She tilted her face to the sky, felt the day’s warmth on her cheeks. She knew the van was waiting for her—it would take her to the nearest bus station—but she couldn’t seem to make herself move. It felt amazingly good to just stand here, with no bars or razor wire defining her space and no women getting in her face. No—
Scot Jacobs walked up to her, smiling. He was older—his hair was short now, conservative looking, and he wore glasses—but other than that, he looked the same. He might even be wearing the same suit. “I wanted someone to be waiting for you.”
She didn’t know how to process the gratitude she felt. After so many years of bottling emotions, it wasn’t easy to open them. “Thank you.”
He stared at her for a moment, and she stared back, then he said, “Well, let’s go,” and started walking toward his car.
She automatically fell into step behind him.
He stopped, waited for her to catch up.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. She wasn’t a prisoner anymore. “Old habits, I guess.”
This time she walked next to him to the blue minivan parked in the lot.
“Don’t mind the junk in the car,” he said, opening the passenger door. “It’s my wife’s car, and she says she never knows what she’s going to need, so she never takes anything out.”
Lexi climbed up into the passenger seat and stared at the imposing gray of the prison.
She snapped her seatbelt into place. “It’s really nice of you to pick me up, Mr. Jacobs.”
“Call me Scot. Please,” he said, pulling out onto the road and away from the prison.
She opened the window and stuck her head out, breathing in the sweet, clean air. The landscape was exactly as she remembered: towering trees, summer blue sky, distant mountains. Out here, life had gone on without her.
“I was sure bummed to hear they added time on to your sentence for bad behavior. I expected to pick you up a while ago.”
“Yeah. Well. 2005 was a bad year. After I lost Gracie…” She couldn’t even finish the sentence. All of that was behind her now, anyway.
“You’re better now?”
“As good as an ex-con can be. I don’t do drugs or drink, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I hear you got your degree. Your aunt was so proud.”
“Sociology,” Lexi said, turning her head to stare out the window.
“Still dreaming of law school?”
“You’re still young, Lexi,” he said.
“So I hear.” She leaned more deeply into the comfortable seat, watching the miles fly past. Soon, they were in Port George, driving through the Native-owned land, past the fireworks stands that lined the road in early summer. And then they were on the bridge, crossing over Shallow Pass.
Welcome to Pine Island, pop. 7,120.
She felt her chest tighten. There was the entrance to LaRiviere Park … the high school … Night Road. By the time Scot pulled up in front of his office, Lexi’s jaw ached.
“Are you okay?” Scot asked, opening her door.
Get out, Lexi. Smile. If there’s one thing you know how to do now, it’s fake a smile.
She managed it. “Thanks, Scot.”
He handed her one hundred dollars. “This is from your aunt. And here’s a bus ticket to Pompano Beach. The bus leaves tomorrow afternoon at 3:30.”
How was she supposed to keep her distance when she was here, at the scene of her crime and the only place that had ever felt like home?
“Jenny invited you to spend the night and have dinner with us if you’d like,” Scot said.
“No.” She said it too quickly and realized her mistake. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just that I haven’t been around people for a long time. Two thousand one hundred forty-four and a half days.” She smiled tiredly and looked around, anxious to be on her own.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Scot said.
Lexi wanted to shake her head, maybe even say hell, no, but she just stood there.
“She lives with her dad in the old Tamarind cabin on Cove Road. I see her every now and then in town with her dad.”
Lexi didn’t react. In prison, she’d learned to hide everything, especially pain. “Does she look happy?”
“She looks healthy.”
Lexi nodded. “That’s good. Well, Scot—”
“We could fight for her, Lexi. Partial custody or at least visitation rights.”
Lexi remembered “visitations” with her mom: the two of them in a room while a social worker looked on. What Lexi remembered about those rare days was how scared she was of the woman who’d borne her. “I’m a twenty-four-year-old ex-con whose last real job was part-time at an ice cream shop. I have no place to live, and I doubt like hell I’ll be hired at any decent job. But I should swoop in and see my daughter, wedge myself into the Farraday family again, and bring up all that pain … so that I can feel happier. Is that it?”
“I won’t be like my mother. I won’t make any decision that isn’t in my daughter’s best interest. That’s why I’m going to Florida tomorrow. Grace deserves better than me, and if I’m around she’ll love me anyway. That’s what kids do: they love loser parents, and it breaks their hearts.”
“You’re not a loser. And what’s wrong with her loving you?”
Scot pursed his lips. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a set of keys and extracted one. “This is the key to my office. There’s a sofa bed in the conference room and a bike by the front door. The combination is 1321. We closed up early today, so the place is all yours.”
