Branded in Gray

by Dawn Allen
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I’ve learned two things about prison life.

First, never let them see you sweat.

Cons love victims.

Second, never make eye contact because the only thing worse than being seen as a victim is to be seen as an aggressor.

Prison life is full of oxymorons, lose-lose situations. Under the circumstances, I’ve been lucky. I was tried as a juvenile, the result of an early birth date and a sympathetic judge. Definitely factors in my favor. So, I’m serving my time in a juvenile facility.

Even at that, I swear once I leave here, I’ll never have gray in my life again. I’m surrounded by gun-metal gray cinder block walls, white tiled floors that have aged to a nasty shade of mouse gray, storm gray cell doors. Even the food is gray. No kidding, the meatloaf has a corpse gray cast to it, so does the spaghetti. I don’t want to know how they manage that. My prison world is reminiscent of my post-incident nightmares. Except in them I see some things in color.

My days are beyond boring. I attend school, work a detail, and read a lot. I was never much of a reader before. Now I find myself reading whatever I can get my hands on. Bob, my counselor, could probably psychoanalyze my reading choices. I never share that information with him. Not that he doesn’t know. Nothing’s lost in prison. Every move you make is watched and analyzed. It breeds paranoia.

Then, one day Bob pays me a visit.

An unscheduled visit.

In prison, this means bad news. An appeal that’s been turned down, a new set of charges against you, a delayed trial date, whatever.

It’s just never good news.

“Thad, how are you?”

“I guess that depends on you. How am I?” I try to read his face but like everyone in his line of work, he’s mastered non-expression.

“We received a visitation request,” Counselor Bob says.

I shrug. “My family comes to see me every weekend.”

“It’s not from your family.”

Thoughts race through my head, but I can’t come up with a single person in town who would make the request. My family’s been protective, but I’m not naïve. If I weren’t me, I’d hate me.

“Who?”

Bob turns an envelope over and over in his hands. “Professor Aldrich.”

My gut jumps as if someone has hit me, hard. I try to blink, but my eyes freeze. Sweat beads up on my lip, and I grow lightheaded. It takes me a minute to realize I’m holding my

breath. “Why?”

“I think he can explain it better than me.” Bob holds out the envelope. “Read this and think about it. We’ll talk in session tomorrow.” He stands and knocks on the door for the guard to let him out. “You don’t have to do this. The court didn’t mandate it. We can talk about whether it’s in your best interests.”

For the first time in thirteen months, the outside world is intruding on the cocoon I’ve

developed here. My family and I have managed to pretend I’m simply at boarding school. Oh,

none of us say anything, but we all pretend I’m someplace else. Anyplace but here.

We pretend…things haven’t changed.

The envelope consumes my hand. The writing scrawls across the front in loops and

whorls. It looks like the penmanship of a professor.

I don’t want to open it. I have a sudden vision of that dreadful book we had to read my sophomore year, the one about the woman with the scarlet A. I hated that book, but I suddenly relate to her. Like Hester, I’m marked by my sin. There can’t be a good reason for this man to want to see me. Oh, I have no trouble imagining him wanting to pummel me senseless or scream at me. On the other hand, why would I want to place myself in that position?

Self-flagellation, Bob calls it, when you feel guilty and need to punish yourself.

I curl up on the cot – this thing the prison tries to call a bed but doesn’t qualify. It’s a thin mattress on a metal frame which will probably give me back problems for life. The envelope smolders from the stool across the room so to avoid it; I roll over giving it my back. Closing my eyes, I struggle to sleep but the envelope won’t shut up. It tramples across my mind. Finally, I cave and reclaim it.

My gut starts in again, and I bend over clenching it, trying to force the pain away. When it lets up, I open the letter. It isn’t simple and yet, it is. Like nearly all of us, he’s in therapy. At the recommendation of his therapist, he wants to visit me.

