The gates of Braxton State Prison slammed shut behind Paul Greymore and for the first time in almost seventeen years he was outside of them. He looked around, mildly unnerved by the unfamiliar openness of his surroundings, and lit a cigarette. He took a deep breath and began walking toward the parking lot, constantly turning his head back and forth, up and down, taking in all the sights he once thought he would never see again without the obstruction of a twelve-foot wall. He half expected a heavy hand to fall on his shoulder, turn him around, tell him there was a mistake. But not once did he look back. He had been looking at the inside of those goddamn walls for too long and had no interest in seeing them again from either side.
He reached the parking lot and immediately spotted Father Neil McCarthy waiting for him. The old priest looked like a mirage with the heat coming off the asphalt in waves making him seem ghostlike. In Paul’s sensory overloaded mind he feared the man might disappear if he blinked his eyes. He shook his head at this bizarre thought and jogged over smiling. He stepped on his cigarette and extended a hand to the old priest, thought better of it, and hugged him. The old man patted Paul’s back lightly, then took his shoulders and held him at arm’s length. Neither man knew what to say, so they remained silent. The moment stretched and finally McCarthy broke the awkward quiet. “Let’s get going,” was the best he could do.
When they were in the car and heading out of the parking lot Paul finally spoke. “I’m really out,” he said in a shaky voice. His eyes were filled as he looked at the priest. “You saved my life, Father. If it weren’t for you I’d be dead, or a lifer.” The priest drove on, concentrating on the road.
Finally McCarthy spoke. “We’ve been preparing for this day for a very long time, Paul. Now is the time to move ahead, start over. From now on we will not discuss the past. It’s a dead end road.”
Paul fell silent, lost in thought. He flipped down the visor to shade his eyes from the sun and frowned when his own reflection stared back at him from the vanity mirror. His fingers inadvertently traced the deep grooves in his face as his mind slipped down a familiar path. A path he often traveled, wondering what his life might have been like if not for the accident that left him so scarred.
When Paul was a toddler he had reached up and grabbed the handle of a pot on the stove. His mother was just steps away, but it was far enough. The pot contained water, in a raging boil, and she was helpless to prevent Paul from pulling it down on himself. The water scorched his face, miraculously missing his eyes. When the doctors finished doing what they could, his face looked like a melted candle. Angry white valleys of scars surrounded by raised berms of too-red skin made him an outcast. It wouldn’t be until years later that Paul would see a likeness of himself in a movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Memories, another dead end, a path that led nowhere. He flipped the visor back up angrily, preferring the blinding sun to his own reflection and the memories it brought, ignoring the knowing glance from Father McCarthy. He was jarred from his thoughts as he saw the sign that marked the on-ramp to Route 95 South. The sign read: Haven 70 Miles.
I’m going home, he thought. For the next hour the two men drove and talked, the conversation becoming more relaxed as the miles slipped past. When McCarthy exited the highway and headed east, Paul squirmed in his seat. Maybe this is a mistake.
Father McCarthy seemed to sense his nervousness, “It’s going to be alright Paul.”
“I’m going back to the town where a lot of the people believe I killed their children. I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”
“We’ve talked about this, Paul. Haven is your home. You have friends there.”
The words did nothing to squelch the growing fear that he was heading into a bad situation as the Entering Haven sign blurred past. “Father… I just wish I could remember what happened that day…”
“Maybe being home will help you with that. Let’s get some gas, and then I’ll take you around and show you how much things have changed and how much things have stayed the same.” Father McCarthy nosed the car up next to the pump. “I’ll go pay if you don’t mind pumping,” the priest said as he got out of the car.
“Sure, not at all.”
A blanket of heat surrounded Paul when he opened his door. He had forgotten how hot it was after being in the air conditioned car. He stood beside the car, stretching his limbs. The AC had also stiffened him up during the ride and it felt good to get the blood flowing again. Sixteen-plus years of time on his hands had packed pounds of muscle onto his lean body. He wondered how he would find the discipline to continue those grueling workouts now.