She took the key and pocketed it. “Thank you, Scot.”
“No problem. I believe in you, Lexi.”
She should have walked away then, said nothing more. That was what she meant to do; instead, she found herself looking up at him, saying, “Did Zach get married?”
“No. He’s still in school, I think. No wife. He lived with his parents for a few years and then moved into that cabin on the cove.”
“He never wrote?”
“A few times. I sent all the letters back unopened.”
“Oh, Lexi,” Scot said, sighing. “Why?”
She crossed her arms, trying not to remember the feel of those letters in her fingers, the sight of them on the rough gray wool of her blanket. But she’d been so angry then, so wounded. She’d acted out in all kinds of terrible ways. By the time she was past all of that, stronger, it was too late. He never wrote again, and she hadn’t had the courage to write to him.
“I should have taken your advice,” Lexi finally said, unable to look at Scot as she said it.
“Well. Thanks again. I think I’ll go for a bike ride. It’s a beautiful day.”
Scot went over to the front door of his office, got the bike, and guided it back to her.
She wanted to tell him how much it had meant to her, his being there today. For years she’d prepared to be all alone when she got out of prison, and she saw now how painful that would have been.
“You’re welcome,” he said quietly.
She nodded one last time and took the bike from him and rode away.
Soon she was smiling in spite of herself. It felt so good to be free, to turn when she felt like it and go where she wanted. She would never take this for granted.
She spun by the theater—saw that they’d added on to it—and the bank and the beauty salon where Aunt Eva had gotten her hair cut. There, she saw a pay phone. After a quick signal, she turned into the parking lot and called Eva, collect.
There was no answer.
Disappointed, she climbed back onto the bike and started pedaling.
The ice cream shop was still there; beside it was a new coffee shop and a computer repair place.
When she came to the high school, she slowed down. A big new gymnasium dominated the campus. It looked nothing like she remembered, except that the flagpole was still there and that was enough.
Meet me at the flagpole, by the admin building …
She pedaled harder, down the bumpy asphalt road and up Raspberry Hill. Out here, there were occasional dirt roads and the odd mailbox, but mostly it was uninhabited. Sunset was nearing, and the sky was a deep midnight color, and before she knew it she was on Night Road. She hadn’t even meant to turn here.
But here she was, at the hairpin turn. The skid marks were long gone, but the broken tree remained, its pinkish flesh almost black now. Dying.
She came to a stop and half stumbled off the bike, hearing it clatter to the pavement behind her. On either side of her, trees blocked out the sun.
The memorial to Mia was tattered now, only visible if you knew what to look for. The small white cross had been grayed by the changing seasons and stood drunkenly to the left. Here and there empty vases lay in the bushes. An old, airless balloon hung limply on a high branch.
She released her breath in a long, shaky sigh.
In prison, she’d spent years in group therapy, talking about the pain, the remorse. Her counselor had told her often that time and hard work would heal her. That she would be whole when she could forgive herself.
Even if she could forgive herself, which was inconceivable, it wouldn’t bring Mia back. That was what all those positive thinkers didn’t get: some things could never be made right. If Lexi became Mother Teresa, Mia would still be dead and it would still be Lexi’s fault. It had been six years, and still Lexi prayed to Mia every night. Every morning she woke to a split second of joy and then the pulverizing reality. It was that sense of loss that had caused her to turn to Valium for a few years, but ultimately she’d discovered that you could run from your pain, but you couldn’t hide. It was something she should have known already, a lesson she should have learned from her mother. When she realized the ugly truth—that she was becoming her mother—she quit taking the Valium. She was so clean now she hardly even took aspirin. The only real answer lay in the courage to see a thing clearly and try to do better. Be better.
She knelt there a long time, on the cold, hard roadside, knowing it was dangerous to be stopped on this curve and not caring. If anyone saw her here …
Finally, she got back on the bike and started to ride. She almost sped right past the Farraday house, but at the last minute she stopped. Even in the falling darkness, she could see how different the place looked. The garden was untended, the planter boxes were empty.
She saw the mailbox: their name was still on it.
When a pair of headlights shone at her, she jumped on the bike and rode away. From a safe distance, she watched a silver Porsche turn into the driveway behind her.
Sighing, she rode back into town and bought dinner at a fast-food place. At Scot’s office, she locked up the bike and went inside through the back door. In the conference room, she found a red floral sofa bed with a neat pile of white sheets set on the cushion. Beside the sheets lay a manila envelope.