This story is by Charles Vincent and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rich or poor, everyone’s born with flaws. It has nothing to do with our genes, upbringing or ethnicity. It’s part of the human tragedy.
On the darkest night of my life, I collapsed on my bed, filled with emptiness. Me, in handcuffs? I’d felt them cold and locked around my heart. My fingertips stained with black ink, hours of questioning and signing forms. I’d received more respect and kindness than I deserved. The look of sympathy from the Detective, shaking his head as he opened the door to my jail cell. “Poor kid” he whispered, looking straight into my eyes. My stomach muscles twisted in knots I was so ashamed. The clanking of the door reverberated down to my bones. My limbs were shaking. I had a cold sweat. I wanted to die. My wife, I’d become her antihero.
Yes, I’m dirt and sweat and tears of shame. I can’t bear thinking of the trial and the outcome. My hopes and dreams erased. Will I ever redeem myself? My poor wife! She’s been my rock ever since we met in my country of war. We’d both been through hell and back in our lives. The good fortune I received was now into a steep decline. Yes! I beat my chest and confess mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. My wife, I’d broken her. She taught me how to extend my arm farther than my reach. Had I followed her council wisely? No. I fell into my bubble of ‘need’, entered an alternate reality and lost my human decency.
She picked me up but wouldn’t enter the station. I saw her through the glassed entrance. The raging snowstorm whipped her face and swayed her from side to side. She stood there like ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’. It pierced a hole right through me. I pressed my chest. Slowing down my pace, I thought of words to lessen her pain. Guilt rose higher, wider and stronger than prison walls. Why did I sabotage myself and jump off the success train?
I sat in the car rocking my tormented soul. There was no key to press delete and erase my blunder.
“Remember one thing: You ARE loved.”
“I don’t deserve you. I want to say…”
“Please don’t. Let’s get home in one piece. Visibility is nil! A mild sedative will help you sleep and tomorrow, well… tomorrow’s another day.” There was never a mountain high enough for her.
I remained silent thinking of how destiny had brought us together in the middle of a war. She had her real mission. Mine was just a dream. Had I brought back my war with all its chaos and destruction with me? That’s all I knew until I met her. She was my only, my coach and best friend. She taught English around the world even in life-threatening situations. She was fearless and relentless. She’s my Legend.
We spent Christmas and New Year holidays planning and discussing how to set the wheels of law in motion as soon as legal firms re-opened for business.
“Start from the beginning. We’ll note everything and prepare a file for your future lawyer. Ready?’’
“Yes. Remember when I first met with the psychologist? It was Student Services at College who’d referred me to him, off-campus. They bragged never needing such services. I discussed all my concerns about the system at my college and that I already filed a few complaints. Our Program Coordinator didn’t help. One female teacher in particular and a few classmates were attacking my reputation. I met with the Dean – nothing changed. I needed help but nobody cared. I was boiling inside during that third year. Something had to give. I refused their run-around. The psychologist never took a single note. He looked at his watch and suggested that if I wasn’t happy here, I should return to my country. In other words: accept that the world isn’t perfect and move on. Go with the flow.’’ I figured he was in cahoots with the College… I never returned to his office.”
“Had he discussed your PTSD? That’d be a good point for your defense!”
“No, but briefly spoke of psychosis, deviance, and conspiracy. It added fuel to the fire…I fell deeper and deeper into a pit of despair. Doomed.”
“Why not confide in me?”
“Honestly? Fear, guilt, and shame. I’d reached my quandary peak. That student admitted publicly having an affair with our teacher to boost his grades. He added that she was on the Board of Appeals, then yelled “Did you hear that, loser?” looking straight at me. Bang! I hit ground zero. He’d never been an ‘A’ student during the first two years. I knew then I was doomed. Me, the outsider, in this tight-knit community! I fell into the trap of blaming the system, the teacher who disliked me, the lover boy and his friend who accused me of cheating on an exam. Two Appeals to get my reputation and grades back and both denied! I never needed to cheat. Other teachers wrote personal notes on many of my papers ‘’This is Ph.D. material!’’ or ‘’Keep it up!’’ Still, that female teacher labeled me as a cheater. The student community became aware of my evil deed and cast me out. I stopped caring. The unsolved puzzle was to discover the real reason why the Board refused to acknowledge, that out of forty-five students in my class, no one had ever seen or heard of me cheating during my first two years. I wasn’t Mr. Congeniality but I was an achiever. I’d received the Dean’s Award for Achievements for two consecutive years. I lost faith in justice. My stress level was off the charts and I must admit, my revenge was so sweet. Although insidious, a feeling of relief enveloped me. I’d typed on that keyboard, working without sound, without remorse, like fate.”
She removed her pendant and hung it around my neck.
“There were other options but what’s done is done. Now let’s work with the legal system.”
I still couldn’t reconcile with the events that ensued ‒ the arrest, jail and all my grades erased for two-thirds of my last year of studies. My graduation ceremony replaced by a trial, my education on pause, my life on hold. I hadn’t destroyed their original data, I’d altered it. Their ‘secured’ system was flawed and so were we all.
The Judge reviewed my case and evidence in support of my character. He praised me, as a newcomer to this country, for my volunteer work at a seniors’ home, managing their coffee shop. He also noted my professional appearance. He reviewed letters from employers filled with praises. I worked part-time during college. The trial ended with an imaginary drum-roll invoking the spirits of justice. I stood up. The Charge? ‘’Committing a Mischief with premeditated intent to commit damage to the College’s property by entering the secured system and altering students’ grades including my own’’. Mischief. I didn’t even know the meaning.
The Judge decided that punishment for this type of Mischief would ‘set a precedent’ for all students of colleges or universities in our city. Being my first offense, he reduced my sentence to fifty hours of community service, reporting in person every two weeks to a designated Probation Officer for a year and seeking professional help for my PTSD. I’d receive a Conditional Discharge after three years. It was hard but fair. I saw kindness in his eyes when he rendered the sentencing. He added: ‘‘Focus on your dream, Sir. Now go! Become that Engineer!’’ Tears ran down my face. I’d found solace and hope in his words. I bowed.
Months before the trial, my wife had accomplished a ‘tour de force’‒ bought us a house in Nova Scotia, secured a working contract and organized the move. I’d gone to court alone. She focused on creating a new life for us in a quiet little town where nobody knew my name. The press rushed to publish their juicy story. The internet never forgets and never deletes.
After my Probation, I was unemployed for months. She knew I hid to cry and suffered with me. Then a miracle! I passed an interview and got a position in the neighboring province. She hugged me until I couldn’t breathe.
‘’Tears?’’ I’d never seen her cry.
‘’Love means knowing how to let go.’’
The year-long separation helped our healing process. I consulted with a great psychologist. My wife had done well moving us away. I admired her courage and resilience.
We moved to Québec, hopefully for good and reunited at last. My French Canadians in-laws visit us often. Their unique ‘joie de vivre’ rubbed off on me. I found a great job near home and been accepted at the university. I’ll soon be a citizen of this beautiful country. Her medal of the Rising Anchor still hangs around my neck.
I’ve come a long way ‘to be’ and ‘to let it be’.
Yes, I AM a Phoenix.