Kevin stared at an old mark on the wall made during a scuffle with his brother many years before. He rocked back and forth on his bed with slow rhythmic anger. He held his arms close and tight to keep from striking out in anger. Mark's accusations reverberated within his mind, twisting with other dark thoughts from his troubled past. His rage increased to the point that he needed to cry out, but he knew that this would be a sign of weakness and would frighten the girls as well.
The twins spent the rest of the night in the lower part of the house. The guest room next to Paul’s was as far away from Kevin as the old farmhouse would allow. Paul had not been able to sleep at all during the night. There came a point when he could no longer lie down, and he began to pace about his room. He did that until the break of dawn when he began his daily routine, starting with breakfast.
Paul tried his best to be quiet. He hoped that he would be able to speak with Kevin before the twins awakened. The girls soon wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The look of uncertainty mixed with worry in their eyes tore at his heart. He paused long enough from breakfast to pull them into one of his generous hugs and kissed them each on the top of their heads.
Kevin appeared in the doorway and it quickly became apparent to his father that he was struggling with deep emotional troubles. To his credit, he tried to be cheerful for the girls. Despite Mark’s demands, the girls did not appear to be frightened of Kevin. They smiled at him even after witnessing the burst of rage when Mark departed. He did sense the subtle trepidation behind their smiles. They wanted to trust him.
Kevin winked at Dianne and hugged Tina. “What are you two doing up so early?” He did not have to force a smile for either of them.
“Grampa says we don’t get to eat worms if we stay in bed ‘til the sun is up.” Tina giggled.
Kevin forced a smile for the girls. “Worms are quite tasty this early in the morning.”
Dianna, always the more serious of the twins, scrutinized her uncle intently. “Why are you sad, Uncle Kevin?”
“I’m not sad,” Kevin glanced at Paul. “I just have a lot of things on my mind right now.”
Tina picked up on her sister’s concern and turned an inquisitive face to Kevin. “Is it because Daddy got mad at you last night?”
“You two little monkeys don’t need to worry about what happened last night.” Paul tried to be dismissive. “Now just eat a good breakfast so you can help Uncle Kevin with his work in the garden this morning.”
“I’m not working in the garden today,” Kevin countered with a flat voice.
Tina’s eyes turned down in dismay as she whined, “We wanted to help you.” Her lower lip started to quiver.
Kevin could not bear to look at either of the girls as he spoke a little more harshly. “Not today.”
“Please, Uncle Kevin?” Dianna implored and tried to hold onto his forearm.
Kevin withdrew his arm sharply and snapped, “No! Now leave me alone!”
Kevin immediately regretted what he had done. Both girls retreated to Paul, unsure of what was going on with their uncle. Their grandfather hugged them defensively to his side.
“They’re just little girls, Kevin.” Spoken soft, Paul did not scold Kevin for the reaction. “They have no idea what is going on between you and your brother.”
Kevin gazed up at Paul, his face twisting between hurt and anger at himself over his harsh reaction. He reached out to each girl and put his loving hands on their heads. That conveyed the words of sorrow he could not speak, and he turned to leave the dining room.
“Kevin?” Paul sensed something different in his son’s attitude and called after him. “Where are you going? Kevin!”
Kevin exited through the back door in a hurry. Tina, Dianna, and Paul crowded the back door to watch him leave. The young man had no real idea where he was going to go. His mind was a twisted heap of dark memories pouring through Mark’s accusations and the sheriff’s insinuations. If they only knew the truth about his time in prison, they would know that harming any child, even with words, would never cross his mind.
“Uncle Kevin!” Dianna pleaded, “Please come back.”
Tina turned her teary eyes to Paul. “I’m so sorry, Grampa. I didn’t want him to go.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, sweetheart.” Paul hugged both girls close. “Uncle Kevin needs to do this.” He lowered his voice to a whisper meant for himself and God. “I just hope he comes back.”
Kevin did not even look at his mother’s garden. He exited through the gate and marched away from his home in a blinding rage. Mark's accusations returned to his mind. He tried to clear his mind, knowing that the rage would eventually make him oblivious to everything. The dark memories clawed their way out of the place where he had kept them safely locked away. He was unable to push them away. At least the sheriff was correct on one thing. Serving time did partially warp his sense of true justice.
Only two years passed in what seemed an eternity to Kevin, who had entered the adult prison as a boy. The emotional scars and the betrayals forced the boy to become a man too early. Trust of any person disappeared within a week, with the trust of the judicial system fast upon those heels. He learned the first day not to be caught crying in front of others. The vultures circled him immediately and pounced upon the desecration of his childhood. He desperately tried to hang on to his moral values the first month and learned to bury them within his heart. There was no place for honesty and upright living among those trying to survive the days in prison. He had lived a protected life in small-town America and never saw the hidden evils of desperate men.
