From Prison To A Barn
The echo of crunching snow under his boots irritated his ears and he found it odd, it was nature after all why after all the things his ears had picked up in the last decade would the sound of his boots on frozen water be the sound that annoyed him? After brushing it off, he sat on a short bench outside the public library. He was almost an hour early but his apartment bordered on petite in size and was claustrophobic for longer than two hours at a stretch.
His gloved hand cradled the fast-food coffee cup, he’d bought it ten minutes before but could still feel the heat, no wonder people had sued in the past, it was volcanic in temperature. He exhaled and took a sip. A few folks wandered from their cars to places of employment in the shopping center. The library looms over a collection of restaurants, eyeglass places and a furniture shop, at eight in the morning the employees were the only ones out and about.
On his right was another scene of locals going about their business, it was a gas station with twelve pumps and an accompanying store. His dark brown eyes witnessed a mother with two toddlers at one station, she was tapping in her credit card details while admonishing the little ones to sit down, stay in the car and warn that mommy was getting upset. On the other side was an older man, grey-haired and gnarled of fingers. He was challenged by the extraction of the pump from its cradle and the opening of his gas tank cover. He had emerged from the till inside so it was obvious he hadn’t wanted to add the debit machine to his coordination issues. Jake had wanted to leap over and help, it was his first instinct but at this stage in his life, he didn’t know anymore who would welcome it and who would wonder what he expected in return. The world had changed since the last time he’d been here, it would take a lot of people time to adapt to his presence, himself being number one.
Pulling a book from his leather backpack he opened it to the marked page, a lot of people used whatever they could find, old receipts, a corner ripped off the newspaper, bus tickets even. His marker was dual purpose. A strong white laminated card with his probation officer’s name and number on it gave him the time of his next appointment and a way to save his page. He’d seen Jeff the previous Friday so he had a few more days before his next visit. They met every Friday and had since he was released from prison. His mind still couldn’t grasp that word in connection to himself. It was something that happened to other people or on a T.V. drama. His sentence, which he’d served just a decade of, had been for fifteen years but the powers that be had taken note of his good behaviour and approved early release with the promise of checking in with his PO and staying away from the person in question.
He had no intention of ever seeing ‘her’ again and as he’d heard through the grapevine that she’d married and left the city four years ago, he felt comfortable returning to his hometown. The whole thing had been taken out of context in the first place, the trial should have shown that. His lawyer had argued well and concisely but hers had turned his desire to get back together into stalking and when he had walked into her backyard for a conversation it had become breaking and entering. It was a matter of a latch, that was what had sent him to the island for his twenties. If the gate hadn’t had a four-dollar latch screwed on and if it was open in any way it could have been trespassing at best. He sighed and vowed again to try and let that part go, he’d been charged and that was it.
His friend, Shelley had taken him for dinner when he first came back to town and after a catch-up and a few beers, she asked him about work options and his overall plan. They’d gone to school together and while he suspected she’d once pinned her sixteen-year-old hopes on a romance, they had stayed buddies. She was the head librarian at the new building and told him about a volunteer position reading to young children once a week. He thought about it for a few days and came to realize it was what he wanted to do, he applied and was chosen. So here he was, sitting outside on his first day and waiting for his boss to open the front door. He knew the phrase had two meanings in his case, she’d unlock the building, yes, but it was also an opportunity for him to go through it and find a new direction.
Sitting in a comfortable chair with a copy of Charlotte’s Web in his lap he scanned the room and watched the madness around him. Mothers were attempting to wrangle their children into the ‘listening circle’ and failing miserably. All but one of his audience were running amok, greeting friends, and playing beat your buddy with the cushions provided for sitting quietly on. He glanced at the obedient child and smiled at her, she smiled back and then rolled her eyes at the scene of chaos. He laughed out loud then, the girl was all of six years old but had pre-teen pretenses down pat. He emitted a loud whistle that brought everyone to a stop, the parents included. The children instinctively responded to the sign and found places for their cushions in a semi-circle around him with military precision. He introduced himself, using just his first name, it wasn’t like he was ashamed or worried that some of the parents would recognize his surname but he’d talked it over with Shelley and she was fine with him just being Jake.
He made eye contact with all the children as he asked their names in return and then talked a bit about the book. It had been one of his childhood favourites so he’d wanted to introduce it to a new generation. He read through the first chapter, using different voices for each character, and describing the inside of a barn to set the scene. The few parents that had stayed were sitting at the back of the room and he could see them visibly relax, even smiling at his Scottish-accented spider, Charlotte. After the hour was up and the children had put their cushions back in a pile Jake stood up and thanked them for coming and smiled when they all but yelled ‘Bye Jake, see you next week”. As he placed the bookmark between the pages, replacing his forefinger he heard coughing from the doorway.
“You did great Jake! I knew you would but you had to try it for yourself. The position is yours if you want it. It’s volunteer as I mentioned but we could probably front you a free coffee from the student café.” Shelley advanced into the room as she talked.
“It can’t be much worse than the cup I had this morning, I can still feel it in my guts.” She laughed in acknowledgement, she’d seen the logo on his to-go cup. They were leaving the children’s library when a woman blocked the doorway. Her eyes were dark with anger and she nearly spat out her comment.
