Kevin and Lassiter stood together and watched a heated game of basketball on a cold, misty morning. Pablo and his cohorts emerged from the unit and immediately sought out Lassiter. Pablo pointed in Kevin’s direction and said something to one of his friends. The gang started walking toward them.
Kevin tapped Lassiter on the shoulder. “Hey, Lassiter. Stay cool. Here come Pablo and his punks. Don’t do anything to provoke them.”
Lassiter mustered his courage. “I’m tired of them messing with me.”
Kevin grabbed a basketball and tried to dissuade Lassiter. “Come on and play a game of one on one with me.” He tugged the man toward the ball court.
Pablo and his gang approached quickly, though. Kevin tried to pull his friend toward the safety of a crowd gathered on the court, but Lassiter resisted, determined to stand his ground. He faced the approaching men with grim determination. Kevin decided not to abandon Lassiter as Pablo advanced with a menacing sneer.
The thug drew close enough to breathe on Kevin. “Hey, sweetheart. Why are you hanging with this piece of trash all the time, now?”
Kevin grunted in frustrated exasperation. “Give it a rest, will you Pablo?”
Lassiter drew attention to himself. “Don’t get involved, Kevin.”
“Did they tell you he likes little girls?” Pablo snorted with disgust.
Kevin growled in anger. “Shut up, Pablo!”
Lassiter quickly intervened. “Leave Kevin out of this.”
“You like little boys, too?” Pablo reached to trace his finger down Kevin’s arm. “Kevin and I already know each other really well.”
Kevin retracted his arm in revulsion. “Go away, Pablo!” he warned.
“I will,” Pablo winked at Kevin. “It’s unfortunate for you that I have a date with your boyfriend here, but you and I can get together later.” He blew a kiss at the young man as he drew Lassiter toward his cohorts. “Come on boys. Let us have some fun.”
Now it was Kevin’s turn to intervene. “Leave him alone!”
Kevin started to grab for Pablo, but Marvin showed up behind him and grabbed him before he could do anything. Lassiter glanced at Kevin as they were forced apart. He appeared to be at peace that defied logic.
“Stay here, Kevin,” Lassiter said with an eerily calm voice. “This is not your fight anymore. It will all be over in just a little while.”
“No!” Kevin fought against Marvin's restraints. “Let me go!”
“Stay cool, Kevin,” Marvin commanded. “No use both of you getting hurt.”
“Let go of me, Marvin!” Kevin demanded. “They are beating him for something he didn’t do.”
Marvin gaped at Kevin with astonishment. “That is that creep’s sweet-talking getting at you.”
Kevin wrestled harder to escape Marvin’s grip and pounded the center of his chest. “I know the truth, here in my heart! I can feel it!”
Kevin's strength surprised Marvin. “You have been listening to your preacher friend too much.”
Kevin wrestled free and started to run. “They are going to kill him!”
“Come back, kid!” Marvin made a desperate reach for Kevin but missed the collar of his shirt by less than an inch. “They will kill you, too!”
Kevin reached the doorway of the showers just as Pablo exited with his cohorts. They were all still laughing and cutting up. Some of their hands were swollen and bloodied. There were at least three bloodied noses and two swollen eyes. At least there was a little satisfaction in knowing that Lassiter did not go down without a fight.
Pablo eyed Kevin suggestively. “Your boyfriend is ready for you, Kevin,” he said in an effeminate manner
Kevin shouted with rebelliousness. “What did you do to him?”
“I gave him what he wanted,” Pablo mocked, “but I’m done with him for now.”
Pablo laughed disrespectfully as he and his cohorts left. Kevin desperately shoved by them but stopped dead in his tracks as his breath caught in his throat. Lassiter lay naked in a crumpled heap in the center of the shower floor. His face was a bloody pulp, but he was still conscious. Kevin immediately went to his aid, kneeling to cradle the battered man with compassion.
Kevin could not contain the pain in his voice. “What did that bastard do to you?”
Lassiter coughed and sputtered through a torn mouth, “don’t associate with me anymore, Kevin.”
Kevin ignored the request. “How bad are you hurt?”
Lassiter’s words grew harder to understand. “Get me back to my cell and then get away from me for good. I will be okay.”
Kevin felt powerless. “Let me take you to the infirmary.”
Lassiter took a deep breath that caused tremendous pain. “No one can help me now.”
Kevin began to cry in desperation. “They hurt you pretty bad this time.”
Lassiter managed a smile. “You have been a good friend to me, Kevin.”