Kevin only fought with others when it was necessary for his survival, which was often and at random. Within two months, he knew where to stand, sit, and congregate. He knew who to avoid and who to associate with, but never could he allow himself to trust anyone else. Pablo Sanchez had taken care of that early on. Even some of the guards had hidden agendas, exploiting the last vestiges of hope a young man might exhibit.
There were the gangs, and there was the Brotherhood, offering companionship and protection at a great moral cost. Friendships were broken apart in prison, sometimes played against each other by the gangs. Kevin learned that the only person to be truly dependable was one’s self and that his faith would see him through the darkest of nights.
Kevin still hoped that God watched over him and wanted nothing to do with the gangs. He visited the chapel often when he felt he could no longer stand on his own. There were times when he could not see that he had to use the benches to guide him down the aisle to the altar to kneel in prayer. Then there the times when he could not kneel, but he knew God could see his heart and would not require that of him at that moment. That was where Kevin found his most unlikely ally.
For whatever reason he could not fathom, Kevin found a connection with the most hardened criminal in Huntsville. He might have died within months of his incarceration if it had not been for the intervention of Marvin Bowers, the closest person to a mentor that the boy had in prison. The man was old for prison, doing life without parole for voluntary manslaughter. He kept to himself most of the time and few people were crazed enough to confront him.
Their meeting was not by chance. Marvin had been watching the boy for some time since the day he had entered the prison. He had watched many boys come into the prison, watched the initiations, ignored the cries for help, and stepped aside when they were dragged into the dark corners. Pity was a dangerous mistake. Showing pity was deadly. No one bothered him because he kept it that way.
On the outside, Marvin Bowers was a killer, having plotted the murder of his former wife and the brother who had bedded her. His heart died with their betrayal and a switch in his mind flipped to homicidal tendencies repressed since childhood. The murder was inhumane and well-publicized. His brutality preceded his inception into prison and initiation rites were avoided. No one wanted to face the risk of their backs broken in half or their necks crushed beyond recognition. Indeed, Marvin Bowers was a monster of a man both in stature and in status.
No one understood or questioned why Marvin Bowers would go to the chapel. Some guessed that he might have had a penitent heart, but others figured it was more of an escape from the drudgery of prison life. Whatever the case, no one ever bothered him when he went there. The day he found the boy kneeling at the altar, he changed. No one would ever see the change but God, which was fine with him. He went in quietly and observed the latest bruising from a recent attack on the young man.
The boy cringed noticeably at the slight scuff of the sole of Marvin’s shoe against the cold cement floor, but he did not stop his prayer. If they were coming to hurt him in the last place, he could find sanctuary, he would give up his life to protect the sanctuary where he felt closest to God. He held fast to his prayer and tried again to close his mind to the coming assault. The man, heavy in his footstep, was taking a seat on one of the rear benches. The footstep was unfamiliar, Kevin turning it over and over in his mind. Finally, done with his prayer, he stood up and dared a chance to look back.
No words exchanged between the two of them at that moment, yet a deep understanding of each’s character formed. Mutual respect for the values they stood for surfaced quickly and cemented a friendship between them.
When the boy was about to leave, Marvin addressed him vocally. “You look like hell, kid.”
“I’m kind of living there right now.” The inclination to give up was evident in Kevin’s broken reply.
The burden of pain weighing down on the boy caused Marvin to flinch. “Then I hope you don’t mind me offering up a prayer for you.”
Marvin gave the boy no chance to object and lowered his head in prayer. Kevin did not know what to think at first. Was the man just playing on his emotions, thinking that a show of compassion might make for an easier advance with less resistance? Maybe he was there to mock Kevin’s efforts to maintain contact with God. Someone always had a sinister agenda. The young man took a seat on another bench and lowered his head to listen, half-expecting a mockery of prayer directed at him, not for him.
“Dear God,” Marvin began slow and thoughtful, stressing the importance of his request. “I come to you this day in humble prayer for the boy standing before me…I ask an intercession into the violence that has beleaguered him. Hold him in Your protective embrace this night, that the agents of Satan do not break his spirit this day. Give this boy the respite he needs to build up his faith in You again. Help him learn to avoid the traps they lay in wait for him and the strength to withstand when he cannot escape. In the blessed name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Kevin could not describe the relief and surprise that filled his heart and sparked the hope that had been all but extinguished. “Thank you, sir.”
“I don’t deserve your respect, young man.” Marvin stared Kevin in the eyes. “I’ve done terrible things in my life. I cannot be your friend and I cannot protect you…however, I can teach you how to become invisible and avoid the vermin most of the time. Would that be okay with you?”