“I can’t believe you have the nerve to come back here and to be around innocent children, what were they thinking?” Jake’s face was suddenly bloodless. He knew Amanda had left town, he’d forgotten about her mother living here. His parents had moved to Vancouver Island when he was imprisoned outside of Nanaimo. By the time he was released his father had died and his mom had made friends there, she didn’t know why he wanted to return to the town he was raised in given the situation, but Nanaimo wasn’t where he wanted to stay either. He turned his attention back to the conversation in front of him.
“Mrs. Kemp, Jake has served his time, more than enough actually for such a flimsy case. The library board decided to have him, volunteer, there’s no need to be angry.” Shelley attempted to calm the woman down but she wasn’t having it. She continued her tirade, rehashing the whole trial and Amanda’s fear at the time. Jake was leaning on a table by this time, realizing there was no leaving the room until she’d had her say. When she turned her attention to him, it started with a scan of his body and face. He supposed she was trying to reconcile the slender nineteen-year-old with the man in front of her. He’d been told he was handsome, his mirror told him he was all right to look at. His work duty at the prison coupled with time in the gym there combined to develop and define his muscle group. When her gaze met his eyes, he merely lifted an eyebrow in question, it made her blush and stammer.
“I’m going to the town council meeting about this, I was going anyway but as they run the library they’ll be getting my opinion on their decision.” She stomped away and left silence behind her. Shelley turned to Jake and started speaking. He held up one large hand to stop her.
“We have a week until I’m supposed to come back, let’s wait and see what happens Shell, okay? If she starts spreading her poison this all might be for nothing, I can’t stay here if folks are going to rehash the whole thing every time I go to the grocery store. Up to now, no one has recognized the new, well, old me. That will change if Margorie has her way.”
Shelley nodded sadly and led the way to the front of the building, they parted ways with a quick hug and he headed home. During the following three days he was proven right repeatedly, it was like he was invisible the first couple of months but now that someone ‘saw’ him everyone did. He wasn’t harassed exactly but more people addressed him by name, a few shot him what they considered evil looks, and one woman pulled her daughter closer to her when he walked by. He had to shake his head at the latter response. He hadn’t been charged with hurting Amanda in any way, they’d been in a relationship and she had found someone else. When he’d heard about it he tried calling her, then on that fateful day went to her parent’s house and saw her in the backyard. As soon as he lifted that latch without being invited his future changed.
His Friday appointment with Jeff was more of a counselling session than a PO check-in. They discussed his options and after the hour was up he had made up his mind. He had served a decade in prison, and went through random beatings, interspersed with periods of mind-numbing boredom. He hadn’t put aside some of the best years of his life to run away now. As he waited for the bus he sent Shelley a text asking if she’d heard anything from the library board. She replied just as he sat down and the news made him yelp in surprise. A few people turned to look and he shot them a smile before returning to the text message.
He decided to get off in front of the library and see if his friend was available to chat, he wanted to thank her in person, if she wasn’t he’d just use one of the computers and pick out some newer Clive Cussler or send a few emails. Shelley came out of her office ten minutes after he entered and found him in the stacks. He gave her a quick hug and thanked her for being on his side. She smiled quickly but pulled him aside and told him what the conditions were. The board was okay with him continuing to read as they’d heard from some of the kids and their mothers, but it was recommended that he have a staff member sit in on the sessions just to make sure everything was on the up and up. Jake pushed his hands through his hair in frustration.
“What do they think I’m going to do, insert inappropriate comments into Wilbur’s speeches?” Shelley just stood and waited for him to calm down, she understood his feelings, she’d tried to fight back on the rule herself but they’d held firm. His gaze went past her and when she turned to see it was to land on a familiar form a few shelves away. Jake spoke quietly, bringing her eyes back to his face.
“Marjorie Kemp is back, you might want to take the long way back to your office Shell, if she sees us talking again she’ll make it uncomfortable. I can take it after what I’ve been through, but this is your job and your reputation wrapped up in a criminal.” She had started to argue but he talked over her, accepting his opinion she turned on her heel and skirted the shelves. Jake watched her go and shifted the books in his left hand to the right. He had to go past the woman to get to the self-check-out unit anyway, he might as well give her something to talk about. Walking toward her though, with each step he reminded himself that he was better than this, he didn’t want to stoop to her level.
She looked up as he approached and visibly shrank back, he slowed and while internally he was getting a kick out of scaring her, on the surface he merely nodded and said, “Have a good day Marj” and walked on, not looking back. If he had though, he would have seen a woman struggling with her pre-conceived opinions in the face of the reality that just walked by.
His next few shifts reading to the kids were just as fun as the first one and although the staff sitting to his left still irked him he managed to flow with it. His accents improved with practice and after a few weeks, even the kids were rolling their R’s whenever Charlotte spoke. One of the fathers’ offered him a job in his office and his life was looking up. There were still a few people in town that looked at him sideways in the grocery store but there were folks like that no matter where you went. He didn’t know what was next but he was glad he hadn’t run away.