Authors: Chevy Stevens
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Contemporary Women
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For all the people around the world who dedicate their lives to helping animals, whether it be working in shelters, volunteering, forming rescue groups, or fostering animals in need. Thank you.
I followed the escorting officer over to Admissions and Discharge, carrying my belongings in a cardboard box—a couple pairs of jeans, some worn-out T-shirts, the few things I’d gathered over the years, some treasured books, my CD player. The rest, anything I had in storage, would be waiting for me. The release officer went through the round of documents. My hand shook as I signed the discharge papers, the words blurred. But I knew what they meant.
“Okay, Murphy, let’s go through your personals.” The guards never called you by your first name on the inside. It was always a nickname or your last name.
He emptied out a box of the items I’d come into the prison with. His voice droned as he listed them off, making notes on his clipboard. I stared at the dress pants, white blouse, and blazer. I’d picked them out so carefully for court, had thought they’d make me feel strong. Now I couldn’t stand the sight of them.
The officer’s hand rested for a moment on the pair of my underwear.
“One pair of white briefs, size small.”
He looked down at the briefs, checked the tag, his fingers lingering on the fabric. My face flushed. His eyes flicked to mine, gauging my reaction. Waiting for me to screw up so he could send me back inside. I kept my expression neutral.
He opened an envelope, glanced inside, then checked his clipboard before dumping the envelope’s contents into my palm. The silver-faced watch my parents had given me on my eighteenth birthday, still shiny, the battery dead. The necklace Ryan had given me, the black onyx cool to the touch. Part of the leather cord had worn smooth from my wearing it every day. I stared at it, felt its weight in my hand, remembering, then closed my fingers around it, tucking it securely back in the envelope. It was the only thing I had left of him.
“Looks like that’s it.” He held out a pen. “Sign here.”
I signed the last of the documents, put the belongings into my box.
“You got anything to dress out in?” the officer said.
“Just these.” The officer’s eyes flicked over my jeans and T-shirt. Some inmates’ families send clothes for them to wear on their release day. But no one had sent me anything.
“You can wait in the booking room until your ride gets here. There’s a phone if you need to call anyone.”
* * *
I sat on one of the benches, boxes by my feet, waiting for the volunteer, Linda, to pick me up. She’d be driving me to the ferry and over to Vancouver Island. I had to check into the halfway house in Victoria by seventeen hundred hours. Linda was a nice lady, in her forties, who worked with one of the advocacy groups. I’d met her before, when she’d taken me to the island for my unescorted temporary absences.
I was hungry—I’d been too excited to eat that morning. Margaret, one of my friends inside, had tried to get me to choke something down, but the oatmeal sat like a lump in my stomach. I wondered if Linda could stop somewhere. I imagined a Big Mac and fries, hot and salty, maybe a milkshake, then thought of Ryan again, how we used to take burgers to the beach. To distract myself from the memory, I watched an officer bring in a new inmate. A young girl. She looked scared, pale, her brown hair long and messy, like she’d been up all night. She glanced at me, her eyes drifting from my hair, down to the tattoos around my upper arm. I got them in the joint—a thin tribal bar for each year behind bars, forming one thicker, unbroken band that circled my right biceps, embracing me.
The officer yanked the girl’s arm, pulled her to Booking.
I rubbed my hands across the top of my head. My hair was short now, the middle spiked up in a faux-Mohawk, but it was still black. I closed my eyes, remembered how it was in high school. Feathered and long, falling to the middle of my back. Ryan liked to wrap his hands in it. I’d cut it in prison after I looked in the mirror one day and saw Nicole’s hair, thick with blood, and remembered holding her broken body in my arms after we found her that night.
“You ready to get out of here, Toni?” A friendly female voice.
I opened my eyes and looked up at Linda. “Can’t wait.”
She bent down and picked up one of my boxes, grunting a little as she lifted it. Linda was a small woman, not much taller than me. I was just a shorty at five feet—Margaret used to say a mouse fart could blow me over. But Linda was about as round as she was tall. She had dreadlocks and wore long flowing dresses and Birkenstocks. She was always railing at the prison system. I followed her out to her car, my box in my arms, as she chatted about the ferry traffic.
“The highway was clear all the way out to Horseshoe Bay, so we’ll make good time. We should be there around noon.”
As we pulled away, I watched the prison grow smaller in the distance. I turned back around in my seat. Linda rolled the window down.
“Phew, it’s a hot one today. Summer will be here before you know it.”
I traced the lines of my tattoos, counting the years, thinking back to that summer. I was thirty-four now and had been in custody since I was eighteen, when Ryan and I were arrested for my sister’s murder. We’d been alone with her that night, but we hadn’t heard Nicole scream. We hadn’t heard anything.
I wrapped my hand around my arm, squeezed hard. I’d spent almost half of my life behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit.
The anger never really leaves you.