Fantastic. Just what I thought, he wants to crucify me to ease his own pain. Like I don’t

have enough to deal with. The last time I saw him they were hauling me off in handcuffs after my sentencing. My mom was crying and so I looked away so I wouldn’t cry too. The professor in his blazer with patches on the sleeves, faded jeans, and loafers without socks stood watching me. He had tears in his eyes too. I hung my head and didn’t raise it again until they logged me in at Juvie.

I stuff the letter back in the envelope.

After minutes spent idly staring at the wall, I pull the book from under my mattress. It’s a journal my therapist insists I keep so I can “get in touch with my crime.” Hidden in the back are the newspaper clippings. I wanted them, had to have them for reasons I still don’t understand. When I suggested it to Mom, she came unglued on me. So, my sister Cele located them for me.

I think the sensationalistic headlines and the horrific pictures are better than a journal for making me aware of what I’ve done. I find the one I’m looking for and pull it out. I iron it with my hands and look down at the faces. There are snapshots of the people who died in the wreck that night, the professor’s family, my best friend Jeff. I focus in on the pictures. The hole in my gut grows, and I fold on the cot. Several hours later, I finally sleep.

I listen to the clank of the cells opening and closing. It’s time to meet with Bob. Usually, I look forward to these sessions with all the enthusiasm of a man on death row. Today, I don’t feel that positive.

“Thad, how are you today?”

Bob sits on a battered gray metal chair by a barred window, but still, the sun shining in provides warmth I wished I felt. Instead, ice water flows through my veins. “Tired,” I mumble.

“Trouble sleeping?”

I stare out the window. “Yeah. Shock, huh?”

“What are you thinking?”

“About the visit?”

“Yes, Thad. Remember what I said. You don’t have to.”

I frown. “Having a little trouble finding a way in which this is in ‘my best interest?”

“I have doubts.”

“Yeah. I’m not sure which is worse. Bulling through it or wondering forever how bad it

might be. I have to go home at some point, you know?”

“And you think it might be easier if you face it now?”

I nod. No point in arguing semantics. I want it. I came to realize that last night. I have absolutely no rational reason for it, but there it is.

When I leave Bob an hour later, he’s still unsure. I’ve never been good at persuasion. He gets to make the final call, but he knows what I want. He said he’d make a decision in the next couple of days. More time to sweat it out. Typical of my life now.

Bob didn’t tell me until the day before. This is good because I wouldn’t have slept for a week had I known. As it is, I threw up my supper and completely skipped breakfast. By the time I’m taken to the visitation room, I’m hot and dazed. They place me in one of the comfy chairs, which means padded. A guard remains in the room and another outside the door. Do they fear for the professor or me? I don’t really want to know the answer.

He enters, and it’s as if a decade has passed not two years. The face and the eyes that haunt my sleep look older. Still in the blazer, jeans, shoes no socks combo. The guy probably drives a beat up Volvo too. He hesitates inside the room before sitting in the chair across from me. He clears his throat and looks toward the door. Stan nods and takes his position.

Stan, like all the guards, has learned the fine art of watching without listening.

“Thad, I’m Paul Aldrich.” He clears his throat again.

My equilibrium is off. It is like the ear infection last fall, I felt dizzy even sitting down. I

try to speak but nothing comes out. I can’t look at him. My head hangs from my shoulders like

an anchor. Finally, I get my voice to work. “Yes.”

“I hear you’re doing well here. Getting good grades and following the rules.” The professor’s voice is cultured but gruff.

“Yes, sir.” I force my head up but don’t meet his eyes. I find a spot on his jacket and stare

at it.

“I’m glad. I hear you’re getting therapy. How’s that going?”

I struggle to think about discussing my therapy with him. “Okay, I guess.” I drop the words, ‘it’s painful’ before I say them. “And you?” I want to snatch the words back the minute they leave.

“It’s…okay.”

My horror must have shown. I nod.

“People don’t recover from things like this. They learn to cope. I’m sure that’s something we’ll both be figuring out as we go along.” He looks across the room studying the sunlight as it struggles past the barred windows.

