the only things that I lived for. She was growing from an awkward young girl into a young woman obviously pretending that everything was fine. Her letters lost their innocent sound, I guess echoing mine. The first time I was bashed was almost two days after I went in. A group of guys who liked to dominate other guys found out why I was there, and took it as an invitation to explain to me that there were those who lived by different rules.
I tried to find that rage that Mary's father brought out in me, but it just wasn't there. Mary was safe, there was no need for it. The punches landed, but I felt nothing. I knew there was something wrong with me. I missed her. I had sacrificed everything for her. My freedom, my health. I hadn't even gotten a chance to see her. What I would have given to see her smile just once more. When I was in the infirmary, waiting to be treated, one of the old crims on janitor duty stopped by for a talk. He had heard about who and why, and wanted to meet the who.
Murderer, battery, assault, armed robbery. Oh, and jaywalking. There was the list that Franklin Marsh had stacked up on the outside. Two more accounts of assault inside, self-defence. Supposedly self-defence. He had a very philosophical view of life for a man serving a life sentence and then some. His knuckles were scarred and swollen from arthritis and years of fights. He had the optional boxer's and brawler's trademarks of the cauliflower ears and pug nose. But his eyes were clear, and his voice was calm.
And he was the first person to actually tell me he thought I had done the right thing. Not much of a recommendation, I'll grant. But he was the man inside. He was THE man inside. Once I got out of the infirmary, I met up with him in the yard. At sixty-eight, the man stood like a monolith in time, looking harder than most guys ever will. He smiled at me and I shook his hand. There was a murmur through the yard, and I wasn't touched from that day forwards. Frankie looked me up and down and there came a small smile again.
"You ever box, kid? Ever work out?" I shook my head, and he smiled that tiny little smile again. Over the next few months, well, years, I worked out. I built up some muscle. Two years into my stretch, Frankie began to teach me economics. Where the hell he'd learnt all that sort of stuff, I'll never know. I discovered a talent for writing, and began to write a very low key story about characters that change and discover things about themselves they never knew. I didn't mention prison. I wasn't in there for a stretch long enough to know about it. When I'd spent half my life at age seventy, then I'd maybe write something about prison. But change was something everyone goes through. I just put it into characters instead of myself.
I also found something strange that I never knew. In wood shop, I learnt the turning and curve of wood, it's simple moulding into something beautiful to the eye, as opposed to the soul. You look at a tree, and see the beauty of it's creation, and try to recapture that. Sales from my wood sculpting helped to keep my head above total despair when Mary's letters stopped. Not that she sent me money. She made me feel as though I could do something with myself. When her letters stopped, the only thing that made me feel as though I was worth something was the rich community clamouring for my artwork.
Frankie didn't say much, but I knew he had asked a couple of his friends to keep an eye on me. But I wasn't going to kill myself. I had to get out. Fastest and easiest way to do that was to behave myself; keep my head down. I kept going with my sculpting, and on my twenty-second birthday, I gave Frankie a present. It was a small wooden wren; a sculpting of the kind that always took his attention from whatever he was doing. Freebirds, he called them.
Frankie stared at it for a long time, and put his weathered old hand over mine. "Thank you son. Thank you." That was the last time I ever saw Frankie. Thinking he was over the hill and no longer worthy of the respect he damned well deserved, the guys who once thought me a plaything/punching bag rounded him up in the laundry room. Frankie killed six of them before copping a shiv through the back, down into a lung. He seriously injured the guy who did it, Mitchel Roberts, leader of the so-called "Bad boys". Mr Originality, that's for sure.
When Mitch got better, the whole yard knew I was walking around with a target on my back. They tried to corral me in a secluded little spot in the west quarter of the yard. Too close for the tower guards to see, and the others all had their attention focussed more on the centre of the yard. I was ready. Mitch threw the first punch, and I caught it in my open hand. There was something intensely gratifying when it stopped his momentum cold. My muscles held, and I began to squeeze.
Mitch stared in horror as the sound of his bones breaking brought attention towards us. I let go and he slumped down, holding his hand in pain. I didn't smile; I never smiled anymore. The others began to circle, and I moved around, keeping them in my sight. One tried a lunge, but met my elbow. He went down. Five left. I felt something slam into my back, and broad arms clasped in front of me around my ribs and began to squeeze as I was lifted off the ground.
I reached back over my head, kicking out wildly. I felt my foot connect with something as I fell backwards, wrenching my hands down across my shoulder and jarring someone's chin. The arms leg go and I rolled off, throwing dirt into the man's face. There was a heavy moan as someone hit the dirt, and I had time to see Mitch, his eyes wide with pain and sensation as his one good hand cupped his kicked balls.