“Yes, sir,” Kevin replied and backed out of the chapel with respect.
Marvin called after the boy as he was leaving. “Meet me here at this time tomorrow.”
Forward in the past...
Not long after his eighteenth birthday, Kevin learned about the worst dregs that prison society brought forth. The prisoners were playing basketball or otherwise engaging themselves in various outdoor activities in the courtyard. Kevin noticed Lassiter standing off by himself and seemed quite nervous. Kevin tilted his head toward Marvin as they stood together, leaning against a brick wall.
Kevin nodded toward Lassiter. “Who’s the new guy?” He vehemently refused to use any of the derogatory slang used by most of the men of the prison.
“That piece of sh…dirt is a dead man,” Marvin answered with disgust and spit on the ground.
“Death row?” Kevin asked with confusion. “I thought that they were not allowed in the general population.”
“He’s gonna wish that he had gone to death row,” Marvin added.
The underlying hatred Kevin detected in Marvin’s voice confused him. “I don’t get it.”
Marvin glance crosswise at Kevin. “He’s a fu…freaking pervert, man! Word is he molested his little girl and forced her to perform oral sex on him.”
Kevin’s stomach churned in revulsion. “Oh, man! That is sick!”
“She was his step-daughter...about six or seven.” Marvin mirrored Kevin’s disdain. “The gangs will beat him to a pulp and then do it again after they all have their turn at him. Prison has no place for that kind of scum.”
Kevin could not fathom how any man could gratify himself with a child. “Why not just kill the punk?”
“That punk is the scum of the earth.” Marvin sneered at Lassiter. “Death would be too good a form of punishment for what he did to that little girl. There is a different kind of justice here that we deal with these scumbags. You’ll see for yourself.” He stood up to walk away. “Do not pity him.”
Kevin stared at Lassiter and could feel nothing but hatred for him after Marvin moved away. The new prisoner paced at a nervous clip and glanced constantly over his shoulder at those who shouted vulgar insults at him. A whistle blew and the prisoners began to gather to leave the courtyard. Kevin watched as a gang encircled Lassiter so that he could not escape. He gave a panicked cry for help that was quickly silenced. Then he was on the ground in the next instant, with each inmate taking a turn at kicking him as they filed into the prison.
Kevin knew that Lassiter was at an extremely vulnerable point. Part of him wanted to reach out and help the man. He was torn between action and ignoring the whole thing. Lassiter’s cries of agony as each foot found a new place on his body tore at Kevin’s soul. Human nature dictated that if he was not going to participate in the brutal attack, then he needed to turn and look the other way.
However, Kevin Fletcher was not an ordinary man, and the character of his soul won out over human nature. He decided to help, but as he was about to intervene, the guards slowly approached the fallen man and began to push apart the circle that had trapped him. The inmates were scolded for their participation and then asked to move on. Kevin watched with concern as Lassiter was lifted from the ground and drug in a semi-conscious state in the direction of the infirmary.
A month later and still alive, Lassiter lived highly alert to every sound that he heard, frightened by each call tossed in his direction. He limped toward the shower room with a hastened gait. His face was swollen, with the right eye completely closed and black around the socket. He noticed Kevin leaning against the wall, drying his hair and tried to suppress the welling of hope filling his eyes. He cautiously approached the young man, who glanced around to see if anyone else would notice their encounter.
“Please help me.” Lassiter could not hide the desperate man he was.
His eyes darting into every corner where someone could be waiting, Kevin dared offer only a few words. “I’m not your friend.”
“I’m not what you think.” Lassiter turned his head with a snap when he heard some voices coming in the hall. “I didn’t do those things to Stephanie.”
“Everyone is innocent in this place,” Kevin mocked.
“It was her father that blamed me, not Stephanie.” Lassiter was almost whining, which grated at Kevin’s nerves. “He was mad because Sue won custody in their divorce.”
Kevin tried to push Lassiter aside. “You need to go.”
“They are going to kill me!” Lassiter cried with desperation.
Kevin investigated the showers for someone who might be waiting on either of them. “don’t bring me into your troubles.”
“I can sense that you really are a good person,” Lassiter pleaded.
Kevin found himself starting to give in. “I have my own problems to deal with.”
Lassiter vied for an angle. “We can help each other.”
“I don’t need your help.” Kevin wondered why he was conceding. “Look, I can try to warn you…but what you did to that little girl...”
Lassiter looked into Kevin’s eyes with an apologetic smile. “I loved Stephanie. I did not do anything to hurt her.”
“I will do what I can,” Kevin allowed. “When I cough, get out through the back door immediately. That is all I can do.”
“You are a good man.” Lassiter clapped Kevin’s shoulder with gratitude. “I know it.”