“I guess.” It’s a lame response, but I don’t know what else to say. Probably because there isn’t anything else.

“I’ve had help packing things. My in-laws mostly. My parents are dead. I’ve moved a lot of things to our storage unit. I’ve given a lot of stuff to charities. Tami would have wanted that.”

Awkward silence again. I study the dirt beside my thumbnail.

“Tami was a social worker, worked with a lot of teenagers.”

He hesitates and I sneak a look. His eyes meet mine. They’re dark gray, not quite black. I’m shocked by what I see there, like I’ve been hit by the stun guns the guards carry to bring down fighting inmates.

I don’t see hate. I can’t quite read what I see, but it’s definitely not what I expected.

“At any rate, when I went through Tami’s things, I came across her journal. She wrote in

it every night. There were times I was jealous of the commitment she had to it.” The professor shakes his head. “I put it beside the bed, and I’ve looked at it many, many times since…the accident.”

We sit together, the professor and I. No words that will bridge the widening gap between us. Just as I think I can’t take the quiet any longer, he speaks again.

“It’s personal so I didn’t want to invade her space. My therapist was the one to suggest that maybe Tami’s words would bring me some form of peace or understanding.”

For the first time in our limited relationship, I see a smile creep from the professor’s lips. It eases some of the crevices of his face, softening him.

“I think she would enjoy the thought that this gives her the last word. Which is the goal of most wives, I think.”

The professor’s hands tremble. I scrub at the dirt beside my nail. It won’t come off so I

continue scraping at it. The professor retreats into himself, and I’m uncomfortable sitting here. Exposed.

“I brought it.”

The professor’s words resonate around us. He surely didn’t just tell me he brought his dead wife’s journal to prison with him? I’m imagining things, right?

“I know this is awkward.”

I want to stop the words, freeze them in the air to prevent them from hitting me. I can’t.

“I can’t explain it.” The professor’s voice is full, and he clears it again. “Just give me this

one thing. Read as much of it as you can. If you can’t, you can’t. However, I ask that you read

the entry from the weekend before the wreck. The Sunday before. Read it.”

Then he is gone. I listen to the door close but Stan remains. He doesn’t rush me, and I’m grateful. I can’t move from my spot because sitting in the professor’s chair is his dead wife’s journal.

The book is pink with floral trim, very feminine. Time evaporates around me. I try to picture her but the clippings I’ve stared at for so long refuse to materialize in my head. Was she a brunette, a blonde? Was she tall, short, thin, or curvy? I begin to imagine those dialogue boxes in the Sunday cartoons with things like, “Open me” or “I’m in here, come find me”.

I just know I can’t do this. I can’t do what he’s asking. It’s too much. I don’t want to know any more about her than I already do. My date for the last thirteen months has been Lady Pain. She’s always with me. I find my way to my feet and Stan moves aside. I leave the book behind.

The meeting with Bob that afternoon is mandatory. He’s writing in my file when I come in. I figure it’s the “I” factor, what we call intimidation here. This is another skill I’ve discovered in prison. The ‘I’ factor can be the difference between surviving prison and ending up like your victims. I haven’t mastered the skill myself, but I have mastered self-control when others use it on me. I take a seat and wait him out.

“Let’s talk about your meeting with the professor.”

“Whatever.”

“Sum up the visit for me.”

“He came. He talked. He went. End of summary.”

“Why do I think it’s not that simple?” Bob pulls something from under the file folder, a

pink something with floral trim.

I say nothing.

“Shall we talk about what the professor wants?”

“Shall we pull my toenails out one at a time?”

Bob doesn’t respond. He hates sarcasm.

“What do you want me to say? What does he want from me anyway?” I struggle against the storm building in me.

“I think he made that clear, Thad.”

The book and all it represents lurks on the table in front of Bob. So innocent from the outside.

Bob leans in close in his I’m your friend pose. “Why don’t we start simple?”

“Simple?”

