This story is by Nicholas J. Devlin and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The letter was written to give him hope, and he presumed that Sarah Doster thought he would jump up and down with glee when he read it.
What he felt was fear. His release would be no different than a civilian hopping on a rocket ship bound for Mars.
Sarah Doster had dedicated the last twenty years of her life to it. She hadn’t expected it to take twenty years to get a bill into limbo, as she had apologized to him for, but there was one, and if it got passed, thousands of inmates would be free.
“A free man,” he whispered, standing in the cell quarters with the letter in his hands. He wanted to feel happy. He wanted this, so desperately. But he only felt lost.
It wasn’t that prison was a good place to be, that it wasn’t an infernal dungeon of doom where he feared for his life every waking minute, or a place where he didn’t have to eat amorphous goop for lunch and sleep on hard steel. No, it wasn’t this. It was that prison was the only life Jimmy had known since he had been arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama thirty years prior, and the real world terrified him.
“Did you get word on the case?” Neil Writz asked, trying to speak over the clinging and clanging of the workshop. “I saw you musing over that letter.”
Neil’s incarceration was justified. He had killed someone. He would get the chance to speak to the parole board in three years and, as he and Jimmy had ostensibly joked about many times, it would help that he was white.
There would be no parole for Jimmy. It was win the civil suit or serve his remaining ten years. In Huntsville County, it had just so happened that being black and possessing marijuana was a worse crime than being white and killing someone.
“No word yet,” Jimmy lied. “Just another letter from my mama. She promised she wouldn’t die before I got out. Like I didn’t know she’d be there waiting at the gate, eager to nag me about somethin’.”
They laughed at this, and Jimmy had succeeded at dodging the topic. He knew Neil would be excited for him if he told him about the letter, and he didn’t want this.
With his hands tucked behind his head and legs arched up on his steel cot, Jimmy quickly found that sleep would be off the chart of possibility for the night. He had thought about the evening thirty years ago many times, the sound of sirens behind him, the blinding flash of red and blue lights, the gruff voice of the officer who told him to freeze, how he said he would shoot if he moved an inch.
Then there was the acclimation to prison. On his first day, he looked a white inmate in the eye. That was the last time he did that for a good two years. After some time, he learned inmates were the least of his worries. The guards were the real enemy. He had been beaten, raped, and refused commodities countless times for the most minor of offenses. A crumb left on his tray. Being late for lineup by a millisecond. Not cleaning a stain off the toilet that had been embedded into it for half a century. It wasn’t good now, but it was better, and really, it was all he knew.
Then there was the case. His lawyer, who had been fired a year later for extortion, told him it was going to trial. They had said in litigation that Jimmy opted for this precarious elongation, but he didn’t remember being asked about it. He recalled only sitting for months in an overcrowded cold and damp cell and, once a month at most, being approached by a smug white man in a suit who told him he had everything under control. Who told him not to worry, boy. Everything would be just fine.
Jimmy visited the court four times in a half year, and his last visit ended with a judge announcing he would have to serve forty years to life for the five ounces of cannabis he possessed, the intent to distribute, which had been implicated by thirty dollars of cash he had on him, and resisting arrest, which he did none of, but made the charge a violent one.
He wasn’t free yet, and there was a chance he would have to serve his remaining years, but on this night, there was nothing he wanted more than to stay.
It was a Saturday, which meant instead of grinding in the license-plate shop, he would lounge with the general population for the day. This was until Sarah Doster barged into the unit with guards glued to her like sheep to their shepherd. Jimmy was deep into a game of spades when she approached his table. She stood with her shoulders high in a blazer, and most of the inmates in the unit were eyeing her.
“You’re free,” she said with a beaming smile. Jimmy wanted to reciprocate it, but all he felt was shock blanketed in a thick wool of anxiety. He had thought it likely he would be released, but he didn’t expect it to be this soon.
“F . . . free?” he said.
They had brought him jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap to wear, and when they opened the thick, cumbersome door, the one Jimmy imagined was solely responsible for keeping all the pariahs in, a paparazzi awaited.
On the faces of the bystanders were immense, animated smiles. On Jimmy’s was an expressionless void.
Some of them were trying to ask him questions, others snapping pictures like they had just discovered a new species. Signs that read: “Happily Ever After,” were poking up from the herd around him. He wondered what it was all about until he spotted one with subtext. It read: “Happily Ever After: A Revolutionary Campaign.”
Sarah must’ve named the project this. But why had she not told him?
He was relieved to escape the noise when he entered the Ford Escalade that awaited him. Sarah got in after and sat next to him. A dapper man, one that had waited outside the unit for Sarah, scooted into the passenger seat.
Without turning his head, the man leaned back and asked, “So, where to?”
Jimmy hesitated for a moment, not because he was unsure, but because he was still trying to process everything that was happening.
“I guess there’s only one place,” he said.
The ranch appeared timeless. It looked just as he remembered it. The lawn was patchy, the driveway creased and cracked, the garden blooming. He had wondered if his mother was still maintaining it in her elder years as she had when she was fifty, the age she was when Jimmy had been taken away and caged like an animal.
He was delighted to see the house again, and not through the tint of the Escalade. The first detail he noticed was the air. He had been outside in the courtyard nearly every day for the last twenty-five years, but this air was different, even from the air outside the prison which he had walked through not long ago. It was rich, and he wanted to revel in it, but he couldn’t.
His mother had visited him every week for the past ten years, but being in the house he grew up in with her made it feel like he had not seen her since he left the place for the last time on April 17th, 1989. Now it was September of 2019.
Sarah and the man from the passenger seat spoke with them briefly, and in this chatter it was revealed he would be getting one and half million dollars in compensation. He knew what this could do for him and his family. He felt not even a modicum of joy.
“Tea?” she asked from across the kitchen. Jimmy nodded, gazing into the void that was the mahogany table he sat at. “Happily Ever After,” she said wryly with a faint titter. Jimmy looked over at her. She had poured the tea but was now standing there emptily. “For you, or for them?” A brief silence. “That’s a huge load of bullshit. They could never repay you, us, for what they did.”
“It doesn’t matter though.” At this she regained her composure and made her way to the table with the cups. “Happily Ever After is a myth from fairy tales.”
Jimmy took a sip. “I think I may know the next closest thing.”
The first check arrived promptly for Jimmy the next afternoon. He removed it from the mailbox with a hand that held a BIC lighter, and after opening it and reading the amount, he set it on fire.
There it was. As the flame ascended the paper, Jimmy guffawed.