Kevin waived Lassiter on and stood guard over the entrance to the showers. He leaned back against the wall in deep, troubled thought. He finished drying his hair and then draped the towel over his shoulders. He knocked his head back against the wall in a repetitive motion as he waited for Lassiter’s sake.
Kevin stood against the tree trunk, not realizing that he was knocking his head against the rough bark. He came out of his memories and to his senses when a truck turned up the road heading toward him. An old farmer driving the truck pulled to a stop where Kevin was standing and leaned out of his window.
“Hey, young man. You need a ride?” The farmer appeared to be a bit rough around the edges, but his voice conveyed a kind and courteous soul beneath the sun-weathered skin.
Kevin did not appear to care either way about the old farmer’s character. “Sure.”
The farmer seemed unfazed by Kevin's lack of emotion. “Where are you headed?”
Kevin certainly did not want to talk to anyone at that moment, so his answers were short. “Anywhere but back to town.”
The farmer pushed open the passenger door with a positive grin. “Well get in and I will take you as for as the Welch Road Cut-off.”
Kevin showed no emotion or acknowledgment as he went around to get into the cab of the truck. There was an old Bible with a torn cover sitting on top of a well-worn seat which the farmer pulled closer to his side. The only pieces of newer technology were an emergency scanner mounted under the dash and an emergency strobe on the dashboard. He could not comprehend the truck being fast enough to respond to a house fire. The man seemed vaguely familiar, yet Kevin could not quite place him. As soon as the young man situated himself and closed the door, the old farmer started to drive away.
The truck was an old Chevrolet or GMC from some time in the early sixties. Kevin stared out over the hood and marveled that rust had not eaten through the dull green paint. The old farmer wore a pair of gray pinstriped overalls and a pipe hung from his mouth. A Prince Albert can of pipe tobacco poked out of the ashtray. The cab of the truck seemed to be permeated with black cherry tobacco smoke from the pipe.
The farmer stared over at the young man as they drove down the road. “How far are you planning to go young man?” He tried to be amiable in his approach, but he could tell that Kevin was troubled and wanted to get something tangible out of him.
Kevin was reluctant to talk but knew that he needed to say something to the old man out of respect. “As far away from Pine Springs as I can get.”
The farmer studied Kevin for a moment. “Can it be that bad?”
Kevin turned to the window. “Yes.”
The farmer saw that Kevin would not reveal anything to him and gave up with a shrug. He returned to driving but would sometimes cast a glance in the youngster’s direction. When he determined that there was little else to be learned, he turned on his AM radio to listen to old country songs. Kevin frowned as he ignored the songs and let his mind drift back into more memories.
Kevin and Lassiter sat near each other, but not so close as to draw scrutiny. The other prisoners worked off their frustrations with worn basketballs and archaic weight machines. Kevin kept a wary eye upon the other prisoners even though no one seemed interested in what the two of them were doing. He took the lead and resumed a conversation they had been having over the last week.
“How long did you know your wife?”
Lassiter smiled at the fond memories coming into reverie. “We went to school together...long before she met Harry.”
That comment made Kevin think of his loved ones. The bittersweet memories affected his eyes dangerously. “I miss my family, too.”
Lassiter watched the sincerity play across his companion’s expressions and proceeded with thoughtfulness. “Did you drink before the night of the wreck?”
Sincerity dissolved into apprehension. Kevin was reluctant to reveal much about the night of the wreck. “I had a beer now and then, but I never drank to get drunk. It was mostly to prove that I was old enough to hang out with my brother and the other varsity players. I never drank more than half a can. To tell the truth, I hated the taste of beer.”
Lassiter was puzzled. “So why did you get drunk that night?”
“That is the strange part. I don’t remember getting drunk.” Kevin frowned as he tried once again to piece together the puzzle of that tragic night. “I don’t know how it started. My brother and I were arguing over a girl. I got so mad at him that I completely lost it. I remember that Robby tried to come between us…he was always trying to be the peacekeeper…” He had to stop for a moment to rebuild his composure. “The next thing I remember, I’m outside in the pouring rain, my car’s wrapped around a tree, and Robbie’s…Robbie’s…screaming in agony…”
Lassiter let the young man sit in silence for a few moments, realizing that there was much more to the story that was still being held back. Kevin picked up a dumbbell and began a set of curls. The intensity with which he exercised displayed the battle raging within him.
Kevin pressed forward with an uncomfortable question of his own. “Did you love your wife even while she was with him?”
Lassiter offered a slight laugh to ease their nervous conversation. “Women can be quite troublesome…since the day I first laid eyes on her, I never stopped loving her,” he answered painfully.
“If she finds out the truth about you and Stephanie, do you think she will take you back?” Kevin watched a group of men enter the gym.
