QUENTIN: It was late at night. The small jail was mostly quiet and empty except for two prisoners, two guards, and myself. I placed a chair as close to the first prisoner's cell as possible, sat down, and started reading the book I'd brought along. I wasn't expecting any interruptions until morning. But even a lawyer can be wrong sometimes.
“Mr. Ngomo?” the prisoner called. “You still there?”
“I'm still here, Mr. Drummond,” I said. “I thought you would be sleeping, recovering from your hangover. So I brought a book with me.”
“It's not so bad now,” he said. “It was worse a few hours ago. And please don't call me 'Mr. Drummond.' It makes you sound like one of my teachers.”
“Call it penance for three poor decisions, Caleb,” I said. “Getting intoxicated. Driving while still intoxicated. And then trying to rape a woman. I never thought that you were the self-destructive type. Narcissistic sometimes, yes, foolish sometimes, yes, but not self-destructive.”
I heard him get out of bed and walk over to the bars of his cell. “Do you think that every person is redeemable, no matter how bad their crime might be?”
“Some more than others,” I said. “The ones who are are less likely to figuratively drive at high speed into a brick wall. They have a chance of turning their life around.”
“You know anybody that it actually happened to?” Caleb asked. “Not the driving part, I mean.”
“I do,” I said. “His name is Dwayne.”
“Same first name as one of the guards here?” he asked.
“The same person,” I said. “He wasn't always a good person. In elementary school, he was a mean bully and I was his favorite victim. At some point, he decided to stop being a bully and try to improve himself. He even earned a scholarship that paid for four years at the police academy. So you see -- people can change, if they want to. But it requires willingness. It can't be forced on them from outside.”
“Is that what you're waiting for, then?” he asked. “Waiting for me to change for the better?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What if I don't?” Caleb asked.
“Then I guess we'll be seeing each other frequently,” I said. “Both here and in court. I was rather hoping, though, that you might change your mind and finally start learning from your mistakes. Just because your parents didn't doesn't mean you can't.”
I heard him laugh a little, though not at anything I'd call amusing. “Dad. Yeah. He was a mean one. Spent most of his time drunk and beating up Mom, myself, and my brothers. I don't know why she didn't just leave and take us with her.”
“Maybe she thought she couldn't,” I suggested. “It takes quite a bit of courage to leave a bad marriage. Especially if children are involved. I'm sorry about what happened to her. She deserved better.”
“I'm sorry, too,” he said. “I miss her. Sometimes I wonder if things could've been different if she had left Dad and taken us with her. I don't think Dad could've tried to go after her. He'd be too drunk to. He'd just trip and fall and curse all of us, not just Mom.”
“There's still time,” I said.
“For what?” Caleb asked.
“To change yourself,” I said. “To change the direction you're headed in. You don't have to be like your father. You can be someone better than him. Someone your mother would've been proud of. But you have to choose to. I can't make you do it.”
He was silent for several minutes.
In the meantime, I read another chapter of my book. The story was getting interesting. If the author was still alive, I might have been tempted to write her and ask if she ever wondered what happened after the end of her book. If she ever wanted to write about it. Would Scout have turned out something like my daughter Cat? Possibly. They did have their similarities, despite the differences in their skin colors. I wondered if the reaction to the book would've been different if Atticus had been black like I was. No longer a “white savior”, but a “black savior”.
I heard Caleb sit down on his bed. “There's something I wish I could do. Something I haven't done in a very long time. Could you let me do it?”
“Depends,” I said. “What is it?”
“I want to visit my mother's grave,” he said. “I haven't done it in several years.”
“What about your brothers?” I asked. “Shouldn't they come with us?”
“Does that mean you'll let me?” he asked.
“With police escort, yes,” I said.
“If my brothers want to come with us, they're welcome to,” Caleb said.
“I'll call your grandmother's house and ask them,” I said.
“Thanks, Mr. Ngomo,” he said.
“For the ride to the cemetery?” I asked.
“For believing that there's hope for people like me,” he said.
“Just remember that I wasn't always like I am now,” I said as I stood up. “People change. Sometimes for the better. You don't have to stay like you are right now if you don't want to. Become the person you want to be, not just another copy of your father. The world has enough of those as it is.”
It was already raining when the police car arrived at the cemetery.
The cemetery was mostly empty of the quick. The dead were as plentiful as ever, asleep below the wet green grass and their respective tombstones or grave markers.
The tree branches drooped, dripping water.
We walked over to Caleb's mother's grave, Dwayne on one side of him and myself on the other. Caleb's brothers followed us.