Kevin drew courage and removed his outer shirt to cover Lassiter. “Come on.” He helped the man to his feet and together they struggled to walk out of the showers.
Kevin helped Lassiter walk inside of his cell. He mostly supported the weight of the injured man. Lassiter breathed in gurgling gasps that occasionally spurted out blood and mucus. He did not appear to be doing well at all. Kevin escorted him over to his bed and helped to lower him down.
Genuinely concerned about his friend, Kevin spoke in calm, soothing words. “I wish you would let me take you to the infirmary.” He gazed at Lassiter with intense worry.
“Just let me rest awhile, Kevin.” Lassiter gritted his teeth against the pain. “I will be okay in a little bit.”
Kevin felt inadequate. “Can I at least get you anything?”
Lassiter lay back on his bunk and almost denied Kevin the last opportunity to help. “Would you get the chaplain? I would like to tell him that I've accepted Christ.”
“Really?” Kevin felt a glimmer of hope as he kneeled at Lassiter's bedside. “If it means anything, now...I believe you.”
Lassiter’s eyes watered, as a but he tried to keep Kevin from seeing them. “Thank you.”
Kevin stood up with an enthusiastic smile. “I will be right back!”
Lassiter watched Kevin leave and then lay down. He reached under his mattress and pulled out a crude, hand-made knife He stared at the ceiling as tears flowed from his eyes.
“Sorry, kid.” Lassiter’s words were filled with deep emotional pain. “I cannot take any more.” He took the tip of the knife and began to gouge his wrists and forearms to free the arteries of their crimson torrent and end his miserable life.
The prison chaplain, a long-time friend of James Kolendo and now a mentor for Kevin, walked with the younger man together through the corridor. Kevin showed some enthusiasm that had not been present for a long time. That enthusiasm was overshadowed by his concern.
Kevin was trying to hurry the chaplain along. “They beat him up pretty bad.”
“Damn!” The chaplain said with dismay. “I had some really good news for him.”
“He is innocent,” Kevin stated matter of fact.
The chaplain offered mild surprise that Kevin already knew. “Yes. The little girl recanted everything. The molestation was all a lie.” He spoke with excitement. “Your friend is going home. The warden is finalizing his release right now.”
Kevin contained his muted joy, for part of him was envious of Lassiter’s exoneration. “That is wonderful!”
Kevin entered the cell full of excitement and joy for Lassiter ahead of the chaplain. Horror and disbelief filled his eyes and took his voice as he assessed the scene of Lassiter's suicide. His eyes fixated on Lassiter's arm that hung lifeless from the bed and then to the pool of blood and crude knife that fell out of his hand after he died from the slashes to his wrists. The chaplain put a protective arm over Kevin's shoulders and observed the message written in blood on the wall next to Lassiter's bed:
'They shall hurt me no more'.
“Poor soul.” The chaplain said with pity.
Kevin could not contain the brewing anger at the injustice. “Pablo did this to him.”
The chaplain tried to comfort Kevin. “Are you accusing Pablo of killing your friend?”
“No!” Kevin’s anger was boiling over. “But he hurt Lassiter enough to make him want to end it any way he could.”
The chaplain knew that he needed to find a way to calm Kevin before he made a mistake. “Let us pray for Lassiter's soul to finally be at peace.”
“Peace?” Kevin’s anger churned into hatred. “There can be no peace as long as Pablo gets away with what he was doing to Lassiter!”
“Don’t do this Kevin.” The chaplain detected the dark side of Kevin’s relationship with Pablo and knew that danger to the young man and many others was imminent. “Violence is not an answer to the problem. Leave retribution to God.”
“Where was God when Lassiter needed protection?” Kevin glared at the chaplain and pushed his arms away. “Pablo has to pay!”
The chaplain shook his head. “It will accomplish nothing but getting you deeper into trouble yourself.”
Kevin shook from the anger festering within his soul. “My friend was innocent!” His voice elevated to shouting and he was nearly crying. “Innocent!”
The chaplain tried to comfort the young man again, but Kevin forcefully shrugged away and ducked out of the cell. The chaplain tripped over his own feet as he struggled to reach the door and catch Kevin before he ran away. He worried about the young man blinded with pain and anger as he ran down the corridor.
The chaplain made a last desperate plea. “Kevin!” When he got no reply, he shouted, “Guards!”