“Read one page or one entry from the beginning of the book. Not the place you fear.”

“I’m not afraid.” I hate it that he can read me like that.

Bob pushes the book closer to me and then leans back in his chair.

He has me and we both know it. I swallow a flash of rage. I haven’t earned the right to be angry but that doesn’t stop it.

I’m a firefly caught under a glass, Bob staring at me watching, waiting for me to light up. Just waiting for me to get *it*, whatever *it* is.

We both ignore the fact that my hand is shaking when I reach for it. I’m the tin man as I’m escorted back to my cell, rattling around inside myself and horrifyingly empty. Stan’s quiet.

I should be worried about being seen carrying a book with flowers on it. An invitation, if jail ever had one, but I can’t see beyond the expectation.

I listen to the door clang shut and sit on the cot. The pale pink cover of Tami’s book has a

texture to it, like corduroy. I imagine fingerprints on it but at this point, even if I were truly

seeing them, they wouldn’t be her’s.

It opens easy like a well-read novel. The inside cover hits me first, an inscription. “Mom, to record all those bits of family lore you love. Stacy.” By now, I know which child this is, the middle one, Cele’s age. She was sitting behind her mom in the car that night. Even though she wore a seat belt, she was thrown. It took cops fifteen minutes to find her…in Murphy’s Meadow.

I hug the book. The air grows thin, and I fight back a black cloud. Bob finds me there, rocking back and forth on the cot. I guess my wails worried the guards. I was in a fog, but I made that first step, I read part of it. Now I can call it good.

“That’s a start, Thad.” Bob says to me the next day.

I stare at him, incredulous. “What? I did what the professor wanted. I’m not doing any more.”

He shakes his head. “You told me the professor specifically wanted you to read the excerpt from the week before the wreck.”

“Whatever. You saw what a mess I was after reading the inscription.”

“Maybe it’ll surprise you. However, I would suggest that you read at least a few excerpts before that one.” Bob stands. This is always his indication that our session is over.

“Why? Have you read it? Do you know what it says? Tell me.” Ugly desperation creeps into my voice.

“No. This is something you have to do. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I pace my cell reliving it in my head. Bob, always cautious Bob, wants me to read it. That has to be a good thing. Right?

I make it to the first page. In my other life, I’d have closed the book after page one. Who

cared about a mom’s taxi service; one kid to dance lessons, another kid to soccer, another to

debates? Certainly not the old me.

I can’t explain it but hearing her voice telling about the most mundane details of her life takes on an animation in my head. I get in twenty-five pages before dinner. At lights out, I stare up at the ceiling, but I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing her, replaying her life as she lived it. It amazes me.

She’s no longer a one dimensional picture anymore. Like my mom, she lived for her kids. She hated asparagus, just like me, and loved Mexican food, just like me. For the duration of the night I revel in who she was. It’s in the morning that it hits. Her loss. My part in it. Because of me…

I skip breakfast, mostly ignore lunch, and dread more than usual my session with Bob.

“How’d it go?”

“What, no small talk? A little foreplay? Maybe I’m not ready to talk about it.”

“I’d say that’s progress.”

“How?” I pace because I have to do something with myself. Standing still means I’m a target. If I hold still, Bob’s questions – like darts – will find their way to me.

“It means you read. How much?”

“February.” I glare at a speck on the wall, or is it a spider? Hard to tell in this rat hole.

“I’m proud of you. You worked past the pain.”

I don’t mean to but my eyes roll of their own will. “Save any other clichés, would you?”

“Ah, there’s the teenager I’ve grown to know.”

The wave of pain hits me unexpectedly. “I’m not a teenager anymore.” I turned 20 here. Just last week, as a matter of fact. I’m an adult.

I drop in the chair. “What if I hear her voice in my head forever?”

“That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Thad.”

What the hell is he smoking? “Right. Great with the profundity, Bob.”

