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In one breath, his life ended, and so suddenly, that his world began to crumble apart, piece by piece.
“You kissed her! You kissed Sophia -- didn’t you? How do you think that makes me feel?”
“It meant nothin’, Rylee, how many times do I have to tell ya that? And what does it matta’ anna’way?”
She roared, completely distraught. “What does it matter? I’m pregnant, Chase, that’s why it matters!” She blurted, the words tumbling from her lips.
“You kiddin’ me, righ’? ----- Ryles – you kno’ what this means? I… I can’t do it. I’m sixteen, Rylee --- we’re jus’ sixteen.”
“Chase – please don’t be like this – I didn’t ask for this, no one did,” she pleaded, her eyes following his sun-kissed features as he stalked toward the door. She jumped at him, grabbing his arm. “Listen’ to me, da****!”
“Why? Why should I, Rylee?” He ripped his arm away from her, his eyes flaming. “I don’ wanna be a daddy, an sure as h*** not wit you. So, fine, I kissed her, but I care ‘bout you.”
“You care? That’s all you can say – that you care?” A frustrated laugh emitted amidst all her tears. “So you’re just gonna leave? Just like that? For once in your life, Chase, step up!” She hissed, the words hitting him, but leaving him unhurt. “I. Can’t. Keep. Saving. You.” By this time, tears were fully streaming down her scarlet cheeks, causing her to stutter in attempt to keep control.
She had always known that Chase was a project. She was just one of those girls who saw him, and immediately fell in love. He wasn’t the typical prince, he was a poor farmer boy, one who rarely attended school just to pay the bills, and took the stress of a family down upon his shoulders. He was a good guy, and somewhere she could see that, she knew that. He was your typical faulted hero, a boy trudging the earth for a purpose. Ever since his father died from cancer, he’d been struggling, and she’d gladly taken him under her wing. Now, she knew she was ruining everything, matter of fact, he was ruining everything. He felt trapped, that she could see; any person would feel so in such a situation. She, however, was the one being hurt, utterly deserted, and he just didn’t get that.
“I don’ need savin’, I jus’ need ya to leave me the h*** alone. I don’ kno’ what you want from me, Rylee. You’re the one who keeps pushin’ me away!” He growled. “I was the one who fo’gave you fo’ him.”
“And I loved you for that! But, I’m not the one pushing you away! Open your eyes! I’m the one holding on for dear life!” She shoved him, and furiously wiped at her tears. He didn’t look hurt, he wasn’t hurt, and that was what truly bothered her.
He took the blow easily, his shoulders squaring in a defiant manner. “It’s always been you, Rylee, ever’thin’s fo’ you, and you jus’ don’ see it!”
“Just. Get. Out.” She tore at him, her words sent to rip him from the inside out. She watched his face, not a flicker of pain, or any sign that he had internalized her words. She straightened her figure, her back to him now.
He would do what he always did, what he ultimately did best: walk out. It was just his kind, a breed of small-town, boon-dock boy, that gave him this trait. He had an easy nature when he threw everything away, and she had a feeling, as she did with most of his kind, that there was no turning back. He would always be that boy, and there was no changing that. But, from that moment on, their lives were completely altered forever.
“Now, Mista’ Achibal’, lemme ask you this right hea’—in da name of the court o’ Virginia… Did you kill Miss Sophia Williams on the nigh’ of July the tenth two thousan’ nine?” The judge’s eyes traveled to him, his fingers comfortably curling around his chin. He seemed to be indifferent, and that, Chase Archibald did not care for. In this town, the people wanted justice, and once the assumption was out there that he was a killer, they weren’t about to go back.
Chase shifted in his seat, clearing his throat. Here it was, the final choice, his final choice. He closed his eyes, picturing his home, his parents, everything. It all whirled around him, and then he saw her.
She stepped through the courtroom doors, her bag slung across her shoulders. Gorgeous, that was all he thought about when he saw her, and he forgot everything else. Even now, his mind had drifted from a possible life sentence in jail for murder. However, just the sight of her brought anger, a fierce, harsh hatred. She had brought this down on him.
