Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Life Gone Awry

The prison cell was dark and dank. It smelled of urine. The small, hard cot on which she attempted to sleep at night was full of fleas or bedbugs (she couldn't tell the difference, and really, did it matter?) and the thin blanket could not keep her warm at night. The wardens constantly harassed her, reminding her of her crimes and making sport of her for it. Aury never suspected that her life would turn out like this... but then, she was never really good for anything in the first place.

Aury grew up in a small town full of drunkards and womanizers. Many of the women had turned to prostitution or adultery to try to fill the emptiness in their lives. Looked at as pieces of meat, the women thought they might as well make some money while they were at it. The men were bawdy and wild, so the women followed suit. Kids were left to fend for themselves, as parents were usually too hung over to deal with them. At least, that was her experience.

The only group that didn't wear their wrongdoing like a badge on their arms were the preachers, whose crisp cleanliness stood in stark contrast to everyone else. Now that she was in the clink, they reminded her a lot of the wardens. No one could hope to breathe in a church like that, for fear of contaminating the preachers' air. (Not all of them were actual preachers, but the straight-laced believers had earned the name by condemning others and quoting conveniently-intolerant scripture.)

When her dad started hitting her, and before she knew better, Aury tried to go to the preachers. They told her that she must have done something wrong, and insisted that she pray about it and find out where she was to blame. Aury was just seven at the time, and was horrified that it'd been her fault. As she grew older, she searched her soul and did everything she could think of to please him, trying to treat him as the father he should have been rather than the one he was. After a hard day's work for her father, she brought him his slippers. He hit her. While her mother was drunk and passed out, she prepared his dinner (and burned herself in the process). He saw the burn on her arm, called her a “stupid, mangy dog,” and hit her. Aury went back to the preachers and told them what had happened. She said she didn't think it was her fault after all, and they quoted scriptures at her about how evil begets evil, and that everyone will be repaid for their crimes. She tearfully stormed down the steps of the church and vowed never to go to that awful place again.

Aury abruptly laughed, thinking back to Joshua. She'd met him at school when she was fourteen. By that point, she'd already headed down her path in life. She did drugs with her friends every morning before school, and laid down with any young man who took an interest. It always left her feeling more broken, but she didn't care. By that point, she wasn't sure she wanted to live anymore. She was secretly hoping the drugs would take her life.

Joshua sat down in her class one day, beaming with a smile that could light up the room. It was his first day, but he already had friends following him around. The girls noticed him too, but he was aloof, in a good way. Girls in Aury's town were always treated one of two ways: noticed because a man wanted someone to hit, or noticed because a man wanted someone to lie with. Joshua's way of dealing with girls was respectful, so of course he wanted them to feel comfortable. From his first day, Joshua was very involved in class. In fact, he corrected the teacher a few times, which impressed Aury and made her stifle a laugh. The teachers were awestruck by his knowledge, and began asking
him questions. It was one of the most enjoyable things Aury had seen in her entire life.

As Aury got to know Joshua, she realized he was genuinely nice. He was the first person who truly cared about her, and they became fast friends. He was a believer, but his beliefs differed from those of the Preachers. Although Aury was part of another scene, and sometimes felt like he didn't understand her, they stayed close through the years, and with all of the changes that they went through. The Preachers' kids (Aury's other friends called them PITS: Preachers In Training) hated Josh though, and it puzzled Aury a little. Josh was a really good guy, and you had to be perfect to join their club. Josh was more perfect than anyone Aury had ever met.

Josh didn't seem to like the PITS either, though. He corrected them (the best-performing students in the school, since none of them were drunk or doing drugs most of the time) and called them proud hypocrites. They didn't like that too much, but it thrilled Aury to hear them spoken to like that. No one else dared question them. She felt bolder when Josh was around, in a good way. It felt like, if he was around, nothing could hurt her. He always knew just what to say. She knew that he cared about her well-being, and didn't want her to continue hurting her body with her awful habits, but the drugs seemed to help her forget about her life. She didn't
want to remember that her dad was never there for her, and that her mom constantly manipulated and demeaned her. Bad habits helped her forget her hard past, but they made way for a hard future.

