Note: This story contains mentions of physical violence and derogatory language.
Squeezing both bags, he stared at the coffee maker. Wood County was always out of everything. Grounds. Creamer. Actual sugar. Viscous brown water stained his fingers and dripped into the rippling tea in the styrofoam cup. When the sopping bags had given their all, he tossed them into the trash can under the sink.
“Who are you seeing this morning?” a woman asked.
Matthew turned, and seeing Candace, he smiled. “McDaniel. You?”
Candace stepped into the kitchenette carrying a tall white cup with a familiar green logo. “Darnell Lucas.”
“Is he new?” Matthew asked, turning with his tea. He blew away steam that floated from his cup and asked, “Where’s there a Starbucks around here?”
“There isn’t. Sentenced last week and transferred in on Monday,” Candace said, then sipped her coffee.
“What’d he do?”
“Beat a kid at school half to death.”
“Yikes.” Matthew sipped his tea and winced.
“That good, huh?” Candace asked, nodding to his cup.
“It’s awful. You know, I have been here probably every other week for the past seven months, and not once has there been any coffee. I swear that machine is just for show. That or the guards steal it all.”
“Maybe the warden owns stock in Lipton,” she joked.
“I’d kill for Lipton. This is ‘Britain’s Best.’ You have to use two bags if you want any caffeine. Dry it smells like old spinach. Wet, it’s like drinking dirt.”
Candace held up her paper cup, and jostled it. “That’s why you have to come prepared.” She moved to where Matthew stood and leaned her wide hip into the counter.
Joining her in leaning, they met eyes. “Does it say why he did it?”
“The paperwork says bullying.”
“So it doesn’t say.”
“I have my work cut out for me,” Candace said.
“Another day in paradise.” Matthew raised the cup with two hands, blew on it gently, then scowled before the liquid even touched his lips.
Wood County Juvenile Corrections was just like all the other cinder block child prisons. It was overcrowded, understaffed, and in Candace’s mind, it was exactly the kind of place that made good kids bad and bad kids worse. Darnell was already in the windowless conference room when she opened the door. Waiting with his head down under the UV light, his gray sweats matched the gray walls, his brown skin matched the brown table, and it was as though color was contraband until Candace entered in her deep burgundy skirt and blazer.
She dropped a manilla folder onto the table and it landed with a thick slap. Her chair scraped against the concrete floor, and it wasn’t until she was sitting comfortably that she said sweetly, “Good morning, Darnell.” When he didn’t respond, Candace simply opened her folder and began flipping through the stack of white papers it contained. She slurped her coffee on purpose, and when Darnell raised his head, she smiled at him with painted lips. “My name is Candace Jackson, but you can call me Candace. I’ve been assigned to be your counselor. Do you know what that means?” Darnell raised his head a few inches, and shook it, so she explained, “It means that I am here to help you. I work for the court, but I am not a police officer or a lawyer or a judge.”
“Are you a psychiatrist?” Darnell asked.
“A psychologist, actually. And I specialize in juvenile criminology. It’s my job to help you understand why you did what you did.”
Darnell sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I’m already locked up. Why the fuck’s anyone care about why? What’s done is done.”
“Because in two years when you turn eighteen, you could be released back into society, and if so, it’s in the interest of the state to make sure you don’t ever do anything like that again.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Candace smiled again, “But if we don’t get to the bottom of whatever it is inside of you that made you act so violently, we can’t be certain.”
Darnell squinted. “Why’s it got to be something inside me? Why is everyone so sure it ain't all about something inside of him?”
“Inside of who? Jamie?”
“Well, Darnell, because Jamie didn’t beat you up in front of a crowd of kids at a football game. Because Jamie didn’t lift you up and slam you down onto the parking lot while other kids cheered and live streamed the assault. Because you’re not confined to a wheelchair now, and Jaime is.”
Darnell’s eyes went to the open folder under Candace’s right hand. “That’s my file, right?”
“You read the whole thing?”
“What else have I done?”
Candace’s mouth parted to speak, but she restrained herself to think first. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.”
He sat forward, tapping his index finger on the faux wood surface of the table. “What other violent crimes have I committed? Or non-violent crimes for that matter?”
Candace folded her hands and kept her back straight. “According to your file, none.”
“So why does everyone just assume all this shit with Jaime was my fault?”
“Like I said, Darnell, because he is in the wheelchair, not you.”
“He’s in the wheelchair because I happen to outweigh that little bitch by fifty pounds. He’s in the wheelchair because there ain't nothing he could have done to me if he wanted to. So if anything, I’m guilty of being bigger than him, and that’s it.”
“Are you saying that Jaime picked that fight with you?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not what any of the videos show. Three of your classmates recorded the incident from beginning to end and posted it on their social media pages. These videos were all watched by the jury over and over again, Darnell, and they unanimously agreed that you were the instigator of the conflict with Jaime.”
Darnell rolled his eyes and looked away, shaking his head. He was facing the door when he said, “I guess it’s totally inconceivable to anyone that maybe, shit with me and Jaime started before I ever confronted him in that parking lot.” Laying his arms on the table he said in a low voice, “Maybe, the fucking jury only ever saw the end of something that started long before that night. Something that I had been dealing with for a long time. Something that took all of my restraint to let go on for as long as it did.”
Candace mimicked Darnell’s posture and volume, trying to subconsciously gain his trust. “Tell me,” she said.
He pursed his lips, sucking his teeth. “You won’t understand.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean you won’t understand!” he said, his eyes widening.
