The sun momentarily blinded Eric as the door slammed shut behind him. He squinted around him and tried to locate Jon’s car, but none of the ones he could see matched the description Jon had given on the phone earlier that week.
Eric sighed, sat on the low wall at the edge of the car park, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was so natural, even after not doing it for over a year. He pressed the power button, but nothing happened. He pressed it again, for longer this time, but the phone was dead. Of course it was; it had spent over a year sitting in a box at HMP Lincoln.
A car pulled into the car park, and Eric looked up just as Jon opened the door and climbed out of the driver’s seat. He at least had not changed. The shaved head, holey jeans, and Doc Martens were just how Eric remembered his best friend.
“Look at you,” Jon said. “You gained some muscles in there.”
“I had some time to spare,” Eric said. “You’re not looking bad yourself.”
Jon beamed and threw his arms around Eric, knocking the wind out of him as he clapped him on the back.
“Believe me; there’s nothing in that place I ever want to see again.”
“Hop in then. Let’s get you some proper food, and then we can get you home.”
Home. Eric didn’t know if he had one of those anymore. Before prison, his home had been a three-bedroom, semi-detached with his wife and daughter. Now it was Jon’s sofa. It had been that or his parent’s house, surrounded by the disappointed faces of the neighbours he had grown up around.
Eric got in the car and sank into the seat, relishing the soft fabric taking his weight. Jon revved the engine and sped from the car park, giving Eric no chance to take a last look at the prison. For that, he was grateful.
“Can I borrow your phone?” Eric asked.
Jon grabbed it from his jacket pocket and unlocked it with his thumbprint before handing it over. Eric examined the screen for a few seconds, relieved that most of the apps were familiar, before opening the keypad and dialling the number of his old home. It rang several times, and he worried they were not home when there was a click, and a familiar voice filled his ear.
“Yeah, it’s me. How are you doing?”
“I’m, oh god. I’m not ready for this.”
Panic rose in him that she would hang up before he could ask the one question that had plagued him during his incarceration. If she hung up now, she almost certainly wouldn’t answer any calls from this number again.
“I know, and I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through, but I have to know. How’s Bethany?”
Felicity gave a small sigh.
Relief. Pure relief that his daughter was OK flooded through him at these words.
“Fliss, I want to see her,” Eric said.
“That’s not going to happen, not yet.”
“She’s my daughter, and I want to be there for her. I want to be in her life.”
“Maybe you should have considered that before you chose drug dealing as your career. Eric, I don’t want that world anywhere near her, and if you cared about her at all, you wouldn’t either.”
“I don’t, and I’m not part of that anymore, I swear. I’m going to do things properly this time, and I’m going to be a good father.”
“Clean up your act; get an actual job, get your own place, and stay away from drugs. Then we can talk.”
“I will. I promise you I can do all those things,” said Eric.
He had another question he wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure if he could bear to hear the answer. Putting it off wouldn’t help though, so he bit the bullet and asked.
“Does she miss me?”
“She stopped asking when you were coming home six months ago,” Felicity said. “But yes, she misses you.”
Eric blinked rapidly to clear the tears forming in his eyes. He needed to wrap this up before he went to pieces. Just hearing Felicity’s voice reminded him of everything he had lost. They had only spoken a handful of times while he was behind bars up because it had been too hard for her, and as much as it had hurt, he couldn’t blame her.
“I miss her too. I miss both of you.”
“Eric, I have to go. Just, please, get your life together. Then we can talk about you seeing Bethany.”
“OK,” he said.
There was a click, and she hung up. Eric put Jon’s phone down between them and stared out of the window. There were so many trees; he had forgotten just how many there were out here. Maybe he could take Bethany somewhere with lots of trees to climb. She used to love that.
“Sounds like the missus isn’t too pleased with you,” Jon said.
“She won’t let me see Bethany, not yet, at least.”
“She’ll come round. She always does.”