The grave was near the grave of their grandfather. The man that Widow Drummond almost never spoke about. What little I knew of him, he wasn't much of an improvement over their son.
The inscription on the grave marker was simple: Norma Frances Drummond. 1980-2014. Wife and mother.
No one said anything for a minute or two.
In the silence, I thought: Caleb, you and your brothers probably weren't even adolescents when your mother died. Thankfully your grandmother adopted you three and tried to raise you as best she could. I bet she hit the roof when she heard about what happened at the orchard. No wonder your brothers are so quiet. It isn't just because of where we are.
Then Caleb spoke. “Hi, Mom. Sorry it's been so long since I was last here. Sorry for disappointing you because, yeah, things are pretty much as they were when you were still alive. At least Dad isn't around anymore. But I wish you were. You tried your best to make us more like you and less like him. Gramma ... I guess she does okay, but she just isn't you.” He paused, then went on. “I got myself arrested again. This time for drunk driving and attempted rape. You'd think I would've learned my lesson by now. I just keep making mistakes over and over again. Maybe this time will be the one where I stop being like I am and try to become who I want to be.” He glanced at Dwayne and then at myself. “If I don't, things will never change. I'll never be like you were. I just hope you're not mad at me. You probably thought that, as the eldest son, I should be the one setting the example, something positive. But it's too easy to be lazy, to let things slide.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I guess I need they need to take me back to my jail cell. I hope the next time I'm here I'll have something better to tell you. I'll also try to bring some flowers with me if I can. Take care, Mom. I miss you so much.”
“Either of you want to say anything?” I asked his brothers.
Earl said, “He pretty much said what I wanted to say.”
Junior said, “Likewise.”
“You sure?” I asked. “You might not get a second chance until next time.”
Earl and Junior looked at each other, then at Caleb, then at me and shook their heads.
On the way back to the jail, I dropped Earl and Junior off at Widow Drummond's house.
Their grandmother stood on the front porch, waiting for them. Was she angry or sad? Hard to tell from twenty feet away.
They went inside and the front door didn't quite slam behind them.
SOLOMON JACKSON: If only foresight were as clear as hindsight. I should've found better people to be friends with than Caleb and his brothers. Then I wouldn't have done what I did.
I stood up and walked over to the cell's bars. There didn't seem to be anyone in the jail except me. But they wouldn't have left me unguarded ... or would they?
“Guard?” I called. “Police officer?”
“I'm here,” a female voice said. When they came into view, I realized they weren't the officer who arrested Caleb Drummond. The name on her shirt said “Davis”. She looked old almost enough to be my mother. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I want to confess,” I said.
She looked at me. “You sure? You can still keep quiet until your day in court. Or you can take the 5th Amendment either here or there. The choice is yours.”
I took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. “I want to. Before they come back. I might not be as brave if they were also here.”
She walked away for a minute or two, returned with a pen and notebook. She opened the notebook, held the pen above it. “Ready when you are, then.”
“I don't have a lot of friends at school,” I said. “Mostly the kids I saw in the school library at lunchtime each day and the librarians. I loved to browse the books and borrow the ones that interested me most. Sometimes I kept them at home too long and Mom had to pay the late fees.
“One day I saw Caleb Drummond enter the school library. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. He didn't seem to belong there. Not because of how he looked but because how little he was interested in the books, magazines, and newspapers. He didn't even look at the computer terminals. He wandered around until he saw me, then he walked right over.
“I tried to be polite at first. 'Hi. I'm Sol. Solomon Jackson.'
“ 'I know who you are,' he said. 'I'm Caleb Drummond.'
“ 'Oh,' I said. 'Pleased to meet you.' He narrowed his eyes. I asked, 'Have I done anything wrong?'
“ 'That depends on your definition of “wrong”,' he said. 'Don't see you much in the cafeteria.'
“ 'I'm usually here,' I said.
“ 'I know,' he said. 'This school has some unofficial groups. Sort of like fraternities. You don't seem much interested in them.'
“ 'I thought I'd wait until I went to college before I tried to find one that I wanted to join,' I said.
“ 'I could make your life at this school really uncomfortable,' Caleb said. 'Unless, of course, you join my group. Then you might find things a lot easier.'
“I knew about blackmail. I'd seen it in TV shows and movies, and read about it in books. It was supposed to be illegal, but Caleb didn't seem to care if it was or wasn't. This wasn't peer pressure. This was blackmail.
“ 'Do I have a choice?' I asked.
“ 'Sure,' he said and smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. 'And don't think you can go and tell anyone about this conversation. This is strictly between you' -- he tapped me on the chest with the back of his hand -- 'and me. Get me?'
