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“The Promise” chronicles the story of a couple, each who will make choices that will drastically change the course of life. A promise is given. Wrapped around the horror of death, the story takes you from the prestige of an enticing career to the remote jungles of the world. Life moves on in spite of the poor decisions we make yet the characters find that even when lost, there is hope. The story unfolds to reveal God reigns as the supreme creator and designer. Even so, it seems the promise must now be impossible. But is it?”
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 it.”
“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 light.
“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 for you.”
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 you.”
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 for?”
“Everything. And seconds. And dessert!” The reunited friends piled into Josh’s car, all talking and laughing at once, and headed for a nearby restaurant.
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 friends.
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?
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Anne Jean Michele holds a master's degree in management of computer information systems from California State University, Sacramento. She has four children and eight grandchildren and lives with her family in Lincoln, California. The Promise is her first novel.