Satisfied that I had everything under control ― my job and Mike Beck, my parole officer, I cleared a section of scaffolds midfield. With a little heaving and piling, I constructed a platform that kept me above the muddy ground. It was lunchtime. It was my time. Surrounded and encased by rickety towers and muddy byways, I thought it unlikely that I would be pestered with questions. If I closed my eyes and listened hard, a Zen-like quality suffused the air. Stoked with excitement that arrived whenever I began a new project, I summoned to mind my research on northern Britannia’s earliest inhabitants ― Celts, Pictish tribes, and early Highlanders ― progenitors of a country that would be known as Scotland in another thousand years, and Rome’s earliest attempts at colonialism. I cracked my finger knuckles and began to type the opening paragraphs. Silence reigned. Soon, I felt myself slip into the writer’s zone.
* * * * * * *
“What are you writing?”
Four fingers, fingernails gnawed to the bloody quick, tilted my laptop screen for better viewing.
“Do you fucking mind!” Deep blue eyes bordered by freshly plucked eyebrows, a diminutive nose, perched above a generous mouth, greeted my annoyed inquiry. “Oh, it’s you,” I told the sunset secretary. “What do you want?”
Unthinkingly, I ran fingers through my hair, caught myself preening, and let my hair fall back. Despite the irritation, I happily lamented the way the wind stirred the ringlets framing her temples, the fresh, clean soapy scent filling my senses until I caught myself admiring her, a luxury I could not allow myself. Feelings of invasion, like when prison guards arrived at my cell to conduct a surprise frisk, rose unbidden within me.
“You never answered my question.”
“Come back tomorrow when the information counter opens,” I told her, deciding that I wanted solitude and that being an asshole would serve me well. Regret and doubt tried to influence my stance and failed.
“That’s rude. Are you writing a book?”
Unperturbed by my rudeness, she craned her neck to read more.
“I have a few other trite phrases and worn-out gestures if you want to stick around.”
Just in case she required additional hints, I gave her the thousand-yard stare, too far down the road to turn around. We did not work together. We would never be friends. Contact between us had no useful function. Privacy was my one request and she had violated it. That thousand-yard stare bounced off her reasonable eyes.
“Are you always so warm and personable?”
“Normally I’m far more engaging. You caught me on a good day.”
A spark of blue fire flared in her eyes. “Lucky for me that you wallowed on a pinhead of humanity by those scaffolds. You never answered my question.”
“Lady is the name of a dog!” Her voice contained a blend of indignity and reprimand. “Would it kill you to be polite?”
“Fine. At the risk of offending you further, would I have secluded myself if I wanted to be interrogated?”
Freckles adorning her cheeks darkened as blood flowed. Her blue eyes darkened and narrowed. Three heartbeats later, her scrunched up expression smoothed. Beneath my cold gaze, I puzzled over how she had located my nook. Unearthed by someone wearing a lavender silk blouse buttoned to the throat, an ankle-length skirt and leather shoes with low square heels. Except for the mess of freckles decking her high cheekbones, topped by dark and sleepless bags beneath weary eyes, her pallor showed drab and pasty.
“Is it a secret?” she persisted, boldly opening my laptop, then thumbing the page-up key. “Six-foot isn’t that tall. Why’d you write it’s an exceptional height?” She looked at me as though she relished verbal warfare. “That’s a little shorter than you, right? Is he your alter ego?”
As I slid off the seat, I unintentionally discovered myself appreciating how her waist transitioned into hips.
“Perhaps I’ve been unclear. Go ask your secretary friends about me. They’ll tell you that I’m not the chitchat type. Once you’ve heard what they have to say, you’ll decide to be anywhere else but here.”
“I work with our office personnel, but I would not classify any as a close friend. I’m converting it and our accounting department to fully electronic.” Jocular eyes mocked me when she said, “Daddy owns Hidden Oaks. I’m Odera, his daughter.” Lilting laughter rolled out of her. “Well, of course, I’m his daughter if Daddy, my father that is, owns the place. I know you’re on parole. I’ve been watching for you, trying to thank you properly for the other day. You left so fast. That was quick thinking. Scared the beJesus out of me, though, when you grabbed me.”