“I swallowed and nodded. Tell Mom? I was tempted, but that might get me in trouble if Caleb and his friends found out.
“ 'Then we have an understanding?' he asked.
“I nodded again.
“ He smiled. Another not-nice smile. 'Good. Because me and my friends would like you to help us do something. Do it and you're in.'
“ 'What do you want to do?' I asked. This didn't sound like the college pledges I'd read about (some of which sounded downright weird to me).
“ 'There are two people who shouldn't be together,' Caleb explained. 'They don't live together ... yet. But they might. We want to stop that from happening.'
“ 'Who are the two people?' I asked.
“ 'Your mom and Quentin Ngomo,' he said.
“ 'Whatever it is, forget it,' I said. 'I'm not going to hurt either of them.'
“ 'Didn't say anything about hurting them,' he said. 'Maybe you could do something to discourage them?'
“ 'Like what?' I asked.
“Caleb told me what it was. It seemed so straightforward to him. Just do it and get away. I wouldn't get hurt, I wouldn't get in trouble. Mom and my sisters would probably think it was just an accident. Maybe it would be enough that they'd have to move away from Dandridge for a while. At least until the house was repaired. But the more he explained what he wanted done, the more I didn't want to do it, much less listen to him.
“ 'No,' I said. 'Absolutely not. Pick something else for me to do.'
“He moved closer and I backed away from him.
“ 'It's this or nothing,' he said. 'You really don't want us to make your life miserable, do you?'
“I tried to think of what they could do and came up empty.
“ 'Think what we could do to your girlfriend,' he said with a nasty grin.
“ 'You leave him out of this!' I blurted and a second later I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. Oh dear God. What had I done? The only thing I could do was to avoid saying anything else. If it wasn't too late already.
“Caleb's eyebrows rose. 'Him? Not a her? How interesting. And who might he be?'
“ 'It's none of your business,' I said.
“ 'We could find out who he is,' he said. 'It wouldn't be hard to do. It's not a big school and most of the boys have girlfriends. Not like you and your boyfriend.'
“ 'If you promise to leave him alone, I'll do what you want,' I said.
“ 'As long as you promise to help us,' he said and held out his hand. 'Deal?'
“I nodded and shook his hand. 'Deal.'
“ 'And don't worry so much, Sol,' Caleb said in a nicer voice. 'We never go back on a promise. I hope you don't either?'
“I shook my head.
“ 'Good,' he said. 'Next time we meet here, I'll tell you everything you need to know, what you'll be helping with. Welcome to the group.'
“I watched him walk away and leave the school library.
“I wanted to cry. Why did I have to mention 'him', when I'd tried so hard to keep that relationship a secret, even from my own family.”
“There's no shame or guilt in having a same-gender relationship,” Officer Davis said. “This isn't the 1950s after all.”
“I'm not ashamed,” I said. “Or feel guilty. It's just that I'd promised ... I'd promised ...”
She waited calmly. She wasn't like Caleb. When I was ready, I could go on. No pressure. At least, not from her.
“No one else was supposed to know,” I finally went on. “Just the two of us. Like Romeo and Juliet.” I looked at her. “I guess that means you need his name, too?”
“It would help in the investigation,” she said. “There very few hate crimes in Dandridge. To be honest, I can't remember when the last one was. Maybe in the 1940s or 1950s when a black man was lynched by a group of white men. His body was found hanging from a tree in what is now Joplin Park.”
I'd never heard about that. I thought Dandridge had managed to avoid most of the prejudices and segregation in this state. Turns out it hadn't. Or not that much, anyway.
In my mind, I could see his face, his smile. Feel his arms hugging me. Kissing me. No shame, no guilt in him. None at all.
“Gabe,” I said. “Gabe Monkton.” I watched her write it down.
“Did his parents come to his funeral?” Officer Davis asked.
I nodded. “I wasn't invited. I pretended I didn't know him. I spent the day playing Nintendo console games with my sisters instead. It was hard to keep from going into the bathroom every hour or two and crying.”
She wrote that down as well. “Nothing wrong with crying.”
“Are there any possible suspects?” I asked.
She nodded. “I can't go into details, though. Thank you for providing additional information. It might help identify your boyfriend's killers and bring them to justice.”
“Can I go free, then?” I asked.
Officer Davis shook her head. “You're still in trouble. For the time being this might be the safest place for you. You're protected here.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” I said.
“What for?” she asked.
“For caring,” I said. “About what happened to Gabe.”
“Along with 'serving' and 'protecting', they should also add 'caring',” she said. “Some might take it for granted, but I don't.”