Aury scoffed. It was her habits that got her into this mess. She'd dropped out of high school and started working the streets. As she continued using, she needed a stronger fix. She used all of her money on drugs, and they became all she thought about. The withdrawals were torture, and she spent sleepless nights trying to solicit customers. She never thought herself pretty, but as the drugs got more intense, her appearance suffered. Aury soon found that no one wants to sleep with a drug-addicted prostitute. She wasn't the only girl selling herself, and many of them held up better than she had.

She was shaking one night, sweating through her eyeballs and desperate for a fix. She walked through the rundown streets for hours, and stopped at a closed liquor store. She knelt on the ground, by the front of the store, head down as she panted for her drugs. When she lifted her head, she saw a drug dealer acquaintance she knew as Jerry and offered the only thing she could give him: her body.
No one wants you, crack whore!” he spat, smiling a grin that said he wished her dead. She weakly approached him, repeating her offer. He ripped off her dirty clothes and laughed at her nakedness. Then he brought out his heroin syringe and waved it at her. He saw the desperation in her eyes, and his lit. “This could be fun...” he said to himself. He humiliated her by having her get on her hands and knees and bark like a dog. He made her urinate on herself and eat rotted food from a nearby garbage can. Finally, she asked for the syringe. He held it out of her grasp, saying, “Wanna know why I made you bark like a dog? Because that's what you are, Aury. All you'll ever be.”

He turned and began to walk away. Aury snapped. She jumped on his back and clawed at him, punching him with an anger that multiplied her strength. She tried to grab at his syringe and he spun, unknowingly knocking his pistol from his pocket. He grabbed her off his back and threw her down on the ground. He backhanded her face and spit on her. “Trash,” he said. Once again he turned to walk away. Aury hated him with all her being. She spotted the gun, and before she could think, she watched as her hand reached for it and aimed it at his heart, pulling the trigger. She gasped as he watched him double over, touching the wound and examining the sticky deep red stain it left on his hands. She stumbled away from him, the shock of what she'd done registering as her footsteps pounded in her ears.
“You just killed a man, Aury!” she thought, “What are you gonna do now???”She tried to outrun the terror that seized her throat. Grateful that no one had been around to see her, she hoped that he didn't have any family or friends who would come looking for him. She told herself that it would be alright; that killing him was understandable, given the circumstances. Yet she found that every time she tried to sleep that night, she woke with a start, panting and slick with perspiration despite the cold temperatures. Through the night, she'd had about twenty nightmares in which she died a grisly, gruesome death. In her nightmares, Jerry''s family sought vengeance for her death, and he personally haunted her sleep that night. Finally she gave up efforts to sleep, huddling and shivering through the night in her thin coat.

It didn't take long before people started looking for her. She'd been caught on surveillance tape outside of the liquor store. A warrant was put out for her arrest, and the video footage was everywhere. When officers finally found her, bringing her in for questioning, she hung her head and walked with them. She suspected that one of her former friends had seen the video and gave her up for a reward, but the sliver of betrayal didn't matter now. What mattered was that she had blood on her hands, and nothing but cold, hard justice would bring peace to the situation.

She looked down at her hands now, imagining them covered with blood. She was awaiting trial in her cell; the prosecutors didn't want her to be able to run anywhere. “I'm dead,” she thought to herself. “No one's gonna care about posting bail or getting a life sentence for a scourge on society like me.”

The thoughts within her heavy heart were interrupted by the clack of the warden's dress shoes as he strolled to her cell.

“You have a visitor,” he said gruffly. “Must be here to say goodbye.” Aury winced. Even the wardens knew she didn't stand a chance.

But wait, did he say a
visitor? “Are you sure it's for me?” she said, eyes narrowed.