At his surprised look, I bite back. “Hey, I’ve been reading up on Freud and Jung and that psycho-babble. Funny thing is all this reading increased my vocabulary. Isn’t that an irony? I have more to say than ever but nobody to say it to.”

“That’s not entirely true. You have me. And now, you have the professor.” Bob lays an envelope on the desk in front of him.

My groan is instinctive. “No fucking way.”

“He wants to see you again. I’m more inclined to agree this time.”

“Well, that makes one of us.” I glare at the letter.

Dinner that night sits in front of me looking for all the world like partially digested food. I force back a gag. All I can think is I should feel grateful. At least I’m alive to eat this vomit.

Someone jabs me in the kidney and I lose it. I’m on my feet and throwing punches without any forethought or plan. I’m unsure how long it goes on before the guards take us down. Back in isolation, I’m still feeling the effects of the taser. Anger rages through me. I can’t understand it and I can’t seem to rein it in. I slam my arms – cuffed at the wrists – against the wall and then, kick at it repeatedly until I feel the toe on my right foot break. Blood runs down both my hands and drips off the cuffs onto my prison grays. I scream, and I don’t stop, even after the guards rush in and pin me to the floor.

I continue to struggle. The nurse enters – syringe in hand – and I know that soon the rage will go away. I’ll return to the world of unbearable pain and guilt that no amount of anger can hold off.

I spend three days in the infirmary and another four in padded isolation. Bob postpones

any further visits from the professor to allow me “to heal”. I know he means the physical wounds but I’d rather wait for the psychological healing. Of course, another ice age will come before that does. Bob’s not stupid. He’ll reschedule.

“Here you go, kid.” Stan opens the door to my cell and motions me in.

I stand there looking around at it all. It’s so foreign to me. Nothing in the room is mine. It all belongs to *that* kid, the one that killed all those people.

I’m not him.

But I am.

Stan clears his throat. I force one foot in front of the other, creeping across the threshold like I’m eighty. Maybe I am. Old soul.

The door clanks behind me. Stan’s face appears in the small barred window. “You okay?”

I nod and watch as the window goes empty of his grizzled face. I’m standing center stage when I see it: pink flowers incongruous against the dingy bedding.

She’s back.

The metal bites into my spine as I curl into myself on the cot. I clutch the pink flowers against my chest. I’ve been reading for hours. My shirt is soaked but I don’t know why I’m crying. Stan’s been at my window three times to check on me.

It’s bad when you scare a guy like Stan.

I’m at that night. One week before the wreck. The one the professor wants me to read so bad. I just can’t. I’m wiped, devoid of all feeling, robbed of it by tsunami after tsunami of anger, rage, grief, guilt, self-pity. Name an emotion, and I’ve been unable to outrun it.

There’s a tap at the door. It’s Stan.

“You got a call.”

“I’m not allowed calls except on Thursdays, you know that.”

I listen to the sound of the door unlocking, clanking open. I struggle to sit up and wipe at my face.

“It’s okay. This time.” Stan motions to the door.

I walk to the cubby where the phone is. After, I wonder why I didn’t ask who it was. Maybe I thought it was my folks or one of my sisters. Maybe I thought Bob was calling in even though he never did. Maybe – I knew who it would be.

“Hello.”

“Thad, it’s Paul Aldrich.”

“Yeah.” I suck at what little oxygen is available and wipe again at my cheeks.

“I heard you had…a problem. Are you okay?”

“Okay? Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Good.”

An awkward pause is impossible for me to fill.

“Well, take care,” the professor says.

I struggle to get words out before he hangs up. “Can I ask you something?” Then before he can say no, I ask, “Why do you care?”

“When you finish reading, you’ll have your answer. Good night.”

I sit there staring at the crude carvings in the wall around the phone, some pornographic, some of the four letter variety. One – weird as it seems – is a Bible verse. I’m still sitting there staring at the wall five minutes later when Stan finally clears his throat again. It’s becoming his signal to bring me out of my stupors.