Lassiter gazed up amazed. “So, you finally believe me?”
Kevin made eye contact with Marvin, who was amid the group. “Sort of. I will be disappointed if I ever found out you were responsible for hurting that little girl.”
Lassiter was more than appreciative. “Thank you for listening to me. It’s good to have a friend in this place.” He stood up and extended his hand.
Kevin paused for a moment before he and Lassiter shook hands. After the other man left, he noticed that Marvin was standing across the yard from the two of them, his eyes full of hate. He returned to the arm curls, wondering how he was going to convince the old man of Lassiter’s innocence.
The farmer had been studying Kevin for the last five minutes. The young man had been lost in a troubled memory. The farmer prided himself on the ability to judge the character of others accurately. He surmised that Kevin was an overall good person that had suffered a tragedy early in life. That tragedy now haunted his life. He decided to try to talk again with Kevin. It irked the old man when he could not be a Good Samaritan to someone in need.
The farmer offered genuine empathy. “You sure you don’t want to tell me what is wrong? You look like you have lost your best friend.”
Kevin sighed deeply. “That happened a long time ago.”
The farmer sensed Kevin's pain. “It cannot be that bad.”
Kevin was almost breaking down. “Any friend of mine ends up dead.”
“What do you mean?” The farmer did not understand.
Kevin shook his head and turned back to the window as they continued to drive.
Kevin and Lassiter stood together and watched a heated game of basketball on a cold, misty morning. Pablo and his cohorts emerged from the unit and immediately sought out Lassiter. Pablo pointed in Kevin’s direction and said something to one of his friends. The gang started walking toward them.
Kevin tapped Lassiter on the shoulder. “Hey, Lassiter. Stay cool. Here come Pablo and his punks. Don’t do anything to provoke them.”
Lassiter mustered his courage. “I’m tired of them messing with me.”
Kevin grabbed a basketball and tried to dissuade Lassiter. “Come on and play a game of one on one with me.” He tugged the man toward the ball court.
Pablo and his gang approached quickly, though. Kevin tried to pull his friend toward the safety of a crowd gathered on the court, but Lassiter resisted, determined to stand his ground. He faced the approaching men with grim determination. Kevin decided not to abandon Lassiter as Pablo advanced with a menacing sneer.
The thug drew close enough to breathe on Kevin. “Hey, sweetheart. Why are you hanging with this piece of trash all the time, now?”
Kevin grunted in frustrated exasperation. “Give it a rest, will you Pablo?”
Lassiter drew attention to himself. “Don’t get involved, Kevin.”
“Did they tell you he likes little girls?” Pablo snorted with disgust.
Kevin growled in anger. “Shut up, Pablo!”
Lassiter quickly intervened. “Leave Kevin out of this.”
“You like little boys, too?” Pablo reached to trace his finger down Kevin’s arm. “Kevin and I already know each other really well.”
Kevin retracted his arm in revulsion. “Go away, Pablo!” he warned.
“I will,” Pablo winked at Kevin. “It’s unfortunate for you that I have a date with your boyfriend here, but you and I can get together later.” He blew a kiss at the young man as he drew Lassiter toward his cohorts. “Come on boys. Let us have some fun.”
Now it was Kevin’s turn to intervene. “Leave him alone!”
Kevin started to grab for Pablo, but Marvin showed up behind him and grabbed him before he could do anything. Lassiter glanced at Kevin as they were forced apart. He appeared to be at peace that defied logic.
“Stay here, Kevin,” Lassiter said with an eerily calm voice. “This is not your fight anymore. It will all be over in just a little while.”
“No!” Kevin fought against Marvin's restraints. “Let me go!”
“Stay cool, Kevin,” Marvin commanded. “No use both of you getting hurt.”
“Let go of me, Marvin!” Kevin demanded. “They are beating him for something he didn’t do.”
Marvin gaped at Kevin with astonishment. “That is that creep’s sweet-talking getting at you.”
Kevin wrestled harder to escape Marvin’s grip and pounded the center of his chest. “I know the truth, here in my heart! I can feel it!”
Kevin's strength surprised Marvin. “You have been listening to your preacher friend too much.”
Kevin wrestled free and started to run. “They are going to kill him!”
“Come back, kid!” Marvin made a desperate reach for Kevin but missed the collar of his shirt by less than an inch. “They will kill you, too!”
Kevin reached the doorway of the showers just as Pablo exited with his cohorts. They were all still laughing and cutting up. Some of their hands were swollen and bloodied. There were at least three bloodied noses and two swollen eyes. At least there was a little satisfaction in knowing that Lassiter did not go down without a fight.
Pablo eyed Kevin suggestively. “Your boyfriend is ready for you, Kevin,” he said in an effeminate manner
Kevin shouted with rebelliousness. “What did you do to him?”