“Look, I don't care if you ever see another living person. But there's some guy out there askin' for you, so find out who it is or just rot in here till they make their verdict!”

Aury's blood ran cold.
Could it be one of Jerry's relatives? Would they be seeking vengeance before the trial? What was she going to say to them? She wrestled with her choices, but ultimately decided to face the man who had come to see her. The warden yanked her down the hallway to the visiting room once she'd relented. It had been her fault that his loved one had died; the least she could do was provide closure. If he hit her, he hit her. She was just going to die anyway. Her body went rigid as she steeled herself for whatever was through those doors.

But to her surprise, when the door to the visiting room opened, a smile greeted her. A sad, genuinely compassionate smile, shining from Joshua's face. It only took an instant for her to lose her brave composure, and she almost ran to him, weeping loudly and melting into her best friend's arms. For the first time since she'd met him, she became aware of how great the divide between their lives and personalities. He constantly helped others, while she used them. He gave generously to those who had need, while she stole from them. After high school, he chose to become a doctor (healing others), and what did she do? Kill a man for a cheap fix. Suddenly, it was as if he were a parent figure, and she, the misbehaving child. The effect his presence made on her was all at once overwhelming.

“I'm sorry, I'm so, so, sorry...” she began, crying in his arms. “It happened so fast...” she stopped, realizing that though it happened quickly, she was fully aware of what she was doing the day she chose to kill a man. Yes, her hatred had gotten the better of her, but it was still
her hatred. Had she the wherewithal and self-control to contain her anger, she would not have acted so impulsively. If I were more like Josh, she thought, I would have given him a blanket instead of a gravestone.

Josh was already comforting her, though, stroking her hair in his best-friend way, and “shh-shh-shh”-ing her. He politely waited until she was through crying. Then, he gently started to whisper. “It's OK, Aury. I know you've had a hard life. Your Dad, who was supposed to protect you, beat you senseless, even after you'd done your best to make him proud. Your mom was never around, always sleeping with other men instead of your father, hoping someone would give her a feeling of self-worth. They destroyed your perception of what a relationship should be like. Remember when you used to come over to get away from all of it?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Aury, eyes glassy at the remembrance. “I rode my bike all the way to your house in the middle of the night. I threw rocks at your window, and after you woke up, we would just sit outside talking.” She realized that they were sitting the same way they used to, all those years ago. For a moment, it was like being fifteen again. She stared at his arms folded across his knees, which were pulled up to his chest. That was as high as she wanted to look; it was like he could look into her soul, and she didn't want him to see the ugliness there. Despite herself, she stole one glance into his eyes. His were full of love. She looked away, embarrassed by the genuine care that she never felt she deserved. “You always help me feel so much better, just by being there” she brokenly whispered, after a long pause.

“For feeling as good as you say you did, I didn't seem to help much,” he said softly.

She felt like she had to have an answer for her actions. “Well, of course you did... I mean... as much as you could. You come from good stock. Your parents are perfect, as far as I can tell. A person as messed up as I am tends to want to stray away from perfection. Makes me feel worse. But, like I said, you had a great life. Of course you turned out okay. You're the first good thing that ever happened to this town; must be nice to be a hero.”

“Do you think I actually like living here, after all these years?” Josh asked, emotionally charged. “Do you think my parents kept me here for the great neighborhood? I stayed here because I
wanted to stay, Aury. Because I care about the people here, even if they don't care about themselves. There's so much pain here...” His words were choked, voice thick.

For the first time, Aury realized that Josh could have gone anywhere to pursue his doctoring profession, but he chose their wretched town. Anyone in his right mind would have moved away, but he stayed.
Why on earth would he stay here?, Aury asked herself. Afraid of the answer, she remained silent.

As if in answer to her question, Josh spoke again. “It was for you, Aury. I stayed for you. I care about who you are, and who you could be if only all of these awful things hadn't happened. If only you were strong enough to make it through in spite of them. I wanted to be there for you, in case you ever needed my help. Only you didn't seem to want my help... you seemed content to be miserable.”

