As the morning fog bobbed over the small downtown district, Kate stopped by the French market and cafe on Main for her to-go order before starting her twenty-mile Sunday journey. Two warm croissants protecting gently folded eggs and crispy mesquite-smoked bacon. One with Swiss and one with cheddar for her and Chloe. Two identical large coffees, cream only.
Even though the breakfast would arrive barely warm and coffees cold, Kate needed the breakfast to balance of the chaos their current relationship. Friendship never used to be this complex. She remembered the day her and Chloe first met.
“I have no breasts either,” Chloe declared as she watched Kate trying to put on her polo while simultaneously trying to pull the mandated sixth-grade maroon gym tee shirt over her head. “I will cover you if you cover me.”
Chloe spread out her arms and legs and swayed from side to side looking like she was leading an aerobics group. Kate still hesitated.
“If you count to three, it will be over before you know it,” reassured Chloe now flapping her arms as a human room divide. By the time Kate got to three, not only was she dressed, but she knew she had found her first friend in middle school.
The morning’s dampness followed Kate into the car. She turned the heat on low and ventured towards the outskirts of town where the population ended and the rolling hills started.
The changing cloud ceilings reminded Kate of when her and Chloe were stranded for eighteen hours at the Seattle’s airport after they both interviewed for an internship with Amazon.
The fog would lift long enough for the airline to post the flashing “NOW BOARDING” cattle call on the gate screens only to change it back to “DELAYED” once all of the summoned passengers tried unsuccessfully to form single-file lines. Neither Kate nor Chloe minded the ebb and flow of the crowd in the waiting area. They had food, money, and lots gossip flowing through their Facebook feeds.
“This internship has to work out,” Chloe managed between bites of her locally-caught salmon sandwich slathered in pesto mayonnaise that dripped out both sides of her mouth. “This would be the trifecta in our college careers.”
Same college. Same major. Interning at the same company would give them a chance to live like “big girls,” as Chloe often put it, in a state far from home. Far enough from her reality TV show ready dysfunctional family and Kate from her hyper-vigilant mother who honestly believed - after two failed marriages and many broken romances – that men were dirt without any nutrients.
However, their escape scenario soon ended. Both received thanks, no thanks emails from Amazon two days later.
The drive to the town of Shelby took Kate across two counties, but only had three turns. Kate didn’t need her GPS any more. Right at the antique mall, right at the closed Hardee’s, and left onto Bonneville Road. Chloe’s road.
No matter what mental preparation she used, seeing the “Shelby Female Correctional Center” sign set Kate off into a panic.
“One. Two. Three.” Kate mouthed as she approached the guard’s station.
“Kate Lowe here to see Chloe Montgomery, prison ID number 464528, unit C.”
Kate had been on Chloe’s approved visitor’s list for over a year. Although when Chloe was first sentenced to two years at the minimum-security prison, Kate hesitated in registering to visit Chloe. How do you talk to your mantra leader, your best friend now turned convicted felon?
Kate understood Chloe’s involvement in the crime. Chloe admitted to her stupidity in thinking Kirk, her boyfriend, had a legal way to get her out of the debt of her parents’ poor fiscal choices. A few signatures here. Stealing a password. And a forged check led to Chloe’s guilty verdict on three of the five charges, including a felony and theft under five-thousand dollars. On the day of Chloe’s sentencing, Kate spoke as a character witness to try to compel the judge to issue probation.
“I have known Chloe for nearly twelve years. I went to high school with her. Went to college with her. Talk with her nearly every day.” Kate’s emotions started swelling exactly the way Chloe’s attorney had warned. Kate looked up at the ceiling hoping composure lurked there.
“Chloe is so caring and compassionate. She volunteers in the community and a is loyal friend. Please try to see her indiscretion as a single occurrence in a desperate situation.”
The judge shook his head to dismiss Kate from the stand.
“Linda,” the judge said to the court clerk. “I am not having a good day today. The young folks have excuses for everything.”
He sentenced Chloe to two years in prison and asked the clerk to order him lunch in the same breath.
Carrying breakfast, Kate headed towards the visitor’s center. Each time, the walk reminded Kate that Chloe’s current address was prison and not 401 Rockfield, Apt 4B.
Before Kirk moved in, Chloe’s studio apartment was the pair’s Sunday social gathering spot. Chloe’s dry wit and appreciation of art deco tastefully created a haven with a pauper’s budget. Kate would stop by after church for mimosas and pancakes. The two decompressed with a day-long effort to complete the New York Times’ crossword puzzle. Periodic chart symbol for phosphorus? How many years had Marilyn Monroe been married to Arthur Miller? By dinner, they would celebrate its completion or analyze their strategy for success next time.
