The bulky door shut behind Derek. The expected ominous clang did not
materialize; he heard only a faint click. The sound augured a tepid
finality in his ears. He clenched his jaw. Missing were the high
expectations, jubilant triumph, and fireworks he conjured during the
endless days and nights of incarceration. Instead, he felt only resigned
sentiment at how he would face the days to come. He wondered if he still
had hope for his future. Is it too late?
A baby-faced guard escorted him through the doorway and down the hall to
the dispatch counter. Looks were deceptive. Beneath his uniform, the man
possessed massive biceps. Well liked, he had a reputation for his
ability to “take a man down.” No one messed with this guard. A new
daddy, the guard was on a career path to detective and had spoken with
Derek many times about his educational goals.
The soft padding of Derek’s loafers sounded weak compared to the
steady clap of the guard’s shoes. Fleeting thoughts of a drum cadence
sending soldiers to battle ricocheted through Derek’s mind. Get a
grip; get in gear; no more time for daydreaming. His mental chastisement
calmed the butterflies in his stomach. The guard stopped at the dispatch
desk and extended his right hand to Derek.
“Hey, man, thanks for the advice.”
“My pleasure, Todd. I’ll be expecting to hear from you when you make
detective. And don’t forget: ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’” The
lame reference to an old TV detective show brought a light round of
chuckles from both men. Todd’s baby cheeks ballooned to a huge smile.
The men shook hands, extending the handshake routine with an arm-clasp
and a manly shoulder hug.
“Thanks for the escort. I know this isn’t your job; I appreciate
“No worries. Stay out of trouble.” Todd handed the release papers to
the clerk, nodded to Derek, and turned back the way they had come.
The clerk read the dispatch order and added her signature with a
flourish. She pushed a few personal items toward Derek and tapped the
checklist with her forefinger. A wallet, a watch, and a ring—nothing
to dispute. Derek signed the checklist and glanced down the hallway. The
short distance mocked his thoughts of yesteryear, when this prelude to
freedom seemed beyond reach. The hallway vanished into a blinding light
created by the midafternoon sun’s glare streaming through the windows
of the outer doors. He blinked and turned back to the clerk. An officer
of the court, the clerk dispatched her duties with no nonsense
efficiency. He noticed her name badge and nodded toward the beam of
“Hey, look, Gracie. I’m being called home.”
Gracie wore the black, solid shoes of law enforcement. Not a single
strand of hair escaped the prison of the tight bun on her head. Her name
badge, pinned to her uniform at a precise location and angle, was the
only adornment on a clean and crisply pressed uniform. Derek gave thanks
for the one feature that lived beyond the requirements of code—bosoms
that precariously stretched the limits of her uniform.
An unladylike snort escaped from Gracie’s lips. She leaned toward
Derek and glared at him over the rim of her glasses, the shine in her
eyes belying the stern look on her face. “You get yourself down that
corridor, mister. I don’t wanna see you around here again.”
“No worries, Gracie. This was your one and only chance to woo me.
I’m outta here, and I promise I’ll never return.” He resisted the
urge to give her a quick peck on her cheek and headed for the double
doors that guarded the boundaries of freedom.
The drab facility evoked depression. Cells and walls, devoid of color,
sank into the sad bleakness. Floors consisted of nothing but plain
concrete. The hallway out was no different. Dull gray framing, painted
and repainted multiple times, lined the hallway. The paint, like bad
makeup, failed to cover the underlying grime and peeling of old paint.
The floor, recently mopped, sported the familiar tracks of the
heavy-duty string mop. Grunge left in the edges and corners gave
evidence the worker performed with the same lackluster effort found on
the inside. The dreary hallway was Derek’s path out of darkness and
into the light.
Derek reached his target, puffed his cheeks, and let out a noisy breath.
He opened the doors, and the sun’s heat embraced his soul. He sucked
in the fresh air and stood still, enjoying the moment. His eyes took a
few minutes to adjust to the brightness. He heard the trickle of
sprinkler water gurgling in the gutter. He smelled the faint scent of
pine and smiled. Little things, silly things. What a joy to perceive
what had always been there but never noticed until taken away. I’m
finally out! He breathed in the view of the surrounding trees,
blossoming in spring colors. Did he hear birds chirping? Ha!
Derek was not surprised his parents had not come to welcome him home.
They were unable to occupy the same space at the same time without a
war, and they were unwilling to share or take turns. Civil conduct for
his benefit, even temporarily, was not an option.
Deena was at work. He wanted her here, wanted to hold her in the warmth
of the sun. He clenched his jaw again. Anger seeped through his
consciousness; he pushed it away and reminded himself to accept the
things he could not change. He forced himself to relax; there was no
point in spending this first night of freedom with an aching jaw.
Josh and Laura would be there, or would they? Derek’s eyebrows
furrowed, and he felt sweat trickling down his back. Did no one come?
Has everyone forgotten me?
The loud, abrasive sound heralded music to Derek’s ears. He struggled
to contain his silly grin. Josh pushed off from the car and ran toward
him like a bull on a rampage.
Derek headed straight into the stampede.
No half-hug. No gentlemanly greeting. No apologies for emotional
display. The men clung to each other, grinning, and then commenced a
series of boyish backslaps and elbow bumps.