I skipped my last class and met Ryan in the parking lot behind the school, where the “shrubs,” the kids who liked to party on the weekends, hung out. Other than the coffee shop at the arena, it was the only place we could smoke off school grounds. The nearby residents didn’t like it, but they didn’t give us too much hassle unless someone was revving their engines or had their stereos blasting. Then the cops would come by, checking to see if we were drinking or smoking pot—and someone usually was, but I never did, not at school anyway.
Woodbridge High was old, and in need of a serious face-lift. The siding was washed-out blue where it wasn’t covered by graffiti, which the janitor was constantly trying to remove. There were about five hundred kids at the school, which went from grade eight to twelve. My graduating class had about a hundred and twenty kids, and I didn’t give a crap about ninety-nine percent of them.
There were a few of us that day, clustered around our vehicles in groups. The girls with their long hair and bangs teased up, wearing too much dark makeup and their boyfriends’ jackets. The guys with their Kurt Cobain hair and the hoods up on their trucks, talking about carburetors and Hemi engines. Most of us were dressed grunge, flannel shirts, ripped jeans, ragged sweaters, everyone in darker colors.
Ryan was leaning on his truck, talking to a couple of his friends. He smiled when he saw me, passed a smoke. “Hey, babe.”
I smiled back, took a drag. “Hey.”
I’d been going with Ryan Walker since last July when we hooked up at the gravel pit, which was where the guys went on the weekends to four-wheel-drive and have bonfires. He drove a badass Chevy truck—which he worked on all the time, the only thing we ever fought about. I’d known who he was for a while, always thought he was cute, with brown shaggy hair and thick brows, almost-black eyes, long eyelashes, a killer smile that made his mouth lift up on one side, and this way of looking at you from under the brim of his baseball cap that was super-sexy. But he had a girlfriend for a few months, a blond chick. After they broke up he didn’t seem interested in anyone else, like he’d rather just do his own thing or hang out with the guys. He had a reputation for being tough, which was hot. He didn’t fight for no reason, but if someone tried pushing their weight around or was talking shit about his dad, who’d been in and out of jail since Ryan was a kid, he’d take them down. Mostly, when he wasn’t with me, he spent time with his friends, working on their trucks, fishing, dirt biking, or four-wheeling.
There wasn’t much else to do. Campbell River’s a small coastal town on the northern part of the island, population who-gives-a-shit. I’d grown up there, but Ryan’s family had moved down a couple of years earlier from northern BC. Everyone in Campbell River either worked as a logger, at the pulp mill, in the mines, or on a fishing boat. Ryan worked part-time at one of the outdoor stores. I used to go there sometimes, pretending to look around but mostly trying to catch his eye. He was always busy helping some customer, though, so I’d given up.
One night last summer, I’d been at the pit with friends, smoking a joint and taking it easy, when Ryan came over and started talking to me, asking how my summer was going. I tried to play it casual, like it wasn’t a big deal, but my heart was pounding like crazy. He said, “You want to go for a drive?” We flew up the gravel hills, spraying mud out behind us, the engine as loud as the music—AC/DC, “Back in Black.” I laughed, feeling alive and excited. He said, “You’re some cool chick.” Later we shared sips of Southern Comfort around the fire, his arm warm behind my back while we talked about our families, my constant fights with my mom, his problems with his dad. We’d been together ever since.
I took a drag of the smoke. Ryan watched, giving his lazy smile as he leaned against his truck, one eye half closed, his hair winging out from underneath his ball cap. His friends had drifted off. It was the first week of January, and cold, but he wasn’t wearing a coat, only a thick brown sweater that made his eyes look like dark chocolate. He tucked his fingers into the front pocket of my jeans, pulled me close so I was leaning against him. He didn’t work out much but he did lots of physical labor—his body was hard, his stomach muscles tight. He was already six feet, so I had to reach up to give him a kiss. We made out for a while, the smoky, bitter taste of tobacco tangling on our tongues, his unshaved chin scraping against mine. We stopped kissing and I buried my face in the warmth of his neck, smelling his boy smell, feeling an ache all down my body, wishing it was just us, all the time, like this.
“Can you come over tonight?” he whispered in my ear.
I smiled against his skin. “Maybe.”
Even though I’d turned eighteen at the end of December, I still had a curfew on weeknights. Weekends, my parents were a little easier—I just had to call when I got where I was going, to let them know I was okay, and I couldn’t stay out all night unless I was sleeping over at a friend’s, but my mom was a hard-ass if I was even a minute late. I tried to spend as much time as possible with Ryan, going for drives, messing around in his truck, his basement, wherever we could be alone. We’d gone all the way after dating a couple of months—he was the first boy I’d ever been with. His dad had been at the bar, his mom, a nurse, working late at the hospital. We smoked a joint, then made out in his bed, Nirvana playing softly in the background, the sweet scent of a candle mixing with marijuana. I was excited, my head spinning from the pot, my body grinding against him, our naked chests warm against each other. We took off the rest of our clothes, shy under the blankets. “Do you want me to stop?” he whispered.