Kate cherished the basicness of those Sundays.
The prison intake staff rolled through the required information needed for entry and a list of prohibited items. Kate hated this part of the visitor’s process the most. The guards suspected all visitors of conspiracy with the prisoners until proven the opposite. Kate’s body was scanned and re-scanned. What was the reason for her visit? Breakfast and coffee sent through the x-ray machine.
Kate wondered if Chloe understood the physical and emotional intensity for someone trying to visit her. She hated being pulled aside at the airport let alone in a correctional facility.
One visit, Kate required a pat down when her necklace hidden in her turtleneck looked like a small weapon. In the privacy room, the female guard helped Kate remove her turtleneck, disconnected Kate’s necklace and slid her fingers between Kate’s bra and bare skin to search for contraband. And while Kate hated how the not guilty were treated like the convicted, she understood the need and wondered how often Chloe was subject to these physical invasions.
With a group of other visitors, Kate walked down a bright white hallway with no discerning marks to a steel door with a window sliver. Inside, more white walls with a few specks of color, primary color blocks in the grey carpet. On the far end opposite the entry door, a purple gated children’s play area waited with plastic pint-sized tables and chairs.
The minimalist adult furniture looked like metal picnic tables with individual backless seats bolted to the ground. Visitors scrambled to be close to the prisoner entry door. Young children stood at the ready to present flowers to their loved ones when they walked through. Kate moved to their usual table near the window away from the family rendezvous and waited for the prisoner parade.
The entry experience reminded Kate of senior year prom when Chloe was selected to the Duchess Court. A mutual friend had nominated Chloe. While not overly physically beautiful, Chloe’s humor united her peers in comedy and her ability debate a point until it was dull won her kudos from the jocks, geeks, and smarties. Chloe used to say Kate was the beauty and brains and she was the comic intermission.
To no one’s surprise, Chloe’s introduction with her Duke became the highlight of the night. Accessorizing her black strapless ball gown with a Harry Potter hat and wand, Chloe danced down the runway tossing confetti and glitter, pausing momentarily to accept an imaginary award.
“And I dedicate this award to my best friend and balancing act Kate. Without her none of this is possible,” she said using her hands to frame her hair, face and dress. “Kate Bate, I love you!”
The female detainees entered the room to tears and cheers. The scene reminiscent of soldiers returning from abroad without the service to country or dedication to honor.
As soon as she saw Chloe, Kate knew something was wrong. Chloe walked slightly hunched over with her right hand appearing to shield her eyes from light and her left hand resting palm-up on her lower back.
Chloe sat down without words and removed her right hand to revel a red-tinged welt on her upper right cheek. As she rested her left hand on the table, Kate saw more red flesh and oozing sores trying to process scabs on her knuckles.
“Oh my God Chloe! What happened to you?”
“I didn’t win this one Katie,” Chloe half-jokingly mumbled.
Katie. Chloe had only called her that a handful of times since they had been friends. The last time was when she called Kate on the day her mother attempted suicide. Over the years, Kate learned that Chloe only used the “cutesie” version when she lacked confidence in herself, which wasn’t often.
“The bitch punched me in the face so I punched her back. The guards did not see her punch, but they damn well saw mine,” she curtly explained. “They are only giving me twenty minutes of rec time this morning and tomorrow, tomorrow I have to go before the prison board to see how long my visitation privileges will be suspended and if they will add time to my sentence.”
“When did this happen? Your bruise looks fresh,” Kate questioned, concerned for her friend’s safety.
“Four o’clock this morning. Right as the night shift guards were leaving and the day sift started.” Chloe sighed. “That’s why they did not see Maria hit me first.”
Kate thought there had to be video that could be reviewed to show Chloe was defending herself. Or another inmate had to see the first blow. Kate honestly could not believe Chloe had even thrown a punch. She had only seen Chloe use humor to get out of arguments.
“I am a different person now” was all Chloe could muster as an explanation.
They sat in silence eating the slowly decomposing breakfast. Kate knew that she would probably not be able to see Chloe again for a few weeks. She knew that Chloe was guilty even though it did not seem fair. Just like her conviction did not seem fair.
Kate initiated small talk between them to fill the tense air. She told Chloe about her interview for a promotion at Smudge, the artistic design and marketing company where she worked.
“I have an interview with the VP of Strategy this week. Could use one of you Chloe mantras for motivation.”
Chloe stood up and exploded, “Mantra! You want me to pep you up when I might be in here longer!”
Kate must have looked surprised at the outburst because Chloe paused.
A young blond-haired guard who looked close to their twenty-four years walked over pointing at her watch.
Chloe recognized her silent summons and began to walk away before turning back around to Kate.
“One. Two. Three, Katie. One. Two. Three.”
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