Derek finally broke free and turned to Laura. “Ah, Laura, thanks for
being here. This means a lot to me.” He took her in his arms and gave
her a gentle twirl. Derek closed his eyes. I’m out, I’m with
friends, I feel the sun on my face, I’m …
Immersed in his own thoughts, Derek almost missed the small bump
protruding from Laura’s middle. He broke from the hug and rocked back
on his feet.
“Laura! Wow! Congratulations. This is … this is wonderful” He
turned to Josh. “Oh, man, you held out on me.”
Josh grinned. “Surprise!”
“Congratulations! This is the best homecoming news ever. I’m happy
Laura, the only one of the trio with composure, gave him a soft buss on
the cheek. “We’re happy to have you home, Derek. We’ve missed
Petite and vivacious, Laura displayed a quiet demeanor, yet her eyes
danced with energy. Light brown hair framed her face with little
curls—nuisances she claimed thwarted all efforts at control.
Derek gave Laura another twirl. “Ah, I should have noticed your face
is rounder and your cheeks are brighter than usual. Is this the glow?”
Laura pursed her lips, which deepened her pink dimples. Josh stood
behind Laura and wrapped his arms around her waist. His hands, more like
paws, held her in a gentle embrace.
“Sorry, Derek, we weren’t trying to hold out on you. After the
miscarriages, we wanted to keep everything low-key. We weren’t sure
what to say or when. So far, all looks great with this one.”
“I’m happy for you, I really am. Laura, you look spectacular.”
Derek turned to Josh and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I wasn’t
there for you guys. I missed your graduation, your wedding; I was
supposed to be your best man. I should have been there for you when you
went through the miscarriages. I …” He used all his strength to hold
back the overwhelming emotion.
“Hey, don’t get sappy on me.” Josh initiated a flourish of fist
bumps the two had developed as boys. “You don’t need to own taking
care of everyone else. Believe it or not, it is possible to manage
without you.” Josh grinned. “Okay, I admit it’s difficult, but it
is possible. Although I’m sure if you’d been inside one day longer,
the world would have fallen apart.”
Derek scowled unsuccessfully.
Josh pounded Derek’s back. “No worries, it’s cool, man. We’re
glad you’re out. Come on. Let’s get some lunch. What are you hungry
“Everything. And seconds. And dessert!” The reunited friends piled
into Josh’s car, all talking and laughing at once, and headed for a
Derek smelled the fresh-baked sourdough bread before he entered the
restaurant. Red carpet, worn thin from a steady march of ordinary feet,
lined the entry. Inside, faded blue-and white- checkered curtains graced
the windows. With stomachs on high alert, the trio burst inside the
well-loved restaurant, known for good food served in ample portions.
Children babbled, occasionally hushed by their parents. Fresh-faced
servers scurried throughout the restaurant, delivering plates piled high
with chow. Derek had considered the prison food palatable, although
always covered with the constant pall of inside. The lunch he now
devoured tasted like a king’s buffet.
They talked, shared, and caught up. Derek relaxed in the warmth of his
His thoughts wandered occasionally. Did Deena try to request time off
from her business meeting today? She had special plans for tonight, yet
he felt the prickle of disappointment. Her presence when he stepped into
freedom would have meant the world. He was eager to get home but
wondered, then what?
Derek tugged his thoughts back to the present. He cleared his throat,
raised his eyebrows, and rapped the water glass for attention. “Ahem,
one and all. I have an announcement.” A terrible thespian obviously
unsuccessful in his act of nonchalance, he heard his lame attempt bring
a fresh round of laughter to their table. He gave up the act, pulled a
piece of paper from his pocket, and handed it to Josh.
Josh unfolded the paper and read the title: Bachelor of Science in
Biochemistry. “You finished! Man, you finished! So, who’s holding
out on whom?”
They shook hands and exchanged congratulations. Laura hugged him again.
To a man starving for human touch, he was close to his nirvana today.
"No need to get too excited. I’m annoyed it took me three years to
finish that last semester.” Derek spoke without emotion. His constant
struggle to arrange for online classes, textbooks, and test proctors had
been a huge source of frustration. His attempt to be a model citizen
gave him some privileges, but it did nothing to ease the way to his
education. He sat through hours of videos during his pre-release
counseling: A New Direction, Getting Along in Society, Adjusting to Life
after Prison, Anger Management, Anger Management II, Anger Management
III–X. The videos provided good information, but he felt the entire
system lacked educational value. Holding his anger in check, he took a
risk and filed a serious complaint regarding the difficulty of taking
and earning credit for advanced academic courses.
He knew the warden would review the complaint and then round file the
document. That was okay. Moving mountains took time. Derek wondered if
writing a proposal to the prison board would help. He could outline the
difficulties in obtaining education and share his conviction that if
ex-convicts received training in something other than washing cars and
cleaning toilets, the recidivism rate would go down. Conviction? Ha! His
lips curled to a smirk; he was going to write many proposals, to many
prison boards. Josh pounded his back, bringing him back to the present.
“Doesn’t matter how long it took you to finish. You finished;
that’s what important. You’re back in the groove. Perk up, man.
Nothing can stop you.”
The laughter and exchange of friendship continued. The door had opened.
Derek could think of only one question; what will I make of my future?
Excerpted from "The Promise" by Anne Jean Michele. Copyright © 2012 by Anne Jean Michele. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.