When the door is shut, I look at Stan’s face on the other side. For no reason that I can fathom I ask, “You have kids?”

He looks at me. He has demon black eyes, but they never seem angry. “Two boys.”

“They ever get in trouble. Like me?”

“No.”

I nod and return to my cot and the book. Stan doesn’t leave.

“Trouble is a visitor *not* an inhabitant,” he says.

How about that? Depth from a prison guard, so much for the stereotype. Stan’s boots click a steady rhythm as he walks away. The entry from the week before the accident is in front of me. It’s the last entry.

“Sweet Jesus. The trembling won’t stop. I can hardly write. What do I do? I can’t tell Paul. I have to tell him. Just not now. I have to process it. Pete’s drinking. I’ve suspected. For months but I didn’t want to believe it.

I followed him. I can’t believe I spied on my child. I should have told Paul. I should have told him sooner. Pete. This smart articulate straight A student drinking heavily. It was wrong but I sat and watched. For hours they drank.

I thought I should call the police. I should call Paul but terror froze me. Dear God.

I watched him get in his truck and head home.Weaving all over the road. I prayed fervently that he would make it home.

As much as I love Pete and as much as I want him safe, when he nearly clipped a wagon pulling out of Miller’s drive I lost it. I pounded the steering column and screamed as panic crashed on me. What if he – my baby, this child I love – killed someone else? Do I want him to carry the burden of taking another person’s life? It would be better for him to die. Wouldn’t it?

God, such a hateful thought for a mother to have. I don’t mean it. I don’t want Pete to die. But how could he survive? How could he carry that guilt, that burden? How could I as his parent survive my guilt? That I knew and didn’t stop it?

Every parent lives in fear of that phone call in the middle of the night. What if the caller says your child is fine but he’s taken someone else’s? Pete’s not a bad boy. He’s making bad choices.

How can that ruin his life at such a young age? I wouldn’t wish that on any child. I wouldn’t wish one mistake to destroy a life. We’re all entitled to a mistake, aren’t we? But what cost this would be. I should have stopped him tonight. I should have called Paul, the police. My mistake. What if tonight, with me watching, it had happened?

What should I do? What will we do? I don’t want to tell Paul. I don’t want to see the look on his face that I felt on mine. He has to know. Before it’s too late. Before Pete makes the ultimate mistake.”

I have to reread the last half because my eyes are floating.

My heart can’t decide if it’s going to speed up or stop. It’s hiccupping in my chest and fire rips through my abdomen, curling around my side and stabbing like a prison shiv.

My folks. I can’t imagine what they face at home. Daily. Because of what I did.

I scrub at my nail, gouging the skin and watching the blood. I curl into myself and squeeze trying to force out the pain. But it rages as acid burrows into my gut, and I barely make it to the hole. I retch until nothing comes up but my diaphram keeps rebounding.

I hurt everywhere.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been lying here. Stan’s outside the door. He thinks I don’t know he’s there. I ache with empty and sleep refuses to give me a reprieve.

Just as I get the sobs under control, another tide hits, and I can’t breathe for the waves of guilt. I have a rash of perverse thoughts about my deserving this pain and more. After another dash to the hole, I rinse my mouth out at the sink and head back to the cot when I see it.

Her book. Sitting there waiting for me.

Holding it against me, I curl up in the corner of the cell and force my eyes shut. My last thoughts are of her.

The headache wakes me. Swollen and hot, it throbs with the breakfast noise in the distance. She’s my first thought.

Her words ramble around my head like bombs ready to detonate. For so long, I’ve thought of her as the professor’s wife. Now she’s a mom. And he’s a dad. Like my folks.

My parents. In spite of what I did, they’re still supportive of me. Until now, I haven’t given them much thought. So many people died that night and I lost everything and my focus has been on that. Reading her words, I realize that I haven’t gotten the whole picture. More than my best friend and the professor’s family died that night. My family died in a metaphysical way. The old Thad died. Even our town died.