Pablo stood outside in the courtyard. He and his friends laughed at what they had done, using vulgar expressions to show what they had done to Lassiter. There were other men gathered around him to listen to his exploitation. Suddenly a commotion coming from the far side of the courtyard captured the attention of some of the men. Pablo paid no heed until Kevin ran up to him.
Some of the men respected the anger and hatred seething from Kevin and silently gave him space. Marvin tried to grab the young man before he could reach Pablo, hoping to protect him from harming himself. Pablo and his friends showed no respect and gazed upon Kevin with contempt.
“What are you doing here without your boyfriend, Kevin?” Pablo realized that he had to put the young man in his place and made a motion to silence everyone, stepping forward to confront him.
Kevin growled with uncontrolled rage and wrenched free of Marvin. He attacked Pablo and drove the man back into his group of thugs. Together they went to the ground as he drove a hard-right fist into the other man’s gut. Pablo effectively regained his feet and lit into Kevin. The fight was fierce. Pablo was strong and fast, but he was unable to win against Kevin's pent up fury. Marvin motioned for his companions to keep Pablo's friends from grabbing Kevin. The fight was even at first as they trade punches and kicks.
One of Pablo's friends got free for a moment and struck Kevin from behind. Pablo pounced on Kevin and gained the advantage in the fight. Marvin grabbed the one who had hit Kevin. He lugged him off into the crowd, which had gathered around to watch the fight. Pablo seemed to have the upper hand in the fight.
“What makes you think you can beat me, punk?” Pablo mocked as he furiously beat Kevin.
“You bastard!” Kevin’s voice was broken by the repetitive punches. “Lassiter was innocent!” He managed to throw Pablo off and scrambled to his feet as the alarms began to sound in the courtyard.
Pablo danced with his madness. “Is that what this is about?”
Kevin grappled Pablo to keep him from throwing any more punches and then wrestled him to the ground. Pablo scrambled to get back to his feet, but Kevin dropped an elbow into his sternum, knocking the wind out of him. Part of the crowd cheered. Kevin shook his head to clear his eyes and drove his knee into Pablo's gut. He then pinned him down with it and began to throw his round of punches.
Pablo gasped for air. “Get off me!”
“He was innocent!” Kevin accentuated each punch with the words, “Innocent! Innocent! Innocent!”
Pablo began to cry for mercy as Kevin continued to throw punch after punch. Blood and spittle flew from Kevin’s mouth as he hammered his fists into Pablo’s face relentlessly. He never knew when the guards struck him with their batons, sending him into black oblivion.
Kevin's fists clutched tightly closed as he was enthralled within the memory. The farmer gazed upon him with concern, then looked at the road and started to pull over. Kevin snapped out of the memory and slowly relaxed. He did not realize that he had broken into a sweat and was breathing hard. The old man guessed there were some demons he was not qualified to exercise.
“Here is where I have got to let you off. My house is back up on that dirt road.” The farmer spoke cordially but could not hide his concerned feelings. “Would you like to come up to the house and let Bessie fix you some tea or something to eat before you go?”
“No thanks, mister.” Kevin still reeled over the painful memory.
Though he was unable to truly help, the farmer felt sympathetic toward Kevin. “Take care of yourself, young man.”
Kevin got out of the truck and waited while the farmer’s pickup backed up. He watched while the old Chevrolet drove away down a side dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that slowly engulfed it from view. An emotional battle raged on in his soul as the prior day’s events weighed heavily upon him. He decided to continue walking along the highway in the direction they had been traveling. When he turned away from the dirt road, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Across the highway from the entrance to the old farmer’s dirt road, near the apex of the curve in the road, was an inner forest meadow. It was not too remarkable from many other meadows that popped up throughout the East Texas Piney Woods. About an acre in size overall, diverse types of flowers and grasses grew in abundance.
In the center of the clearing grew a single sweet gum that stood like an ancient sentinel, perhaps several centuries old. The point where the Mustang had gouged out a section of the trunk had scarred over, but it seemed not to have affected the tree. It continued to live.
Kevin was no longer in control of himself as an emotional tidal wave battered his soul. His eyes pulled away from the tree and down to the curve where the guard rail had been rebuilt. The old rail that had failed to keep the Mustang from going airborne had been replaced by a taller, stouter rail.
Horror and pain overcame Kevin. The sound of a car crash mingled with Robbie's dying screams and the wail of sirens echoed through his mind. Grief gripped him and held him powerless as he confronted the area where his friend had died. He dropped to his knees and gave in to the tears as he saw the ghostly forms of first responders and law officers milling about the crash site. He saw the paramedic frantically working to save Robbie’s life and recognized the old farmer ten years younger.