“Mista’ Achibal’,” the judge called, his eyebrows cocking, clearly losing his patience. “Will ya’ be joinin’ us?”
He couldn’t respond. His eyes traveled to her, darting to and fro. It was unreal, utterly unbelievable. He could only think of how much he wanted to attack her right now, and not in the playful, loving way he used to. His world was spinning, more than it ever had. He hated her, he absolutely despised her. This was her fault, and he knew that, he’d known that all along.
He tore his gaze away from her, watching all the people, all the eyes. Staring. Staring. Staring. Unconsciously, he buried his face in his hands, feeling the wall that he’d worked so hard to build up start crumbling down.
“May we have a moment to deliberate, Judge Michaels?” His lawyer approached him, her heels clicking easily on the marbled floor. Her manicured fingers tapped softly on the witness stand, coming to silently rest on his.
The following room was confining, his emotions threatening to spill over. He couldn’t do this, he wasn’t sure he ever could. He was sixteen… Sixteen. This wasn’t fair, none of it was, and he was finally realizing it.
“I don’ think I kin do this… It ain’ righ’ --- it ain’ righ’. I ain’ goin’ for fifty yea’s – I jus can’t do it. I…” He stammered, shaking his head uncontrollably.
Within a moment his mother was at his side, her delicate figure shaking. She reluctantly took a seat beside him. His mind was whirling, spinning in a downward spiral, something he couldn’t control or manipulate.
“I kno’ you din’ do it, I trus’ you, Chase --- but I don’ trus’ them. They is a oddly bunch - they always is, there ain’t a way out,” his mother said, her hand pressing against his forearm.
His lawyer soon followed after, a crease in her brow. “The prosecution is offerin’ ten years if you plea guilty ---- it is a mighty good offer considerin’ the circumstances here…”
“May we have a mowment?” His mother asked, inhaling deeply.
“Ma, I kno’ ya wan’ me to accep’ the offer, but I din’ do it, I need ya to b’leave me… I din’ kill her. I’d never up an kill a person on accoun’ of bein’ --- wha’eva they said --- --- I need ya to b’leave me Ma --- That jury gotta kno’ I din’ do it. They gotta have some – wha’ they call it – reason’ble doubt ---- Mama, I shu hope they do. I ne’er went to see Sophia Williams.”
“Hunny ----- You can’t hope on nuthin’, not with these people you can’t. They don’ care, you kno’ sutcha thin’, they is han’ picked by tha’ there pros’cution. Baby, I wan’ you to take it, but I kno’ you, and you make smart decisions. If ya din do it, ya din do it.”
The jury gathered around the table, their mugs of coffee and empty wrappers sprawled across the table. They had been gathering and deciding the fate of this trial for hours. Chase Archibald had gone back in the courtroom, and easily, confidently, pleaded not guilty. Despite the fact that a lot of the evidence pointed in his direction, another portion of it didn’t. That was where the jury was having issues, issues preventing them from a unanimous decision.
“I don’t know how you guys here in the deep south do it --- I don’t know if there’s any such thing as reasonable doubt, but I feel it --- there’s something empty about this case --- what would he, of all people, be doing with Sophia Williams? Plus, she only came to town ‘bout a week or so before the murder. They’re polar opposites --- I just don’t understand -- Maybe they do it different in New York, but I can’t convict him -- not when there’s so much missing.”
Within another half hour, they took another vote after discussing, and weeding through the evidence once again. To most of them, it didn’t make any sense. To some, Deep South natives, he was already labeled. Society saw him as a killer, so therefore, they did too. They didn’t care that he was white, poor, or helpless, or that there was even a sense of doubt in the air. They just had a feeling of justice… That someone needed to be blamed.
After collecting their ballots, scrawled on little scraps of yellow lined paper, the judge entered the room, a grim look on his face. “Hello there, ladies and gen’elmen, I hate to do this, but I’d like to thank ya’ll for yo’ time, and yo’ effort revolvin’ roun’ this here case --- ya’ll have done a fine job --- and it is with much regret that I have to dismiss ya’ll righ’ here.”