Suddenly, I’m looking at an eternity of days ahead of me. Days that I can’t get back and can’t redeem. I refuse to leave my cell. No point in eating. No point in school. No point.

Six days later Stan ushers me into the visitor’s room. Paul’s waiting. He’s not sitting but standing, looking through the bars at the sunny day outside. I carry the pink book and stand facing him.

“She never did tell me. I was busy that week.” Paul doesn’t look at me. “I was busy.” He

reaches out to the window where he rests his trembling hands on the bars. “Can you believe that? Too busy to listen. Too busy to hear my son was in trouble.” He sniffs. “Did I tell you why they were out that night?” He turned and we made eye contact. I looked away.

He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Pete wanted to go out with his friends but she convinced him to go with her to visit her mother. She hadn’t had any plans to visit her mom. I realized after reading the diary that she arranged the trip to protect Pete from himself. Ironic that, huh?”

I look at him and tilt my head back hoping gravity will keep my tears at bay. I find the words I’ve struggled to come to grips with for two years. “I’m so…sorry.”

Paul nods. “Yes.” He turns and moves toward the door. He’s almost there when I remember.

“Professor? Her book.” I hold it out toward him.

His eyes, those eyes that I can’t quite read meet mine. “Someday you’ll return it to me. Just not now.”

I hear the tears in his voice. “When?”

“When we’re ready.”

I can’t leave that room. I take up a position beside the same window he stood beside. For hours, I look out at the world he saw. Stan guards me late into the night. The lights are down and all voices quiet, when he finally leads me back. The smells of bacon and eggs are wafting in the air and the morning sun breaking through the guard shack’s windows when I finally fall asleep, her journal in one arm and my scrapbook in the other. It’s my first real night’s sleep in two years. Bob tells me later that Stan appealed to the warden – with Bob’s help – to allow me to sleep all day.

Three months later, the day I had looked forward to and dreaded arrived. For a week I hadn’t slept. My final meeting with Bob that day was awkward.

“I’m not ready.”

Bob scribbled on my file largely ignoring my presence.

“I need more time.”

“You’ll never be ready.”

“With more time…”

Bob sighed. “I’m not going to lie to you Thad. What you face is daunting.”

My snort is involuntary. “No shit? The entire town hates me and with good reason I might add.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I don’t know. Something about a small town where everybody knows everybody, and I killed five of the people in it. I’m not going to be greeted with a parade and a key to the city.”

Bob signed a paper with a flourish and folded it, placing it in an envelope with my name on it. “You’ve done your time.”

“I pretty much guarantee you they aren’t thinking that.”

“It’s possible but forgiveness is catching.”

My head reels with that one. I look at Bob but he moves to the door and motions to me. We walk down the dingy hall toward the front lockdown area where I’ll be searched a final time and sign some papers. The first thing that hits me is the clear, clean smell of the outer offices. I’ve forgotten or never noticed the warm blue of the walls and the dark blue of the chairs.

The warden, who I saw all of twice during my time here, shakes my hand and Bob follows me to the door. The usually confident Stan seems unsure as he watches me. When he

shakes my hand, a piece of paper jabs my palm. I look down at Stan’s distinctive block letters, Trouble is a visitor NOT an inhabitant. The moisture on my lids would brand me as weak inside, but I’m free now.

Stan opens the door. I hesitate as the unadulterated sunshine blinds me. Shielding my eyes with a hand, I step over the threshold and take a deep breath. Grass. I can smell fresh cut grass. The day is cotton candy blue clouds and the lawn outside the prison is landscaped with acres of colors. Fuschia, purple, yellow, every color on the color wheel has found its way onto a petal of some kind.

It’s heaven.

Bob’s hand on my shoulder is warm. “Your ride’s here.” He motions toward the parking lot.

I freeze. Looking as out of place as the Pope at a strip club stands the professor in his trademark jeans and blazer. “What’s this? Where are my folks?”

“The professor asked if he could bring you home,” Bob says.

