He caught her auburn hair through the wire-mesh even before the guard buzzed him in, feathered and longer than he remembered. Distraction captured her attention and they didn’t meet eyes until he finally sat in front of her, separated as they always were by thick glass and a five year absence.
He picked up the phone and smiled. She played her part and smiled back, her lips slow to embrace it at first but her eyes genuine and true.
“Hi Tevon,” she said, sounding tinny and robotic through the dirty yellow phone.
“Darla,” was all he could muster. He had asked her there of course, to speak with her one more, or last, time. There was so much to say, so many volumes of pencil scratched marble notebooks stacked in his cell. But now, with her sitting across from him, so close and yet so damned far, the words fled his mind and imprisoned themselves forever from his memory.
“How’s Elly?” He tried.
“She’s good. Very good actually. Last year of grade school if you can believe that. Junior high next year.”
“Junior high. Jesus.”
“I know. Quite the lady.” Her hand dove into her large leather purse and emerged from its depths with a creased photo. “It’s almost a year old but—.” She pressed the picture up to the glass. Tevon stared at the young girl sitting on a diving board, her tanned legs folded demurely. Her feet dangled in the water, encircled by concentric ripples forever confined to the photo’s grasp. Her dark red hair stood aloft in the wind, sharing the same stolen moment, frozen in weightlessness.
“She looks more and more like you.”
“Tell me about it.” She pulled the picture down, drowning it again. “Acts like it too.”
She paused, staring into the deep chasm of her bag. He waited, phone to his ear. He heard her soft breath graze against the receiver. He remembered the many times it splashed across his face.
“She misses you, Tevon. She misses you so much. I know it’s been five years, but you left a hole in her–.” She tapped her open palm in front of her, searching for the words. He listened to the harsh clank of her ring striking metal counter. “No one’s been able to fill that hole entirely.”
He remembered the last time he saw Elly, the shy little girl clinging to his broad shoulders. Her soft tears ran warm against his face.
“I miss her too.”
Darla straightened in the stiff aluminum chair. “Why did you call me here, Tevon? Why now? I’ve moved on. Elly hasn’t yet, but we’re getting her there. A little bit at a time.”
“I needed to just talk to you, to see you. See you looking back at me.”
“I said to myself I wouldn’t come back here, but you called and I came. Like always. The least you can do is tell me why.”
He paused, wading there in the silence. He hoped the words he worked so hard on would float to the surface, hoping one final sentence would appear beside him so he could do this last thing the right way. But they never appeared. He placed the phone on the counter. She looked at him confused, but followed his lead. They stared through the glass at one another, the black wire inlaid there slicing between them, like all his bad choices coming back to distort this last image of her. Maybe that was his final sentence after all.
He pressed his hand against the glass. She did the same. Her auburn hair fell over her shoulder, reminding him of the days it fell across his big brown chest as they lay on the beach for hours in sunlit California afternoons.
The night came fast after that, and the bodies crashed around him, heavy and strong. A mixture of muscle and orange jumpsuits pressed around his throat, and his arm burned from fatigue, plunging his shiv as it did, again and again, into the belly of one of his many attackers. Warm blood spilled from the wound and Tevon gasped for air. His head drowned in darkness and his feet frantically kicked against the growing tide of blood, but his mind swam away, towards warm breath and lost, so many lost, summery days.