“Oh, God! No.” Kevin shook his head in denial. “Why did you have to bring me here, God?” He started to cry uncontrollably.
Parked on the side of the highway, Robert Murchison watched Kevin from a distance. There were about a hundred yards between them. It had been by chance that they both arrived at the site of the wreck at the same time. A fresh spray of flowers sat in the seat next to him to adorn the roadside cross.
Kevin seemed to be distraught. He wandered an aimless path over the shoulder of the highway and seemed oblivious to the sedan parked on the opposite side of the road. He trembled and cried as he approached the old, scarred tree. A solitary white cross marked the site of Robbie's death. He kneeled near the cross as the sounds of that fateful night rolled through his mind. The squall of tires losing grip on the highway mingled with steel fenders grinding against aluminum guardrails. Overtaking everything else was the pitiful wail of a fifteen-year-old boy at the last pain-filled moment of his life.
So enthralled with his grief, Kevin did not notice the sedan moving closer to him and then pulling to a stop. He reached out to touch the cross in the same manner as he had touched his mother's headstone before. He wanted to scream and run away. He had not expected to return to that terrible place.
The car door opened, and Robert stepped out. Kevin heard the door close and listened to the footsteps approaching from behind. He was unable to look up as violent sobs racked his body. He found the strength when a hand rested gently upon his shoulder. He broke away from his grief and turned to look up at Robert.
Kevin stood up and tried to wipe the tears from his eyes. He was both surprised and wary to see Mr. Murchison standing next to him. The man stepped up beside him and then paused to look over the roadside memorial with much fondness. He leaned down over Kevin and adjusted the cross slightly, then gazed at the young man warmly.
Kevin was startled. The very man whose son he had been responsible for killing offered a comforting smile. He expected the man to look at him with hatred, but all that he could see was compassion. The tears threatened to flood his eyes once more. Robert could tell that Kevin was in pain.
“I…” Kevin, at a loss for words, could only look into the man’s eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Robert searched Kevin's expressions for something he hoped was there.
The guilt resurfaced in Kevin’s mind. “I don’t know.”
Robert searched around for a car. “How did you get out here?”
Kevin pointed in the general direction of the dirt road. “An old farmer picked me up just outside of town and dropped me off up the road there.”
Robert glanced over Kevin with genuine concern. “Are you alright?”
Kevin made a passive wave of his hand as he tried to come to some sort of control over his emotions. “I’m okay, I guess.” It bothered him that he was in a state of emotional weakness beyond his control.
“You look like You’re in a world of hurt.” Robert’s voice took on a noticeable fatherly tone.
“I’m fine…really,” Kevin said it more to assure himself than to convince Robert.
“I come to visit this site ever so often.” Robert felt an obligation to explain his presence at the scene of the wreck. “I come mostly to keep the grass and weeds from taking over his cross.”
Kevin was puzzled. “Why?”
Robert took in a deep, bittersweet sigh. “This was where Robbie’s spent the last part of his life. There are times that I think he is still here, wandering about all alone.”
A deep sense of pained remorse settled over Kevin’s soul. “I really messed things up for everybody…especially you. I cannot apologize enough.”
Robert accepted the apology with a nod of his head. “Robbie was my pride and joy.” He glanced at the tree that had been the final instrument of Robbie’s death, consciously avoiding the actual point where he struck it with his head. “I still miss him to this day.”
Kevin misinterpreted Robert’s intentions and motioned in the direction he intended to walk. “Look, I have violated your life enough, Mr. Murchison. I will just…”
Robert reached out to Kevin in a quick panic. “Don’t go! Please, come and have coffee with me.”
Kevin halted in his escape and turned to search Robert’s face. Part of him wanted to find contempt or distrust in the older man’s expressions. Those emotions he could accept and deal with. The one man in his life of whom he had caused the greatest harm should have hated him at that very moment. All that he could read though, was compassion in the man’s eyes. Kevin started to collapse in his misery, but Robert moved quickly to his side and held him up.
“Take it easy there, son.” Robert guided Kevin to the waiting car. “We have much to talk about.”
To be continued...
- Kevin's Homecoming - Chapter 17
Robert Murchison reaches out to Kevin in an effort to start forgiveness. The young man is wary and reluctant, but as they reflect on his early childhood experience, Kevin realizes that Robert poses no threat. Keeping his deepest emotions behind a wal