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My neck was sore from the awkward position I had fallen asleep in while we were driving. My mom pushed lightly on my knee to wake me up and my eyelids slowly blinked open. I let the bright daylight finish mauling my eyes, as I listened for the sharp click of the seatbelt latch and waited for the door to groan open against me. The gravel lot left pebbles clinging to the soles of my dirty, white converse. It was an especially humid day, the kind that pushes moisture to your hairline the instant the air greets you. I let out one last, long sigh before begrudgingly tossing my powered off phone into the trunk of the car. After trekking up to the check-in area, we waited for the guard to wave us through. Today’s guard was a pretty blonde woman with a very pregnant belly. Her swollen hand reached for my ID and she plucked it away from me with two fingers, one of which looked like it wasn’t getting enough circulation due to a wedding band that had grown too tight. I was called into the back room with the male officer who always creeped me out due to his out of date mustache and terrible combover. After a quick check that I wasn't hiding anything in my pockets, I had to take off my shoes so he could examine inside of them because the fifteen year old girl was obviously going to try to smuggle something past a security guard.
We were sent to wait outside in the deathly heat, until the chain link door was swung open from the inside. My parents pushed me roughly through. It was as if my feet were allowed to stay, but the rest of me was going whether I liked it or not. And I definitely did not. The harsh metal trap snapped closed behind us sending an echo through the room. It was supposed to serve as a reminder that the people on the outside were safe, but those of us on the inside seemed to be out of luck. After a quick walk down a once white, but now beige from dust, hallway, we entered the visiting room. Even through the thick humidity and lack of AC, I felt a chill rise up my spine at the scenery. Around five or six other families were squished into the claustrophobic room and were not pleased at the sight of another three people to make fit. We were assigned table four and as we waited, I picked at the white paint that was already rusting away. I surveyed the room and traced all the men in the orange jumpsuit with my eyes. I pondered what they were in for. Did they kill someone? Did they rob a bank? Did they steal cars? Finally, I saw my brother walk in and approach us smiling. For years I’d felt that he had nothing in common with these people. He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t rob a bank. He didn’t steal cars. I saw him in the orange jumpsuit, but it was discolored in my eyes.
“Hey Miss Emily, where have you been lately?” I had hoped he wouldn’t bring up that I ditched the last three visits with stupid excuses.
“School’s been extra busy recently with finals coming up soon.” I couldn’t make eye contact while lying to him. He only nodded, seemingly understanding that I was uncomfortable with the whole situation. We made small talk as the hours dragged on. Having no phone to check the time on, I gaged the hours by how sore my back had become. I was yelled at by a grumpy officer for having my elbows on the table, which was strictly not permitted and I rolled my eyes. Eventually, the guard told us our time was up. We were sent back out to the free world and my brother was taken back to his cell.
I loved talking with my brother and when I went with my other siblings we all had fun just talking and laughing with each other. But the fun I had with them didn’t get rid of my worst fear, at fifteen I was terrified of what my friends would think if they found out where I really went on those Sunday trips and if they found out what I meant when I said my brother “lived” in the next state over.
Two years later, I found myself sitting on the couch surrounded by my closest friends. Everyone wanted to know why I couldn’t spend the night with the rest of them and my original excuse was getting old. When I had said that I was visiting my brother, they all suggested that I go next weekend, but they didn’t know that that’s not how it worked. In a moment of red-faced frustration, I snapped.
“He’s only allowed a certain amount of visits per month.” Puzzled faces stared me down from all directions.
“What do you mean?”
I gathered that they were all going to need more information before I could leave. Sucking in a deep breath, I decided that it was time to tell the truth, so I spoke like I was under oath.
“He’s in prison, but it’s not a big deal, he just made a mistake and he’ll be out in a few years and it’s not as crazy in there as you would think and visiting him isn’t all that bad and my parents make me go every Sunday and I don’t have cousins in Iowa I made that up.”
When I finished telling the who, what, when, where, and whys I felt like the weight of the Hulk himself was lifted off my shoulders.
The next day when I woke up to my mom tapping my knee and I straightened my stiff neck, I didn’t send any reminder texts this time. I greeted the pixie cut guard with a smile and asked how her little girl was. She showed me the sweetest picture of her in a fairy Halloween costume. As she checked my shoes, we were able to make small talk with each other about how she liked my hair cut and that she was considering growing her hair out. She sent me up the hill I had grown so familiar with to the metal door that no longer made me feel trapped when it shut behind me. The cool fall air filled the visitor's room and the windows allowed the sweet smell of fallen leaves to waft in. When my brother walked in, I hugged him hello and sat down without letting my elbows touch the table.
“Why are you so happy today Em?” My brother chuckled to himself while I couldn't suppress the smile I’d had all day. I finally had the weight of this secret off my chest and I could breathe again. It made me realize that true friends accept people in any circumstance. No matter what.
“There's just so many reasons to be happy today.”
That visit flew by and before I knew it I was hugging my brother good-bye and promising that I’d be back in two weeks. A promise I would keep.