Complete Sentence

Submitted into Contest #99 in response to: End your story with somebody stepping out into the sunshine.... view prompt

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American Fiction Mystery

I, Martha Jae, am leaving this place today. I have waited six long years, but today I am leaving. Breakfast was cold porridge and dry toast with a glass of water. Just like every day for the last six years. The last 2,190 breakfasts have been exactly the same.  

It was warm already. The thermostat by the table where I ate said 82 already at seven-thirty in the morning. The summer humidity in June in North Carolina filled the air and weighed everything down. It was the time of year when everything felt moist. The papers in the office would be flimsy from the water that hung in the air.  

Ding. Ding. 7:30

The bell rang to tell all the inmates at Caledonia State Prison Farm that breakfast was now over. When the bell rang you had 5 minutes to deposit your tray and be out the door. If you were left behind that put you on cleaning duty during free yard time. No one wanted that. I was one of the few women aside from the cooks maybe who could read the clock. I knew when the bell would sound, and I sat where she could see the clock and get out quickly. Ten years inside these walls had made only me more clever.  

7:45

I would walk out of this dark and damp prison today a free woman. As I collected the few belongings I had acquired during my time here, I thought about the day that I walked through the front doors. The blue dress I was wearing that day has long been burned in the furnace. Inmate’s clothes aren’t kept. The only clothes I have now are the ones on my back. The gray dress with buttons down the front, state-issued bra and underwear, and a pair of shoes that were about half a size too small and had created a callus on my big toe. But, my big toe has also worn a hole in the shoe, so I feel revenge has been served. I sat on the bunk in the large dormitory upstairs. Caledonia is a men’s and women’s prison. The men sleep downstairs. Sitting on the bunk I can still hear the judge's final words to me.  

“Martha Jael Harber, this 23rd day of June 1949 you are hereby sentenced to six years at the Caledonia State Prison Farm. You have been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of one Deborah S. Tennent. Your sentence will commence immediately. May God have mercy on you.”

Deborah Tennent, Deb, was the pianist at Galatia Baptist Church in Seaboard. She had lived there her whole life, taught school, and never married. She was always at the church helping with the bake sales, and decorating for the Christmas Pageant. She was even the preacher’s secretary from time to time during the busy times of the year. When Johnathan, my husband, died in the spring of 1946 Deb brought over a whole dinner. There were pork chops, salad greens, yeast rolls, and chess pie for dessert. She always looked as if she cared an awful lot.  

8:00  

“Martha Jae,” the warden said. “Time to come to the office.”

“Yes sir,” I said, as I stood from the bed. I carried the few letters my sister had written me, a hairbrush my mama had sent me before she died, and a Bible that the state had given me to aid in adjusting to my release.

The warden was old. He had to be at least seventy with white hair and fingers bent from arthritis. As I followed the old warden down the hall to the office I thought about Deborah Tennent. The day she died it was raining cats and dogs. I was driving Jonathan’s truck to the hardware store on Main Street, Seaboard. Deb was crossing the street from the Drug Store. The policeman said that the rain must have kept the truck from stopping in time. He also said on account of me being a woman and not being used to driving a big old truck like that I probably didn’t give it enough time. Deb was dead before the doctor got there from his office down the street. I was arrested the next morning and taken down to Raleigh to wait for a trial. There wasn’t much of a trial. The judge said it was an accident, but seeing as a woman was dead that I had to go to jail. So, they put me in a car that afternoon and drove me to Caledonia.  

8:05 

“Come on in Martha Jae,” the warden said. “Have a seat.”

I walked in and sat in a chair across from a worn-out wooden desk. The warden sat behind the desk and propped his elbows on the edge as he looked down at the paperwork in front of him.  