“I gave him what he wanted,” Pablo mocked, “but I’m done with him for now.”
Pablo laughed disrespectfully as he and his cohorts left. Kevin desperately shoved by them but stopped dead in his tracks as his breath caught in his throat. Lassiter lay naked in a crumpled heap in the center of the shower floor. His face was a bloody pulp, but he was still conscious. Kevin immediately went to his aid, kneeling to cradle the battered man with compassion.
Kevin could not contain the pain in his voice. “What did that bastard do to you?”
Lassiter coughed and sputtered through a torn mouth, “don’t associate with me anymore, Kevin.”
Kevin ignored the request. “How bad are you hurt?”
Lassiter’s words grew harder to understand. “Get me back to my cell and then get away from me for good. I will be okay.”
Kevin felt powerless. “Let me take you to the infirmary.”
Lassiter took a deep breath that caused tremendous pain. “No one can help me now.”
Kevin began to cry in desperation. “They hurt you pretty bad this time.”
Lassiter managed a smile. “You have been a good friend to me, Kevin.”
Kevin drew courage and removed his outer shirt to cover Lassiter. “Come on.” He helped the man to his feet and together they struggled to walk out of the showers.
Kevin helped Lassiter walk inside of his cell. He mostly supported the weight of the injured man. Lassiter breathed in gurgling gasps that occasionally spurted out blood and mucus. He did not appear to be doing well at all. Kevin escorted him over to his bed and helped to lower him down.
Genuinely concerned about his friend, Kevin spoke in calm, soothing words. “I wish you would let me take you to the infirmary.” He gazed at Lassiter with intense worry.
“Just let me rest awhile, Kevin.” Lassiter gritted his teeth against the pain. “I will be okay in a little bit.”
Kevin felt inadequate. “Can I at least get you anything?”
Lassiter lay back on his bunk and almost denied Kevin the last opportunity to help. “Would you get the chaplain? I would like to tell him that I've accepted Christ.”
“Really?” Kevin felt a glimmer of hope as he kneeled at Lassiter's bedside. “If it means anything, now...I believe you.”
Lassiter’s eyes watered, but he tried to keep Kevin from seeing them. “Thank you.”
Kevin stood up with an enthusiastic smile. “I will be right back!”
Lassiter watched Kevin leave and then lay down. He reached under his mattress and pulled out a crude, hand-made knife He stared at the ceiling as tears flowed from his eyes.
“Sorry, kid.” Lassiter’s words were filled with deep emotional pain. “I cannot take any more.” He took the tip of the knife and began to gouge his wrists and forearms to free the arteries of their crimson torrent and end his miserable life.
The prison chaplain, a long-time friend of James Kolendo and now a mentor for Kevin, walked with the younger man together through the corridor. Kevin showed some enthusiasm that had not been present for a long time. That enthusiasm was overshadowed by his concern.
Kevin was trying to hurry the chaplain along. “They beat him up pretty bad.”
“Damn!” The chaplain said with dismay. “I had some really good news for him.”
“He is innocent,” Kevin stated as a matter of fact.
The chaplain offered mild surprise that Kevin already knew. “Yes. The little girl recanted everything. The molestation was all a lie.” He spoke with excitement. “Your friend is going home. The warden is finalizing his release right now.”
Kevin contained his muted joy, for part of him was envious of Lassiter’s exoneration. “That is wonderful!”
Kevin entered the cell full of excitement and joy for Lassiter ahead of the chaplain. Horror and disbelief filled his eyes and took his voice as he assessed the scene of Lassiter's suicide. His eyes fixated on Lassiter's arm that hung lifeless from the bed and then to the pool of blood and crude knife that fell out of his hand after he died from the slashes to his wrists. The chaplain put a protective arm over Kevin's shoulders and observed the message written in blood on the wall next to Lassiter's bed:
'They shall hurt me no more'.
“Poor soul.” The chaplain said with pity.
Kevin could not contain the brewing anger at the injustice. “Pablo did this to him.”
The chaplain tried to comfort Kevin. “Are you accusing Pablo of killing your friend?”
“No!” Kevin’s anger was boiling over. “But he hurt Lassiter enough to make him want to end it any way he could.”
The chaplain knew that he needed to find a way to calm Kevin before he made a mistake. “Let us pray for Lassiter's soul to finally be at peace.”
“Peace?” Kevin’s anger churned into hatred. “There can be no peace as long as Pablo gets away with what he was doing to Lassiter!”
“Don’t do this Kevin.” The chaplain detected the dark side of Kevin’s relationship with Pablo and knew that danger to the young man and many others was imminent. “Violence is not an answer to the problem. Leave retribution to God.”
