I put the last of my groceries away, fold up the brown paper bags, and tuck them in the space between my refrigerator and the kitchen wall. Turning around, I observe my little studio apartment. I see it all in just a quick glance, because it’s about the size of a postage stamp.
While I just helped Gabby move into Hunter’s house, I certainly didn’t need to ask them to reciprocate the favor. The only things I own are my clothes, and those were gifts to me from my mom. She had taken me out shopping the day after I got home from prison, outfitting me with an entirely new wardrobe. I mean… new as opposed to wearing prison garb for five years. I felt ashamed that my mom had to buy her twenty-eight-year-old son clothes because he didn’t have a dime to his name.
Past my clothes and some basic toiletries, I have no other possessions. The car I’m driving is courtesy of my parents… on loan, of course. It’s an old Chevy Malibu that had been sitting under a tarp, which Dad used to drive. They don’t use it, but it runs fine. Mom and Dad tried to give it to me, but I wouldn’t accept it. Instead, I capitulated only by agreeing that I was borrowing it until I could save up enough money to buy it from them.
Luckily, this studio apartment came completely furnished, and the kitchen was stocked with dishes, pots, pans, and utensils. I had all the basics that I needed to survive, because let’s face it… it wasn’t too fucking hard to boil some Ramen noodles for dinner, and that was a huge step up from the prison food I’d been eating.
So with my duffel bag filled with clothes purchased by my mom, I drove my old Chevy borrowed from my parents to the grocery store and stocked up on some basic provisions. Then it took me all of five minutes to move into my new home.
A knock on my door has me glancing down at my watch.
Right on time.
In three regular strides, I’m from one side of the apartment to the other and opening the door. There stands my parole officer, Jimbo Peaks. He is six-foot-six of solid muscle, his neck as thick as a tree truck, and his biceps the size of smoked hams. With skin darker than midnight, his light hazel eyes are spooky as shit when he looks directly at you, in that contemplative sort of way I’ve come to know over the last two months since I’ve been home.
“What’s up, Brody?” he says with a huge grin on his face, sticking his hand out for me to shake.
I take his hand, and it freaks me out how mine is dwarfed by his. I mean… I’m not a small man myself, almost as tall as Jimbo, in fact. But when comparing my muscle mass to his, I feel downright puny and I kept myself in pretty decent shape while in prison. Other than reading, working out was about the only thing that was a resourceful use of my time.
“Come on in,” I tell him as I step back so he can enter.
Jimbo walks into my humble abode and turns around once. Yup… he’s seen everything. A small kitchen on one side that merges right into my living room that abuts one wall. A double bed takes up the other wall, and the bathroom takes up another. It’s four hundred and fifty feet of cozy living, situated right above Mabel Fisher’s three-car garage.
Miss Mabel is older than Methuselah but has been a friend of our family’s since I was a baby. She’s eccentric, rich as hell, and loves to thumb her nose at polite society.
And by polite society, I mean those people here on the islands that look at me in disdain because I killed someone.
Not Mabel though. She was at my parents’ house within forty-eight hours of my return home, giving me a hug and a papery kiss, then making me sit down while she drank tea and filled me in on all the Outer Banks’ gossip for the past five years. She’s a trip… a breath of fresh air, and one of the few around here willing to give me a chance. When she offered to rent this apartment to me for a ridiculously small amount, I couldn’t say no.
“Nice digs man,” Jimbo’s deep voice rumbles. “All moved in?”
“Yup. Bag of clothes and some groceries. I’m settled.”
Jimbo chuckles and moves to my small kitchen table that seats only two people. Sitting down, he motions to the other chair so I do the same. “How does it feel to be out of your parents’ house?”
I crack a small smile and tap my fingers on the kitchen table. “It’s good. I mean… I love my parents, but it was time for me to get my own place.”
“Heard that,” Jimbo agrees, and then transitions into his next question. “How’s work going?”
“Going great,” I tell him, because it is. I enjoy working at Last Call, and I’m thankful as fuck I have a job. Most parolees struggle to find work, or get shit jobs that scrape the bottom of the barrel. When they can’t find work because no one will take a chance on them, they go back to a life of crime. If I had a nickel for every repeat offender I met in prison, who was there just because they couldn’t make an honest living, well… I’d be buying Mabel’s house from her rather than renting this apartment.
Jimbo doesn’t seem satisfied with my short answer, so he delves a bit more. It’s his job to make sure I can acclimate to life on the outside, so I’m not bothered when he asks, “Any problem being around the alcohol?”
“Nah,” I tell him genuinely. “No desire to drink at all.”
“That’s good,” he says with a smile. “Seeing as how that’s a condition of your parole.”