“Wait --- Why?” The New Yorker sat a bit straighter, a dismayed look crossing her facial features.
“Well, Ma’am, sometimes the prosecution gives a bit of an ult’matum, and in this case, they gave him the option of pleadin’ guilty, with only a ten year sent’nce --- and, well ----- he took it.”
“Well ain’t this ridiculous…” A man said.
“But --- we can’t change this?” The woman asked.
“I’m ‘fraid not, Ma’am --- what’s done is surely done.”
The judge left, his balding head disappearing down the dark hallway, the clock ticking toward ten o’clock at night. Shaking their heads, they all gathered up their belongings, and slipped out the door. However, the New York woman remained, her fingers clasping around the stack of unanimous voting ballots. A single tear fled from her eyes, landing slowly, yet gracefully on the top piece of paper. “But, he’s only sixteen,” she whispered, her voice hoarse from holding back any further emotions. With that, she hastily tossed the papers in the garbage, a lone piece separating from the pile, and floating to the floor.
He had to see her; he wanted her to see what she’d done.
His eyes searched for her dark, chocolate curls, frantic in the crowd. The officer grasped his cuffs, pushing him along like cattle. It’s all her fault. His thoughts revolved around just that. Whether he was guilty or not, it would always be her fault.
“C’mon man,” the officer said, giving him another push.
He thrashed, his eyes suddenly wild, only a few people still lingering in the courtroom. “Whea’ is she?” He turned himself swiftly, sending the officer into a slight tailspin. “Ryles!” He shouted, his vocals straining. When he spotted her lithe figure sliding out of the door, he struggled. His limbs were waving crazily, and he was crying out for her. The door was cracked, and he could see her green-brown eyes melting, watching him like an insane animal. “Rylee! Ya did this to me --- ya see this? I kno’ it was you, Ryles!” Before he knew it, the officer had regained his feet, and bashed his elbow into Chase’s skull, subduing him easily. In a heap on the bare ground, he glanced up amidst the blood, already chasing its way down his forehead, seeing the look in her eyes. She wanted to save him, or at least that’s what he allowed himself to believe.
The early morning light cast a soft shadow over his body, slumped in thought. It had been five years since the last time he’d seen her, or anyone, for that matter. It would be a lie to say that he didn’t mind it here, because he did. This was his choice, he knew, he could have waited to hear the jury’s decision, but fifty years seemed like an impossible amount of time, and God knows that people are absolutely unpredictable. He didn’t trust anyone, especially a bunch of random hicks off of farms in Virginia; actually, he didn’t even trust himself that much. They wouldn’t give a rat’s a** about his life, so he’d made the decision for himself. Never in a million decades would he have thought prison would be so horrible, but that was Red Onion. Angling his jaw toward the small window, he caught his own ghastly reflection in the mirror, permanent bruises, and a pale, prominent scar tracing its wretched fingers along his jowl. This is what one deserved for such mistakes as his, a h*** on earth, or a monster of a prison, where harsh dictators put southern b******* in their place.
It was a horrible feeling, like suffocating when one knew very well that they were truly capable of breathing, but something was inhibiting it. The bed sheets enveloped her, but she wasn’t at all sleeping, or drowsy for that matter. She tugged the cotton even further around her body, her feet taking her to the balcony overlooking the river. Today was that day, the looming anniversary of the most dreadful, ill-handled day of her twenty-one years. Five years ago, she’d watched her best friend’s life end in an instant. He finally learned to step up, and for once, he wasn’t hiding anything. He was putting others before himself; he was up there for her.
Pulling her clothes on, she made her way downstairs, practically tripping over herself on the way down. She had to get away from this again. Every year she felt like dying, and she did, over and over again. Actually, it was more like every day, every single time she spotted…
“Mama!” His voice echoed throughout the foyer, shrill and young, thundering footsteps filling the house. “I’m goin’ to Av’ry’s!”