“Where was God when Lassiter needed protection?” Kevin glared at the chaplain and pushed his arms away. “Pablo has to pay!”
The chaplain shook his head. “It will accomplish nothing but getting you deeper into trouble yourself.”
Kevin shook from the anger festering within his soul. “My friend was innocent!” His voice elevated to shouting and he was nearly crying. “Innocent!”
The chaplain tried to comfort the young man again, but Kevin forcefully shrugged away and ducked out of the cell. The chaplain tripped over his own feet as he struggled to reach the door and catch Kevin before he ran away. He worried about the young man blinded with pain and anger as he ran down the corridor.
The chaplain made a last desperate plea. “Kevin!” When he got no reply, he shouted, “Guards!”
Pablo stood outside in the courtyard. He and his friends laughed at what they had done, using vulgar expressions to show what they had done to Lassiter. There were other men gathered around him to listen to his exploitation. Suddenly a commotion coming from the far side of the courtyard captured the attention of some of the men. Pablo paid no heed until Kevin ran up to him.
Some of the men respected the anger and hatred seething from Kevin and silently gave him space. Marvin tried to grab the young man before he could reach Pablo, hoping to protect him from harming himself. Pablo and his friends showed no respect and gazed upon Kevin with contempt.
“What are you doing here without your boyfriend, Kevin?” Pablo realized that he had to put the young man in his place and made a motion to silence everyone, stepping forward to confront him.
Kevin growled with uncontrolled rage and wrenched free of Marvin. He attacked Pablo and drove the man back into his group of thugs. Together they went to the ground as he drove a hard-right fist into the other man’s gut. Pablo effectively regained his feet and lit into Kevin. The fight was fierce. Pablo was strong and fast, but he was unable to win against Kevin's pent up fury. Marvin motioned for his companions to keep Pablo's friends from grabbing Kevin. The fight was even at first as they trade punches and kicks.
One of Pablo's friends got free for a moment and struck Kevin from behind. Pablo pounced on Kevin and gained the advantage in the fight. Marvin grabbed the one who had hit Kevin. He lugged him off into the crowd, which had gathered around to watch the fight. Pablo seemed to have the upper hand in the fight.
“What makes you think you can beat me, punk?” Pablo mocked as he furiously beat Kevin.
“You bastard!” Kevin’s voice was broken by the repetitive punches. “Lassiter was innocent!” He managed to throw Pablo off and scrambled to his feet as the alarms began to sound in the courtyard.
Pablo danced with his madness. “Is that what this is about?”
Kevin grappled Pablo to keep him from throwing any more punches and then wrestled him to the ground. Pablo scrambled to get back to his feet, but Kevin dropped an elbow into his sternum, knocking the wind out of him. Part of the crowd cheered. Kevin shook his head to clear his eyes and drove his knee into Pablo's gut. He then pinned him down with it and began to throw his round of punches.
Pablo gasped for air. “Get off me!”
“He was innocent!” Kevin accentuated each punch with the words, “Innocent! Innocent! Innocent!”
Pablo began to cry for mercy as Kevin continued to throw punch after punch. Blood and spittle flew from Kevin’s mouth as he hammered his fists into Pablo’s face relentlessly. He never knew when the guards struck him with their batons, sending him into black oblivion.
Kevin's fists clutched tightly closed as he was enthralled within the memory. The farmer gazed upon him with concern, then looked at the road and started to pull over. Kevin snapped out of the memory and slowly relaxed. He did not realize that he had broken into a sweat and was breathing hard. The old man guessed there were some demons he was not qualified to exercise.
“Here is where I have got to let you off. My house is back up on that dirt road.” The farmer spoke cordially but could not hide his concerned feelings. “Would you like to come up to the house and let Bessie fix you some tea or something to eat before you go?”
“No thanks, mister.” Kevin still reeled over the painful memory.
Though he was unable to truly help, the farmer felt sympathetic toward Kevin. “Take care of yourself, young man.”
Kevin got out of the truck and waited while the farmer’s pickup backed up. He watched while the old Chevrolet drove away down a side dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that slowly engulfed it from view. An emotional battle raged on in his soul as the prior day’s events weighed heavily upon him. He decided to continue walking along the highway in the direction they had been traveling. When he turned away from the dirt road, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Across the highway from the entrance to the old farmer’s dirt road, near the apex of the curve in the road, was an inner forest meadow. It was not too remarkable from many other meadows that popped up throughout the East Texas Piney Woods. About an acre in size overall, diverse types of flowers and grasses grew in abundance.
In the center of the clearing grew a single sweet gum that stood like an ancient sentinel, perhaps several centuries old. The point where the Mustang had gouged out a section of the trunk had scarred over, but it seemed not to have affected the tree. It continued to live.