“Look, man… doesn’t matter if it’s a condition or not, there is nothing on this earth that could get me to drink a drop of alcohol.”
“And why is that?” he asks, but he knows the answer.
I tell him anyway.
“Because it shattered my life. Because it killed a man. It left a mother without a husband and a little boy without a father. Need any other reason?”
“No,” Jimbo says quietly, staring at me with those light eyes. “That’s a good enough reason.”
I hold his gaze, waiting for the next question. We’ve had this same meeting on five other occasions since I came home, but today it’s being done at my new home so he can check it out. As a parole officer, his role is part jail keeper, part counselor. It’s his responsibility to keep me on the straight and narrow, but to also do what he can to make sure my head is clear when I’m making my choices. So that involves talking… a lot. Just to make sure that the emotional and psychological toll of reentering the real world doesn’t cast me in a downward spiral.
Yeah, I talk a lot to Jimbo. He knows more of my internal struggles dealing with life on the outside than my family does. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to open up to him—somewhat—in a way that I just haven’t with my family. I suppose that boils down to the simple fact that Jimbo asks me questions… asks me how I’m feeling and how I’m coping. My parents, my identical twin Hunter, my baby sister, Casey… while they love me more than the air they breathe, well… they’re just not sure what is open to talk about and what may be taboo. So they walk on eggshells.
“Tell me some of the problems you’ve had adjusting?” Jimbo leads in.
Heard this question before too, and my answer the last time was, Not anything to tell.
I start to tell him the same thing, but the look on his face stops me. It says, And don’t hand me any bullshit, either.
I suppose I can skirt the real issues only so long before Jimbo is apt to put me in a headlock and beat the information out of me. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I decide to go ahead and lay it out. “I wake up at five AM every day, no matter what time I get to sleep the night before. It’s because I’ve been getting up at the same time every morning for the last five years… because I had no choice but to get up every morning at five AM. I don’t even know how to have a leisurely morning where I sleep in. When I go to sleep at night, I can hear metal cots squeaking and my cell mate rubbing one off while he tries to stifle his groans into the two-inch piece of flimsy foam that’s called a pillow. I hear the newbies crying, and I hear the lifers telling them to shut the fuck up. When I’m awake… out in the real world, I can’t walk around a blind corner without my palms sweating, because I’m expecting someone will be there waiting to jump me. I was always on alert… I’m still always on alert. The air smells too fresh, the food tastes too good, people talk too loud, and I’m having a hard time letting people touch me. It’s overwhelming and that’s just for starters, Jimbo. So yeah,” I say with some sarcasm as my eyes drop to the table. “I’m having a bit of an adjustment problem.”
“How does all of that make you feel?”
My eyes slowly rise to meet his. “I’m pissed off. All the time. I’m withdrawn, moody, and restless. I have all this wide-open space available to me, yet I’m having a hard time straying too far from the things that are safe to me. So I go to work, and I go home. That’s it.”
Jimbo gives me that contemplative look, and I can see the wheels turning inside his head. I’m prepared for him to launch into a pep talk, about how I have a chance to make something with my life… to atone for my mistakes and put the past behind me. Instead, he says, “You know… there’s something odd about you.”
My eyebrows shoot up and, for a moment, I consider being affronted by that statement, but then I just mentally shrug my shoulders. Odd is one of many things that I am.
“How’s that?” I ask.
“I’ve been doing this work close to twelve years now… and I can count on one hand the amount of parolees I’ve had that don’t try to convince me that they didn’t do it… or they were framed… or hell, even if they did do it, they blame a corrupt system for sending them away.” He pauses, his green-gold eyes flickering back and forth between mine. “But not you. You accepted responsibility and never once tried to blame someone or something else for your lot in life. It just makes you… odd.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I lean back in my chair. “No one to blame but myself.”
“That’s right,” Jimbo says with a nod. “No one to blame but yourself, and you’ve done a remarkable job accepting responsibility. In fact, you’ve done such a good job at it… some might say that it would help you have a clear conscience.”
“What’s your point?” I ask, genuinely curious as to where he’s going with this.
“My point is that if you truly took responsibility and had a clear conscience, then you should have some measure of peace.”
I scratch my chin absently, pondering his words. I did the time. I took my lumps and accepted my punishment. Should that give me peace?
Jimbo’s probably right. In those circumstances, maybe my soul should feel a little lighter… more free. If I truly was remorseful for what happened, and I truly had done my penance, I shouldn’t be struggling the way I am.
Except… my circumstances aren’t exactly the way Jimbo describes it. He sees my sorrow and guilt, but he doesn’t see past that. Because there’s a whole lot more that makes up Brody Markham’s fucked-up world than just the after effects of a few years in prison. My issues started before I even got sent away.