“Content to be miserable?” Aury's voice was high-pitched with disbelief. “What are you talking about? What options did I
have, Josh? It's not like I could just forget what happened to me. It would have been impossibly hard to do that!” As she spoke, Aury knew it would have been hard, but if she'd really wanted to, it would not have been impossible. “And now that I'm a murderer, caught on tape, I'll never see the light of day again! What point is there in dreaming about the past when I have no future?”

Josh paused for a moment, considering her words. “So...” he started again, seeming to choose his words carefully. “If you had another chance - a chance to live life to the fullest in
spite of the hard hand you've been dealt - a chance to live as generously and lovingly as you could -”

“Like you?” she asked, without a hint of sarcasm.

He humbly acceded. “Like me. Would you?”

“Of COURSE I would. If I valued your friendship more, I probably wouldn't even be in this mess.” Her face grew hot as she felt warm tears made their familiar path down her cheeks. “But what good is it, to think like that? I have nothing to show for my life but a dead man and this broken, addicted body of mine. Just before I killed him, he said, 'You're a dog, Aury. No one wants you.' I shot him because he hurt me, and because I wanted a stupid fix. But all this time, I've been hurting
myself, and I didn't even care.”

“Time's up,” the warden said, reaching for her.

I'll miss you, Josh!” she said, throwing herself into his embrace before the warden could lift her off her friend. The warden tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes as she reached for Josh, the only true companion she'd ever had. “Tomorrow is the day of the trial,” she thought to herself, “I'm never going to see him again.”

As Joshua slid out of sight, Aury felt herself go limp. When she reached her cell, she stared into her own hollow, dead eyes. Though only twenty-five, she looked aged. Her once-shining, blonde hair hung limp and dark with dirt around her shoulders. She hadn't had a good night's sleep in who knows how long, and the purple bags under her eyes proved it. Her eyes themselves were red and bloodshot, and her skin was dry and worn-looking. Her lips parted in a thin line; she was a shadow of her former self. “If I ever thought myself ugly before,” she realized, “it was nothing compared to this.”

She fitfully tried to sleep, but of course, that was impossible. Tomorrow, everyone would decide her case. “I'm sure the jurors are sleeping well,” she thought bitterly, “No one will lose sleep on my account. I deserve to die... ”

Early in the morning, the wardens came for her. They brought her into the courtroom, where her orange jumpsuit stuck out among the professional suits and polished, career-oriented individuals. They were all in place when it was time for her to walk in, and even the glow coming off her jumpsuit couldn't mask the shame as she felt all eyes on her. She didn't want to, but she found herself looking at each one of the jurors and audience members as she entered. Her eyes lit as she discovered she was not alone with her accusers. “Joshua!” she thought, “He's still here, supporting me...”

She sat down, and right away she knew it would be a miracle to get out of this alive. Allegations were thrown at her from all sides, and even her public defender was so halfhearted, it was obvious her life didn't matter to him. When a motion was made to review the video evidence taken from the liquor store, her heart sank. After a short recess, everyone in that courtroom would see the terrible thing she'd done in secret... from start to finish. They would watch as she offered her body, desperate for drugs. They would see her allow him to undress her, and grovel on the ground like a dog. They would be in spellbound horror as they viewed her merciless killing of a man who hardly laid a hand on her.

She averted her eyes when the TV was wheeled into the room, focusing with all her might on a nondescript piece of lint on the carpeted floor of the courtroom. The jury's reactions were worse than she thought they would be. In fact, there was such an uproar that she began to fear for her life. She felt a hand on her arm, and as she struggled against it, she caught a glimpse of the liquor store video. It showed Jerry (the dealer) spitting on the ground, turning and walking away. It captured, with perfect clarity, as the gun was grabbed from the ground, and the trigger pulled by a familiar hand.

There was only one problem: It wasn't hers.

The person pulling the trigger was Josh.