Kevin was no longer in control of himself as an emotional tidal wave battered his soul. His eyes pulled away from the tree and down to the curve where the guard rail had been rebuilt. The old rail that had failed to keep the Mustang from going airborne had been replaced by a taller, stouter rail.
Horror and pain overcame Kevin. The sound of a car crash mingled with Robbie's dying screams and the wail of sirens echoed through his mind. Grief gripped him and held him powerless as he confronted the area where his friend had died. He dropped to his knees and gave in to the tears as he saw the ghostly forms of first responders and law officers milling about the crash site. He saw the paramedic frantically working to save Robbie’s life and recognized the old farmer ten years younger.
“Oh, God! No.” Kevin shook his head in denial. “Why did you have to bring me here, God?” He started to cry uncontrollably.
Parked on the side of the highway, Robert Murchison watched Kevin from a distance. There were about a hundred yards between them. It had been by chance that they both arrived at the site of the wreck at the same time. A fresh spray of flowers sat in the seat next to him to adorn the roadside cross.
Kevin seemed to be distraught. He wandered an aimless path over the shoulder of the highway and seemed oblivious to the sedan parked on the opposite side of the road. He trembled and cried as he approached the old, scarred tree. A solitary white cross marked the site of Robbie's death. He kneeled near the cross as the sounds of that fateful night rolled through his mind. The squall of tires losing grip on the highway mingled with steel fenders grinding against aluminum guardrails. Overtaking everything else was the pitiful wail of a fifteen-year-old boy at the last pain-filled moment of his life.
So enthralled with his grief, Kevin did not notice the sedan moving closer to him and then pulling to a stop. He reached out to touch the cross in the same manner as he had touched his mother's headstone before. He wanted to scream and run away. He had not expected to return to that terrible place.
The car door opened, and Robert stepped out. Kevin heard the door close and listened to the footsteps approaching from behind. He was unable to look up as violent sobs racked his body. He found the strength when a hand rested gently upon his shoulder. He broke away from his grief and turned to look up at Robert.
Kevin stood up and tried to wipe the tears from his eyes. He was both surprised and wary to see Mr. Murchison standing next to him. The man stepped up beside him and then paused to look over the roadside memorial with much fondness. He leaned down over Kevin and adjusted the cross slightly, then gazed at the young man warmly.
Kevin was startled. The very man whose son he had been responsible for killing offered a comforting smile. He expected the man to look at him with hatred, but all that he could see was compassion. The tears threatened to flood his eyes once more. Robert could tell that Kevin was in pain.
“I…” Kevin, at a loss for words, could only look into the man’s eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Robert searched Kevin's expressions for something he hoped was there.
The guilt resurfaced in Kevin’s mind. “I don’t know.”
Robert searched around for a car. “How did you get out here?”
Kevin pointed in the general direction of the dirt road. “An old farmer picked me up just outside of town and dropped me off up the road there.”
Robert glanced over Kevin with genuine concern. “Are you alright?”
Kevin made a passive wave of his hand as he tried to come to some sort of control over his emotions. “I’m okay, I guess.” It bothered him that he was in a state of emotional weakness beyond his control.
“You look like You’re in a world of hurt.” Robert’s voice took on a noticeable fatherly tone.
“I’m fine…really,” Kevin said it more to assure himself than to convince Robert.
“I come to visit this site ever so often.” Robert felt an obligation to explain his presence at the scene of the wreck. “I come mostly to keep the grass and weeds from taking over his cross.”
Kevin was puzzled. “Why?”
Robert took in a deep, bittersweet sigh. “This was where Robbie’s spent the last part of his life. There are times that I think he is still here, wandering about all alone.”
A deep sense of pained remorse settled over Kevin’s soul. “I really messed things up for everybody…especially you. I cannot apologize enough.”
Robert accepted the apology with a nod of his head. “Robbie was my pride and joy.” He glanced at the tree that had been the final instrument of Robbie’s death, consciously avoiding the actual point where he struck it with his head. “I still miss him to this day.”
Kevin misinterpreted Robert’s intentions and motioned in the direction he intended to walk. “Look, I have violated your life enough, Mr. Murchison. I will just…”
Robert reached out to Kevin in a quick panic. “Don’t go! Please, come and have coffee with me.”
Kevin halted in his escape and turned to search Robert’s face. Part of him wanted to find contempt or distrust in the older man’s expressions. Those emotions he could accept and deal with. The one man in his life of whom he had caused the greatest harm should have hated him at that very moment. All that he could read though, was compassion in the man’s eyes. Kevin started to collapse in his misery, but Robert moved quickly to his side and held him up.
“Take it easy there, son.” Robert guided Kevin to the waiting car. “We have much to talk about.”
To be continued...
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