“Now, you will be released at 9:00 on the dot. From here, once we finish all this paper stuff, you will go down to the laundry. You have to turn in your clothes. They belong to the prison. You’ll be given clothes that have been donated by the local churches. Can’t promise they fit, but at least you won’t be naked. Once you have done all that, you’ll be issued any personal effects that were confiscated from you at the time of your arrest. You will then be escorted to the probationary office. There they will assign you a probationary officer. You will then be escorted by the officer on duty, I think it’s lieutenant Cooper today, to the holding room to wait for the 9:00 release. Once you are released you will have to report to the probationary officer within forty-eight hours. Your probationary officer will assist you in finding housing and employment if that is needed. Do you have any questions, Martha Jae?”

“No, sir,” I answered. The warden continued to read from the papers in front of him. There was usually at least one release a week here so he probably had most of it memorized by now.  

While the man droned on, I thought about Deb. She had spent an inordinate amount of time at the Baptist Church. She was the town busy body, and always could be counted on for the scoop. So, when the new single preacher moved into town in the winter of 1945, Deb was the first to know. I was only slightly interested in the fact that there was a new preacher at all. I was still tending to my broken heart. Johnathan, like so many others, did not make it home from the war. I was left to run the farm on my own. When he left I was two months pregnant, but the doctor said the stress of being all alone on the farm once Johnathan was drafted was what made me lose the baby. I was a broken thing of a woman when David Sisera waltz into our little town.

“Any questions, Martha Jae?” The warden asked.

“Oh, no sir,” I answered without knowing exactly what I was answering to.  

“Good. Then you can head down to the laundry. I’ll call down and let them know you’re on your way.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said as I stood and exited the warden’s office for the last time.

8:20 

The dress clung to the sweat on my legs from sitting in the hot office. At least I’d be able to take them off when I got to the laundry. I had no idea if I’d get to keep the underwear or if they would have donated ones for me. I didn’t much care as long as whatever I wore wasn’t gray. Of course, it could be worse. The men here had to wear stripes.  

Making my way down to the laundry my mind wandered back to the summer of 1947. I was managing to keep the farm afloat. Thankfully the G.I. Bill had helped to pay for what was still owed on the farm. With the farm paid for the only thing I was left to worry about was actually putting food on the table. I collected and sold eggs. I knit items that the druggist sold for me in his store. I raised a few pigs that had survived through the winter. I even rented out the small field we had to another farmer for growing hay for his cattle. I was making ends meet, but I was working myself into an old woman quickly. Like any respectable woman I went to church every Sunday, but that was the extent of my involvement. 

Then one afternoon in June, a lot like today, a dust cloud made its way down my driveway. When the blue car stopped, it was the preacher that got out.  

“Howdy, Ms. Harber,” he called from the car.

“Preacher Sisera. To what do I owe the pleasure?”  

“I was wondering if I could buy some of your eggs? The ones in the store just aren’t fittin’ to eat,” he answered.

“Well, come right on up to the house if you like. I just finished gathering. Got a good batch today.” 

We made our way to the porch and I walked in to get the eggs. While I was in the kitchen I heard the screen door slam again. When I turned around there he stood bold as brass in my kitchen doorway. He was a good-looking man. He was the kind of man you knew always had been good-looking and he knew it. I finished putting the eggs in the basket to hand to him, and when I handed him the basked, he bent down low and kissed me on the cheek. I hadn’t been touched by a man in so long I just melted. My head knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t stop myself. I put my hand on his arm and leaned into the kiss. He sat the basket down and took my shoulders in his strong hands and then we were locked in an intensely powerful kiss. His grip on me was so secure and my desire to walk away from it almost nonexistent. But I knew this wasn’t prudent. I pushed him away.  

“Ms. Harber, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me,” David said as he picked up the eggs and walked back out to the porch.  

“Um. Yes, well thank you so much, Pastor. I’ll see you Sunday.” I answered as he made his way to the car.  

He knew what he was doing when he drove all the way out to my house that day. It wouldn't be the last basket of eggs Preacher David Sisera would come out to the farm to get. We became bolder and more driven by our flesh.  

 8:30

“Hey there Martha Jae, you gettin’ outta here today!” The ladies in the laundry shouted as I walked in. Inmates were responsible for the laundry. These were women that I had worked in the fields with and kitchen and the laundry for the last six years. I was going to miss these women. They weren’t bad women. They were women who had been scared, who had done what needed to be done, who were trying to protect their families.  

