One of the most moving experiences of my life was the 24 hours I spent as an inmate in the women's unit of the county jail. "Arrested" as part of a deal with the county sheriff, I went in as a felony arrest, which meant enduring a strip search. I hoped to reveal to my newspaper readers what life was like in the overcrowded jail. Kind of an extreme way of doing it, I know, but if you know anything about my journalism career, you know I rarely take the easy way out of a story. Whether that's a good thing or whether it means I'm crazy, I'll leave for you to decide.
Most of us give little thought to people who are locked behind bars. We tend to dismiss them because, well, they're criminals. They've broken the law. Their lives are a mess. And we just don't care. I find that sad. No matter how messed up a person's life has become, all human beings are entitled to compassion. Having seen exactly how desperate, lonely, miserable, violent and frightening life behind bars can be, I made it one of my missions to write about inmates, in particular women in prison.
The novel Unlawful Contact grew out of my experiences covering prison issues as a reporter. And I know that today, Christmas Day, there are tens of thousands of inmates who are serving their time, completely forgotten by the rest of the world.
That's part of the reason for what I'm posting today.
The other reason is that Marc won't leave me alone! And as I thought about inmates in prison this Christmas, I thought of my beloved Marc, and I realized that this is another Christmas in prison for him. (It's his last Christmas in prison, but he doesn't know that...)
I tapped into Marc, and this scene popped into my head. It's not in the novel. It fits in between the Prologue and Chapter 1. And it's my Christmas present to you, my dear friends. Thanks so much for your support!
Merry Christmas, and enjoy!
Christmas Day, 2007
Marc forced out one more sit-up, then leaned back on his arms, breathing hard, the strain taking only the slightest edge off his black mood. After six years of living in a nine-by-nine concrete box you’d think he’d be used to this. But maybe that was part of the punishment—you never got used to it.
He stood, threw himself down for a set of push-ups, the pain a kind of anesthetic, a way to focus on something besides the nothingness that was his life.
Seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven.
He pushed past 100, then sat back against the wall to catch his breath.
Other men read their kids bedtime stories or made love to their wives before they went to sleep. He kicked his own ass. And he rarely slept. Not deeply, anyway.
From down the cell block came the muffled sound of crying. The new kid. Only sixteen, he’d been drunk and fucking around with daddy’s gun when it had shocked the hell out of him and slam-fired into his best friend. The judge had been in a kick-ass mood and decided to make an example of him. He’d been sentenced to sixteen years.
Helluva thing to happen.
Still, someone needed to tell the kid to shut up. Show too much vulnerability in this place, and you’d find yourself on bitch duty. Marc would have a talk with him tomorrow.
He’d forgotten about it completely until Cormack had wished him a Merry Christmas during evening count an hour ago. It would be like any other damned day, except the kitchen would turn out some dry fucking shit that was supposed to be turkey together with blobs of canned cranberry sauce. The luckier inmates would get photographs or Christmas cards or maybe even cash for their commissary accounts. Everyone else would watch those lucky few—and think about the families they left behind on the outside, families that no longer gave a damn about them.
Marc reached for the photo of Megan holding little Emily, let his gaze travel over the familiar image. Megan, her hair drawn back in a pony tail, exhaustion on her face, her ankle cuffed to the bedrail. She looked exhausted but happy, her gaze fixed on her baby girl, a look of wonder in her eyes.
Emily was almost six months old now and thriving with her Mennonite foster family. As unexpected Megan's pregnancy had been, Marc was grateful that his niece had come along when she had. Megan had quit using drugs the moment she’d realized she was pregnant. If she stayed clean, she’d be out of prison and in a halfway house in a little more than a month — and she’d be able to see Emily again.
If Marc had still believed in prayers, he’d have prayed for that — that his sister would be reunited with her baby and live a long and happy life. The two of them still had a chance at a normal life, and he would do anything — anything — to make sure they got that chance.
Of course, there wasn’t much he could do, given that he was locked in this place and would be for the rest of his life.
Life without parole.
He set the photo down and reached for the newspaper article on the shelf beneath, his gaze seeking the byline.
By Sophie Alton
He ran a fingertip over the ink, ran her name through his mind.
Strange that she of all people should end up writing articles about his sister’s struggle. Compassionate, smart, a damned good writer—Sophie had made her dream of becoming a top-notch journalist a reality. And Marc respected her all the more for it.
If he closed his eyes, he could picture her clearly even though twelve long years had gone by since the last time he’d seen her. Straight strawberry blonde hair. Beautiful blue eyes. Delicate features.
That’s what he’d called her that night so long ago—the night he’d taken her virginity and
spent the night with her beneath the stars. It was a dumb nickname, really. But then he’d been only eighteen.
Sophie was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He’d spent one night with her, and somehow she’d changed his life—at least for a little while. He’d give whatever little bit of his soul he had left to see her again, except that he didn’t want her to see the man he’d become.
Did she regret that night? Did she remember him the way he remembered her?
He began to read through the article, when the lights went out.
Eleven P.M. Another day done.
He set the clipping back on his shelf, then stretched out on his bunk and stared into the darkness. Down the hall, the kid was still crying.
And then he heard it—someone singing.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
How long had it been, how many years, since Marc had heard the carol? His throat grew tight as the song went on, the words with their hope so out of place in this godforsaken hellhole. Nights were never silent in prison, and nothing even close to holy ever happened here.
"Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
He didn’t even know what peace was any longer, and he wished whoever was singing would shut the fuck up.
But another voice took up the words. And another. And another.
”Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar. Heavenly hosts sing hallelujah. Christ the savior is born. Christ the savior is born.”
And Marc found himself singing along, the lyrics coming to him out of some forgotten memory.
“Silent night, holy night, son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from they holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.”
But the last words died on his tongue. There would be no redemption for him, no second chance.
“Jesus lord at thy birth, Jesus lord at thy birth.”
The song finished, leaving a bittersweet silence in its wake.
And then Marc heard.
The kid down the cell block had quit crying.
And for the first time in years, Marc closed his eyes and prayed—for Megan, for Emily.
And for Sophie.