At several points, I almost spoke, but Odera’s words kept pouring out. Struggling to keep her speech afloat, it felt as though she expelled an ocean of willpower to speak her thoughts, battled a nervous riptide that tore up her timing. Almost as though she read cue cards placed in the wrong order. While those jumbled words tumbled out, they granted opportunity to study her.
Under her exterior lurked flashes of sadness garnished with despair. Not in any single expression, but they existed, hiding behind her public mask. Although she smiled genuinely, those smiles were short-lived. Between jerky sentences, nestled within microcosms of pauses, sombreness reigned. Upon closer inspection, everything about her appeared washed out and worn down. Only her upscale clothes saved her from looking scrumpy. One symptom meant little in isolation, but the entire portrait hinted at a cheerless tale. When Odera’s words faltered, when her sorrow overflowed, she dammed her gloomy companion behind a pretend-normal façade. Well did I recognize those subtle clues, for I had greeted that face day after day when I stared into my stainless-steel prison mirror, felt my dreams fizzle and die, and my spirit sag. Now my mirror was glass.
“Mike Beck told me a little about…when he stopped by. He said…he probably shouldn’t disclose too much, but you were honest with Daddy…so he wouldn’t be saying anything that…anything we didn’t already know. Said you killed a man and hurt another, but the circumstances, um, you know…you did not have to cripple...”
“Do you ever take a breath?”
The fact that I recognized misery did not mean I empathized. Empathy had become a grave thought in my world. In another life...at another time. Under different circumstances…were it not for parole…but not now — not here and not her.
“Can we go off the record?” She nodded. “Lunchtime is my time. You seem friendly but I’m not looking for friends. You don’t owe me Jack Squat. Don’t take this personally but pick a trail and then take a hike!”
As the last word rolled out, I snapped my laptop shut and walked into the byway between the steel towers, choosing the muddiest route. Outfitted in leather shoes, she dared not follow. In prison, my words would have provoked violence, in the military, insubordination. Out here, I hoped to achieve isolation. Automatically, I shunned people. Before I took three steps, I felt that truth. I disliked the person I let prison turn me into, disliked Odera for reminding me, and disliked myself for being rude to a nice person who meant no harm. Shadows of regret taunted me. I battled an urge to turn back and to apologize, to rewind our conversation. Again, I had nourished prison’s beast ― anger and hate. For twelve years I had fed the beast portions of my humanity to survive the cement and steel leviathan. Out of habit, I welcomed the beast onto my emotional wasteland. In many ways, I was stuck in survivor mode, as though I had never left prison where I yet dwelled apart from others.
Regret faded. Anger and hate endured.
“It’s rude to leave without finishing our conversation!”
“Just as rude as you interrupting my writing.”
“I tried to be polite,” she shouted.
“Said the bank robber to the judge,” I fired in Parthian retreat.
“Dad has a task for you. Tomorrow morning; at eleven o’clock. In the old trailer. Did you hear me?”
“Fine. I heard you.”
“Don’t be late.”
“Good!” Under her breath, she said, “Oooh! Obnoxious asshole. I’d like to kick the junk right off him.”Odera stood in the middle of the row, at the head of the byway, on the lip of the muddy mouth that prevented her from entering. Fists clenched at her sides, she stared throwing daggers at Bruce Alexander Garland’s broad back, distaining his purposeful stride, scorning his confident arm swing, fuming at his arrogance, firmly rebuffed. Torrents of frustration stormed across her visage, electrifying her nerves, shattering the modicum of serenity that she struggled mightily to sustain since beginning trauma therapy. No amount of antidepressants or therapeutic sessions had reduced the weight of the sadness she bore, but she was learning to manage an aborted life. In another lifetime she had been married and happy and had lived a carefree existence.