“I can understand something even if I don’t agree with it. And it’s much better for your future, if I write down that you had underlying motivations for your actions, rather than you are an unremorseful person who enjoys violence. Because right now, that’s the state’s opinion of you.”
“That’s the state’s opinion of all black men.”
“It’s not my opinion, and I work for the state.”
“That’s because you black too. You got a black daddy, black brothers, you probably got a black husband. So you know that’s all bullshit.”
Candace smiled. “I’m married to a woman, Mr. Lucas.”
“But you're black. That’s my point.”
“No matter what I tell you about Jamie and me, it’s not going to convince any of the white folk down at the courthouse that I’m anything other than a fucking animal. So why should I bother?”
“Because you’re not an animal. You’re a young man who made a mistake. A grave mistake. But when I look at your records, I see a young man with potential. A young man with good grades and even respectable extracurriculars like the debate team. And talking to you now, even for just a few minutes, I can see that you don't deserve to spend the next ten years of your life inside a prison, wasting your mind, wasting your talents, growing hard of heart and turning into what you think those white folks already believe that you are. So tell me, what happened?”
“This is pointless.”
Darnell’s breathing was paced, and heavy. His gaze bounced around the room as if the beginning of his story was hidden in one of its corners, and he had to lay eyes on it before he could speak. Pressing with his toes, he leaned his chair back on its rear legs and his hands began to gesture in front of his chest like he was conducting a silent orchestra. A torrent of emotions moved through the muscles of his face, and Candace watched as fear became joy which melted into anger and then confusion, all in the space of seconds. Thinking he was never going to say anything, Candace parted her hands and opened her own mouth, but before she could speak, Darnell blurted out, “He kissed me!”
Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. “What’s that?”
Darnell set his chair back on all four legs, and hung his head. At a whisper, he repeated himself. “He kissed me. In the hallway. His friend put it up on Snapchat. The whole school saw it.”
“You crippled that poor boy, because he kissed you?” She didn’t mean to sound so aghast.
Darnell’s shame fled under the weight of her judgement. “He kissed me on the mouth! Isn’t that assault? If I don’t want to be kissed, why is it OK to do that? And to film it! Do you know what kind of shit I took for weeks because of that?”
Candace checked her tone. “You’re right, he had no business kissing you without your consent. No one is saying that’s OK, Darnell. But the ferocity with which you took your revenge was out of proportion. Like you said, you’re much larger than he is. He didn’t stand a chance.”
“He should have thought about that before making a fool out of me! Before posting it online like a big fucking joke instead of apologizing. Was that in your fucking videos? Is it in all this fucking paper?” With a hurricane swipe of his arm, Darnell flung the manilla folder off the table, scattering white sheets of paper that flipped and spun and floated to the ground. “Did one person in this whole goddamn system ever give enough of a fuck about me to find out that I approached Jaime before that night at the game, more than once, simply asking him to apologize? Was anyone there to see him brush me off with a smile in front of all his faggot friends? Did anyone in the court hear him call me ‘sweetie’ on all them videos?”
“You can’t hurt people’s bodies because they hurt your feelings. You changed that boy’s life forever.”
Big tears balled up in Darnell’s tender brown eyes. They tumbled down his face as he spoke. “Do you really think I did that on purpose? Do you think I wanted him to be handicapped? Me and Jamie…” He looked to the impenetrable wall at his side as though it were a window.
“What?” Candace asked, tensing her fists under the table to keep her own tears on the inside.
Darnell’s head shook with tremors that were only visible up close. “We go back. We known each other a long time. A long time. He should have known.”
Darnell’s head fell into his arms, his body trembling.
“Known what, Darnell?”
Darnell exploded upward, his arms and face launching towards Candace. “That I wasn’t like him!” And with that, he deflated, sinking back into his chair, his shoulders and chest slumping forward as he stared into his lap.
Candace nodded, refusing to look at Darnell. “I think we’re done for today.” She pushed back her chair and moved to the floor, scooping up papers and dropping them back into their folder. Darnell was silent but for the sound of his sniffling. Candace stood, and her heels clicked on the hard floor as she collected her coffee cup and walked toward the door. “I’ll be back next week,” she said, reaching for the aluminum handle.
“I wasn’t ready,” Darnell said into his chest.
Candace froze. “Ready for what, Mr. Lucas?”
“For people to know.”
The microwaved beeped, and when Candace pulled it open to retrieve a white styrofoam cup, the smell of a thousand reheated lunches wafted out. She flicked the bag of ‘Britain’s Best,” a few times with her finger, then lowered it into the steaming water.
“Old spinach,” she said.
“I told you so,” Matthew laughed. Stepping into the kitchenette, he flopped a folder onto the white table and collapsed into an orange chair.
Candace’s back was to Matthew. She didn’t see him dragging his fingers down his face as he groaned, “Ever notice that the first one of the day is always the hardest?” She didn’t answer. Her arm was robotically raising and lowering a teabag in her cup so he asked, “Your Starbucks run dry?”
Turning to him, Candace’s eyes were red and her mascara was smeared. Matthew jumped up and went to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. Softly he said, “Hey, hey, hey! What’s the matter? What happened? Was the Lucas kid a monster?”
“No. No, he’s just a boy. It’s not him. I just…” Candace was weeping. Matthew carefully took her cup from her hand and set it on the counter. She moved in and hugged him tightly, and her body heaved against his. Matthew’s embrace was that of a fellow soldier fighting a losing war. He said nothing. He was scaffolding. She found a place between her sobs to whisper, “I just wasn’t prepared.”