She spotted the young boy, blonde hair and all, just as he dashed out the door. So, like every year, she maneuvered her car along the road to Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia.
She always sat, peering at the prison, never entering. She’d heard what went on in there, the state prison on human rights watch. She could only imagine, and each time she thought of it, her heart broke over and over again. It was all her fault, and he hated her for it, but it only made her love him even more.
A man asked him a few years ago, “Whatcha gonna do when you get outta hea’, Chase?” Up until now, he had absolutely no idea. All he knew was that for years, he’d had this feeling, this feeling like something was missing, an overwhelming sorrow hiding in the pit of his stomach. He had something to do, and somewhere in the back of his mind, in the darkest place of his heart, he knew what it was.
Ten years had passed in a gruesome fit of rage, sometimes accompanied by lulls, but mostly just an extensive journey he’d rather forget, and in just moments, he would.
Stepping out of the fencing for the first time in years, he drank it all in, and filled his lungs with freedom, liberation. Now, through twenty-six year old eyes, he viewed the world. How precious, and beautiful it was, he knew that now, and realized he had to devour it with every fiber of his being.
He stood on her porch, the exact place of their first kiss. All over again, he could feel her lips on his, her fingers as they traced a pattern on his forearm, and how much he loved her, with such a burning intensity that he wanted nothing more than to feel that again and again. He raised his fist, pounding lightly on her door. After several moments, he heard nothing, and turned, disappointment flooding his veins. Just as he did so, he heard the door open, his step faltering. He swung back around, just in time to see the door begin to shut again. He caught a glimpse of her, his heart jumping for a moment. He dashed for the door, his arm bracing it from clicking shut. “Please, Rylee, lis’en to me,” he said softly, his voice cracking. “I kno’ now what I did was wrong --- I neva’ shoulda lef’ you, and I neva’ shoulda --- I --- well, I shouldn’a left our son, eitha’ --- it’s a boy, righ’? Mama said we had a son,” he paused, still bracing the door open with all his strength. “Jus’ lis’en to me Rylee because I jus’ wanna let ya kno’ that I do care and I kno’ I’ve got no righ’ to be here but – but – I wanna be here if you’d let me – ya hear?” He chuckled almost easily, that gentle, crooked smile working its way onto his lips.
The door swung open, revealing her figure, just as beautiful as he remembered, and a boy, as well, with dirty blonde hair like his. It brought a smile onto his lips, accentuating the scar on his jaw. The sight made her wince. She stepped forward, though, her fingers outstretching to trace it, tenderly working her fingers along his skin. “I’m sorry --- Chase --- I really am,” she whispered. “Come in -- please,” she said, stepping aside, almost looking uncomfortable in her own home. The expansion of the house opened up before him, dark oak floors, mahogany tables and chairs, and an odor of freshly cut wildflowers. It smelled like her… Like home.
She disappeared for a moment, returning with a miniscule, faded, crinkled piece of paper, the writing somewhat faded, stiff, like it had been damp once before. She simply tucked it into his hand, watching his facial expression as he read it. Silently, with tears clouding her vision, she handed him another paper, and after that, another, and again, all until he held a rather expansive pile in his hands. She looked up, watching recognition drift across his features as he began to read, the papers fluttering from his fingers. Not Guilty. Not Guilty. Not Guilty. He could have been free. “Ryles…” He whispered, “like I said, ever’thin’s fo’ you.”
She was crying hysterically now, moving away from him in quick, uneven steps. He gently took her arm, and she fought him, spinning and ducking, but he effortlessly pulled her to his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, he knew with finality that he hadn’t gone into that prison to spite her, or to make her regret what she did, and live with that guilt, no, it was for other reasons entirely. Yes, he’d despised her, and thought of her as a despicable human being, but in the end, he’d come to realize that he loved her, he always had. He had gone into that prison to save her, even if he didn’t realize that at the time. He never stopped adoring her, not once in all those years, and never would, ten years in a high security prison could tell anyone that. In one breath, his life came back again, and he suddenly felt his world mend itself entirely.