Aury couldn't believe her eyes. Her best friend; the most perfect person she'd ever known; was pulling the trigger. He was the one who stumbled away, full of disbelief. “What is going on?,” Aury thought, “He's never done anything wrong... I'm the screw-up!”

Before she could comprehend what was happening, or even determine its reality, she was being dragged out of her Defendant's seat, and Josh (who they'd spotted in the courtroom) was being put into it. She locked eyes with him in one agonizing moment, as they passed each other. Even now, though full of pain, his eyes held peace. Hers were frantic, full of questions. It was as if no one even remembered she killed Jerry. There was a swift and immediate call for justice, and the jury convicted Joshua on the spot. Aury had been yanked forcefully from the courtroom, hysteric. Her screams echoed through the halls as she screamed, “I am guilty! It was me!” Her throat grew sore and raw, and a metallic taste rose in her mouth. She'd screamed until she tasted blood, trying to make them understand. The bailiff just brushed her off, saying, “You can't stick up for your friend; he's on videotape!” It didn't matter that she was the one wearing prison orange, or that Joshua had never been known to hurt a fly. They tried him and found him guilty. He was barred from having visitors, so Aury couldn't even help him. He'd been sentenced to death, and the date of his execution would be tomorrow.

Aury was in a daze that day, but after discovering that she'd had a purse on (along with a wallet full of money), she checked into a hotel and eventually succumbed to sleep. That night, Aury dreampt that she visited Joshua in prison. “What's going on, Joshua?” Aury asked, frightened.

“Another chance,” he said softly, reaching his hand through the bars and touching her hand.

“Another chance?” Aury was confused. “I-” Then the memory came flooding back.

“If you had another chance - a chance to live life to the fullest in spite of the hard hand you've been dealt - a chance to live as generously and lovingly as you could -”

“Like you?” she asked, without a hint of sarcasm.

He humbly acceded. “Like me. Would you?”

Aury inhaled sharply as she began to grasp what had happened. “You took my place?” she said, “Why would you do that?”

Joshua gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and answered, “The greatest love people can show is to die for their friends. I've always wanted to help you, Aury. I'm so glad you've finally accepted it.” He kissed her hands as she slipped from the dream into reality.

As she took in her surroundings, she awoke in a beautiful hotel room, comfortable and safe in a warm bed. The room was fragrant with the smell of fresh flowers. Sunlight streamed in through the curtains, giving a golden glow to the walls. She thought of Joshua, and how he had slept through the night in that cold room, on a rock-hard cot that reeked of urine. Before she had even opened her eyes that morning, Joshua had been executed by lethal injection. Aury wept tears of sorrow and gratitude.

Joshua hadn't been able to fix/rewrite all of Aury's life. Her past was the same. She was still the daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father and an impulsive, shameless mother. She was still the girl who had made terrible choices, and she still felt a pull toward those choices... but that didn't matter anymore. Joshua had given her something beautiful: a second chance. Awful choices no longer held her captive.

She didn't know how he did it, but Joshua saved her. He took her punishment.

Aury would not allow Joshua's sacrifice to be in vain. She cleaned up and started up a program for at-risk kids, sharing her (now-honest) income to create a clothes closet and pantry for poor families in the area. She found that she had a hunger for the Bible, and even returned to church. To her, it didn't matter if the Preachers looked down their noses at her. She was surprised to find that there were a few genuine believers there, who loved the way Christ did: the way Joshua did. In fact, many of them were Joshua's friends. Being in their company was like having Joshua there with them again, and she was grateful to be surrounded by so many true friends.

Her parents had already passed away and it was difficult for her to do, but she finally forgave her parents. She knew Joshua would want it that way, and how could she deny him when he'd already shown her so much grace?

For the rest of her days, and to the best of her ability, Aury fulfilled her promise to Joshua. She lived a life of love, and gave generously, not because she had to, but because she was able to. She spent the rest of her life giving hope and peace, and she never regretted it.