Eric resumed looking out of the window and enjoying the scenery that flew past them. He could go anywhere now, and the thought was dizzying. They rounded a corner and the sunlight that had hit him as he left the prison filled the car; it bathed him in warmth. Jon moved the sun visor down, presumably to see better, but a few seconds later, he gave a huff of breath.
“Can you grab my sunglasses? They’re in the glove box.”
Eric reached for the handle in front of him and pulled. The glove box was full of an assortment of things. There were gum wrappers, some with gum in and some empty, a tattered manual for the car, a screwdriver, and a glasses case, which he pulled out to retrieve the sunglasses. As he did so, he dislodged a small plastic bag behind it. The bag of identical pills fell into his outstretched hand like they had been waiting there just for him. He knew what they were and before he could stop himself he started counting them, calculating the street value.
“Jon, what are you doing with these?”
“Storing them. What does it look like?”
“I thought you weren’t dealing anymore?”
Jon chuckled as he grabbed the sunglasses from Eric’s lap and put them on.
“Well, I wasn’t. I stopped for a couple of months after you got arrested. Kinda hit home a little, you know? But then I ran into Smithy one night at the pub and he said he knew someone who could get me these at amazing prices, so I couldn’t really say no, could I?”
Eric didn’t answer, instead he stared at the pills in his hand. Just holding them was enough to remember the rush of dealing. How easy it was to find that world again. He had been a free man for less than an hour and already he had found a way back to his old life.
“Look, I can hook you up with him,” Jon said. “I bet you could do with some money to get you started now that you’re out.”
“I don’t know.”
“Could get you back in Felicity’s good books if you can treat her to something nice? And Bethany too. You could get her anything she wanted in no time at all.”
He could sell this many pills in a couple of days, less once he had some regulars again, and that money would cover the deposit on a place to rent. One of Felicity’s terms for seeing Bethany would be satisfied. Then again, he would also be doing the thing that had almost destroyed their relationship to begin with. If she knew, or even suspected, he was dealing again, then she was likely to take Bethany away from him for good. She would have no trouble convincing a judge that her drug dealing ex-con of a husband had no business being near her and her daughter.
“I think I’ll pass for now.”
Jon turned to him. His mouth was slightly parted in surprise and even with the sunglasses on, it was clear that his eyebrows were raised.
“What did they do to you in there? Look, I get that it went wrong last time and I know that prison is no fun for anyone, but that was a one off. You’re going to need money now you’re out and this is the quickest way to get things back on track.”
“I’ll split my stash with you, ok? Call it a welcome back present to get you on your feet again.”
“I’ve got some people I can call to get this gear moved, then you can get your own gear and be back up and running again.”
“Jon, pull over.”
“Why? Are you travel sick?”
It wasn’t the travelling that was making him feel sick. As Jon slowed the car and pulled into a layby, Eric’s mind was racing. He was being pulled in two different directions, and he knew he couldn’t go both ways. Drug dealing was easy money and a life he knew well, but he would probably lose his daughter forever. To keep Bethany in his life, he would need to make a completely fresh start, and that would be hard. He didn’t know if he had it in him.
Eric gave the bag of drugs a long, hard look, and then threw them back into the glove compartment. He slammed it shut, undid his seat belt, and opened the door. The air here was fresher than the air outside the prison. He breathed in deeply and savoured it. Behind him, the car window opened.
“Eric? You OK?” Jon asked. “Are you getting back in?”
“No. No, I’m not.”
Jon screwed his face up.
“I’m going to walk.”
“Eric, get in the car? Come on, I’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
Eric smiled and took a step away from the car.
“You’re not going where I’m going, Jon.”
He walked away from the car, ignoring Jon’s shouts from behind him. This was the freest he had been in years. Twenty feet down the road Jon shot past him, gunning the engine. He didn’t care. His parent’s house was a long walk, but at least he was on the right path now.