Paul watched the gaunt figure of the priest shuffle past a group of teenagers who were hanging around a Coke machine. The priest nodded a greeting and one of the youths said something in return which sparked laughter from the other two. The priest stiffened, then shook his head and continued inside to pay the cashier. Punks, Paul thought as he went to the other side of the car and read the directions on the side of the pump. Ignoring the No Smoking signs, he lit a cigarette as he put the nozzle in and turned on the pump. This will be my last, he thought, remembering the promise he made to quit if he ever got out. As he watched the numbers clicking away on the gas pump, a shadow passed by. He half-turned expecting to see Father McCarthy returning from inside the station. Instead he was looking at five inches of steel.
The punks had come up behind him and spread out, surrounding him. As soon as they got a closer look at Paul their expressions changed. He was used to this reaction but these kids made no attempt to conceal their revulsion as they stared in horror at Paul’s disfigured face. The apparent leader with the knife regained his composure, leaned casually against the car, and spoke first. “If you’re traveling with the Father, does that make you a mother?” he asked, his voice attempting to sound genuinely curious.
It’s no different on the outside than it was on the inside, Paul thought. The other two punks cackled at their master’s wit. Paul continued to stare at the one with the knife, holding his gaze. He was just a boy, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. The punk’s mocking smile slipped into an ominous stare as Paul continued to eye him.
“You didn’t think that was funny, huh Mama?” Again the expected snickers from the other two.
“What’s the meaning of this?” came the priest’s voice from behind the knife-wielding punk. “Put down that knife before someone gets hurt!”
The one standing next to the leader turned to face the priest. He was a big kid and he knew it; he was no stranger to using his size to intimidate. He took a threatening step forward and Father McCarthy stumbled backwards, bumping into the gas pump. The expression on his face was more of surprise than fear. “Shut the hell up. Who the hell do you think you’re talkin’ to, your freak friend, huh, Father?” The last word he literally spit out, spraying the priest with drops of saliva. This seemed to shock the old priest more than the physical threat the kid posed and his hand now shook as he reached to wipe his face.
The sight of his friend being harassed and hearing that word infected Paul with a deadly rage. He shivered in spite of the suffocating heat as his entire world was reduced to this kid. Before any further humiliation or hurt could be inflicted, Paul acted. In one motion he grabbed the wrist of the one holding the knife and twisted, sending the blade skidding to the ground. With his other hand he swept the gas nozzle into the side of the kid’s face, splitting his cheek wide open and spraying gas in his eyes. The kid fell back clumsily against the car. Blood flowed freely from his open cheek and it was already beginning to swell, the cheekbone cracked as neatly as the skin was.
With his free hand the punk was clawing at his own eyes, trying to wipe the gas out of them. Paul dropped the nozzle, which clattered to the ground next to the knife. He plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and held it close to the punk’s face. As the smoke drifted under the kid’s nose, he suddenly stopped struggling. “No, please, man, no,” was all he could mutter.
Paul didn’t hear him. Freak. The word echoed through his head, reverberating across every nerve. He inched the glowing tip of the cigarette closer to the punk’s gas-soaked face. A part of him knew that gas fumes are more flammable than the liquid itself but that part of him was submerged beneath a red ocean of rage. The one who had bullied Father McCarthy glanced at the knife then quickly back at Paul. Paul just shook his head and the boy suddenly became fascinated with his own Timberlands.
“Start walking,” Paul said calmly. When neither of the punks moved, he shouted, “Now!”
They both turned and began walking toward the road. Paul faced the fallen leader. He had managed to open his eyes, but they no longer showed the defiance and boldness of moments ago, only fear. Paul’s thin grasp on his anger faltered as he saw this. Now he was in control of the situation, but instead of relief he was being consumed with fury.
“You want to know what ...