“I sho as shootin’ is!” I learned when I first arrived at Caledonia that if you talk too smart, you get roughed up.  

“Well strip down and then go an’ get yoself some new clothes over dere.” That was Mary Lee. She was in for killing her husband. He came home drunk with a broken bottle trying to rearrange her face. She found a kitchen knife and took care of him.  

As the women chattered and I found new clothes. Getting to keep the underwear I had on, I started to think back again to David Sisera and Deb Tennent.

1947 came and went with more egg visits that went from kissing in the kitchen to petting on the couch. Eventually, Preacher Sisera and I had consummated our sinful encounters and I was done for. I couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t just courted me like any other man might do. I know he was the preacher and I thought maybe that’s why it was all so secret. Him being a preacher made it all so much more exciting because it was just so wrong. He was my favorite sin.  

8:40

Lieutenant Cooper arrived at the laundry to escort me to the probationary office. I had no effects to collect.  

“Please come in,” the probationary officer said as Cooper opened the door.  

I stepped in and sat at the chair adjacent to the door. There was a fan blowing the hot air around inside the office. At least this new yellow dress was cooler than the inmate uniforms. 

“I’m going to give you the information for your probation,” he continued.

He talked and I remembered. I remembered Christmas of 1948. I was in town to drop off some new items in the drug store. I had dressed real nice for the trip. I rarely got to town during the week, so I figured I would make a special stop by the church to see David. I parked by the drug store, delivered my items to sell, and walked the block to the church. The weather was mild and it felt good to walk. I had baked fruit cake and was excited to hand-deliver it.  

I walked down the sidewalk that led to the back of the church. Without a sound, I opened the back door and stepped in. David was going to be so surprised to see me. Surprised wouldn't have covered it. I was shocked. I silently walked down the hall toward his open office door behind the sanctuary. When I got to the door I saw Deb and David all tangled up on his desk. I covered my mouth and left as quickly and quietly as I could manage. There was nothing left to the imagination.  I walked as fast as I dared back to the truck without drawing attention to myself. Starting the truck I threw it into gear and sped off.

Deb was shacking up with the preacher, my preacher. I pulled the truck over and vomited the bile in my stomach onto the side of the road.  

“Are you alright, Martha Jae?” The probationary officer asked.  

“Oh yes, I’m fine. The heat is really getting to me today I think.” I answered and patted the sweat on my forehead.  

“Well, that’s about it. Here’s the officer's name and number you’ll have to report to. Can you manage to get a call to him by tomorrow evening?”

“Oh yes sir, I sure can.” 

8:55

All that was left now was to wait the five minutes in the holding room for my official release.  

Waiting causes more remembering. After vomiting on the side of the road, I went home. David would be coming by this evening. It was Friday. He always came by on Friday. I made dinner as usual. After dinner, I collected the leftovers into a pot.

“David, would you mind taking these out to the pigs?” I called from the kitchen.

“Sure, darling.”

He kissed my cheek as he picked up the pot. I shivered and thought I might see the reappearance of my dinner. He left through the front door carrying the pot. He paused at the fence to open the pot. 

Whack.  

The pot hit the ground before he did. I stood there, shovel in hand, watching him teetering forward and back. I gave him the slightest nudge toward the pigs. Once he was inside the pen, the pigs did the rest. By the time the town realized he was missing, there was nothing left the find. Those pigs had eaten everything, even his clothes. And, since he had insisted on keeping everything a secret, no one even thought to look on the farm for him. After I had collected the pot from the pen, I drove his car outside of town and let it roll into the Mill Pond.  

As for the rain on June 23, 1949, well I can stop that truck on a dime in any kind of weather.  

9:00

Lieutenant Cooper broke through my thoughts, “Martha Jael Harber, you are hereby released from the custody of the state of North Carolina with the hope that you have learned from your incarceration and will abide by the laws of this land. You are free to go.”

“Thank you.”

He opened the door and I stepped out into the June sunshine. 

June 22, 2021 12:35

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