A fist smashed into the back of my head, and I lashed a leg out as I fell, taking someone off their feet. Blood flowed freely when he hit the dirt. He didn't move, and I watched the three remaining. Mitch was laying on the ground, gasping like a wounded goldfish, and was no threat. A kick punched out from my right, and I snagged it in my left hand, bringing my elbow down across the side of the guys knee, dropping him down. I straightened as I watched the two still standing. I was settling in to a rhythm and they knew it. They backed down and ran, as whistles began to sound.
The guards began to move around us, and I held my hands onto the back of my head, and he smiled at me, laughing under his breath. I was back in my cell before I knew it. There was a piece of paper on my bed, opened mail. I rushed to it, ripped the envelope apart in my haste, then saw the official print and knew it wasn't what I hoped for. At least not what I expected. I was to appear before the parole board, for early release. Good behaviour. There was a sound at my cell door, and I turned and stood straight as the warden stepped up to the open door. There were several guards at the bars, waiting for me to grow tired of living.
"Well, Alec, your day has come at long last. I thought we could have a little talk before you left." I nodded and sat down. "If you want, sir. Have I done something wrong?" Warden Jeremy Jones was a little older than me, at forty-six. He had three kids, two daughters and a son. His wife was a former customs officer, who now ran one of the largest industrial chemical production factories in the country.
We had barely spoken to one another in my tenure, other than his murmured condolences after Frankie had died when he stopped in the hall I was cleaning. "If you'd done something wrong, son, you wouldn't be up for parole, now would you? I wanted to talk to you about something else. Two something elses, actually." I nodded and the warden began to move around my cell. It didn't take him long.
"You've barely made a ripple since you came here with us. That's good, the kind of personage we need to see more of. Rationality wise, of course. Technically, I'm sure we could all say we'd rather be out of our jobs. But that's really ideological bullshit. Now son, you could have killed those idiots very easily. I've seen you training down there with Frankie, God rest his soul, and you have become dangerous. This is what troubles me. You've turned into a fighter in here, Kane." He frowned.
"Alec. Look. Outside, you were Alec Kane, barely out of school runt with a protective streak who snapped. Inside, you've really grown. But you've more of a chance to do something now. You're educated, thanks to our schooling, you're dangerous, thanks to Frankie's. And you're violent, thanks to the other incarcerates. What will you be outside? You can speak freely now, Alec, just tell me."
I thought about it for a while, then cleared my throat. "I've learnt a lot here sir, that's true," I answered slowly. "But the main thing I'll take with me is something Frankie taught me, that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And it's the deciding of that choice that makes free men into jailed wrecks. I could have killed them, you're right. But Frankie knew the difference, and despite the fact they may have deserved it; and may even try again on someone else or me if I don't get paroled, well, despite all that, Frankie knew the difference. And so do I."
Warden Jones held out his hand and in it was a letter, an unopened letter. Mary's handwriting was on the front. I looked at him, and knew he had broken a strict rule for me, and I lowered my head to him in thanks. I took the letter slowly, and held it for a moment. It smelt of her, that scent I'd known so long ago, and I felt my eyes grow hot and prickly. Warden Jones smiled a small smile, almost Frankie's smile, and I sat down and heard the door shut behind me.
I opened her letter with trembling fingers and took a deep breath. It was handwritten, and her flowing writing told me everything and nothing I wanted to hear.
"I don't know if you're alive or dead. You never wrote to me, not once, and I still don't know why. I don't know if you read these. You went to hell for me, and all I've ever done is write you letters for it. I miss you, and us. I know you've only ever wanted to protect me, and that by not writing back, you might think you're protecting me from hearing about the horrors of prison or something. You probably don't know that you're putting me through horrors out here, too.
I don't know if you're reading this, or if its sitting in the bin, or if you're just a name in a book that they see and throw the mail away. I miss my friend so much. I was stumbling through the dark, and there you were, my shining light. I loved you so much then, Alec. I wanted you to hold me and kiss me and tell me everything was going to be okay. And now, I can't do it for you. I guess I wish we'd had more time, and that you should know everything.
My father is dead. He had a massive heart attack last year after mum left him. She left him after she found out what he'd done to me, and what he'd done to you. He drank himself to death, and I went to his funeral. I miss the man he could have, should have been. I'm not even angry anymore. I'll never forgive him, but it doesn't matter so much anymore. He made me strong, strong enough to hate him after he took you away from me.
No, that's wrong. You made me strong. I've been waiting for you for all these years, and you haven't come back to me. I got a new joy, working in a nightclub in the city, called Nhyte. I've got a bar apprenticeship going there with the lady in charge, Lauren. She's really nice, and her brother's nice too, he's in charge of the security staff. He left to go overseas a little while ago, and now that he's back, he's looking to hire some new people. There's another guy here that's asked me out, and I'm gonna say yes.
You made me strong, you made me cry, you made me everything I am, and now you're not here. Or I'm not important to you anymore. It's ok, people change, and God knows you're in a place I could never be strong enough for. I loved you so much, Alec, I just want you to be happy. Ok? And if you DO read this, then please believe me, I'm going to be okay. Thanks to you.