Unsure why the professor no longer surprises me, I step forward. Going home has lost some of its fear and suddenly I want to see my room, my dog, the battered Chevelle my dad and I had been rehabbing before I went in.

“Hi, Professor.”

“I think you should call me Paul.”

It might be wishful thinking but my steps and the professor’s fall into an easy rhythm as we walk to the parking lot and his battered Volvo.

Did I ever call that one.

15 Responses to “Branded in Gray”

  1. Suzanne Sykora says:

    A deeply moving tale of suffering and redemption, this held my heart from the first paragraph to the bittersweet end.

  2. Adele Adams says:

    This story is glib and insincere. If this is a true account, I feel the writer,the offender, misses the point of his incarceration.
    I have a personal reason for scorning his sincerity, and no inclination to forgive him anything.
    He bought his punishment; it is still under warranty. No give-backs.
    No one has bought my pain.

  3. Glen McCoy says:

    To the author,Thank You.
    To Adele Adams,I know of a book that is all about Forgiveness.In it,it says those that don’t forgive will not be forgiven.The book is the Bible and the author is willing to take your pain and already has.Please read it Adele.It’s just what you need.

  4. Rob Hunter says:

    Wow. It’s been a while since I got hooked on a tale whilst browsing and read it right on through. The subscripts that may or may not be there–motifs of the meaningfulness and/or meaninglessness of atonements, the keepers and the kept exchanging roles, the cues that made me stop and think–make Branded in Gray a room with many exits–that you might choose a door doesn’t matter so much as that the door is there.

  5. Carolyn McGovern says:

    This is a powerful story, written beautifully. Whether it is a true story or not, I would guess that the message rings true for more people than are willing to admit. There but for the grace of God go I… When we are young, we do stupid things. Now, if I were the victim of this kid’s actions, would I be as forgiving as the professor? Not likely. But, no matter, it is an absolutely wonderful story with a powerful message. The author did a fantastic job in laying the story out from beginning to end, great characterization, etc

  6. [...] “Branded in Gray” by Dawn Allen at A Fly in [...]

  7. Marsha Lytle says:

    What a deeply moving story. It can teach us all a lesson about forgiveness.

  8. Linda Harding Martin says:

    I have not had a personal jail experience but for the first few paragraphs, I really thought that this was a person righting from jail. I found it very ‘realistic. I liked Dawn’s style of writing very much–the small insights into Thad’s character, the description of jail life, his relationship with Bob and the guard, the change in Thad’s glibness and confidence when he was speaking to Bob, to his inability to communicate beyond monosyllables when he spoke to Paul. I found the story compelling and deeply moving. It made me think of some of my own regrets and the power of forgiveness.

  9. Connie James says:

    Powerful story. I only wish that given a similar situation I could act as the Professor does.

    Hooked me at the beginning and capture my heart until the end.

  10. Dynamic characterization, consistent and believable voice — well done

  11. Tyrean says:

    Wow!
    I started this story holding back my belief, especially since I used to volunteer at a prison and I know that not all of them are gray.
    As I continued to read I was drawn deeper and deepr into the story, and the main character’s pain, and the echoed pain of the professor. Forgiveness is possible and catching, and I loved the quote the prison guard had for him. Without ever preaching, this story is a wonderful lesson in forgiveness, and you wrote it extremely well.
    Thank you!

  12. Dawn Allen says:

    The feedback is appreciated more than you can know. This story written during my MFA program elicited a lot of painful emotions. The feedback above only proves this is an issue that has that power. My blog has a response to reaction to Branded in Gray. Thanks again.

  13. josh says:

    itz ah good story

  14. Jennifer O'Neill says:

    I was moved by this story a great little short stoy. There is a real sense of positive realization from tragedy. When in the right mindset, the reader can read this and feel the true forgiving nature that is abound. Thank -You to the author.

  15. [...] The story, Branded in Gray, was featured in the January issue of A Fly in Amber. http://www.aflyinamber.net/?p=611 [...]

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