“Oh! This is so cute!” Julia picked up a pink mini skirt and showed it to her friend, a smile on her face.
Cynnie nodded her approval. “Too bad it’s winter. Let’s look for something else.” She was grateful for this time of relaxing and shopping with Julia. Between weddings, work, and Darko, they had not seen each other much lately. It was December 10th. It was time to start thinking about Christmas gifts!
“Does anyone need a new winter coat?” Julia asked.
Cynnie smiled. “I think everyone here is covered. Let’s check out the hats!” She enjoyed looking at hats with interesting patterns and sequins. Just because it was used to keep warm did not mean it could not be stylish!
The two friends wove their way through the store until they reached the winter section. Cynnie’s eyes scanned everything for something that would stick out. “How’s the beauty salon?” she asked without looking at her friend.
“It’s great!” Julia chirped. “I love working there. I do hope one day I’ll be able to open my own shop, though.”
Cynnie smiled at her. “I’m sure you will.” She picked up a red fleece hat and examined it. “Will you be seeing your family at Christmas?”
“Yep,” Julia said less-than-enthusiastically. “I’ll be in New Jersey for the weekend.”
Cynnie cast her a sympathetic glance. She knew her friend did not love her family home. Her father left when she was young and she had problems with her mother. Her sister was the only one she got along with. She had gone to college with Cynnie at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The two of them visited Green Bay together several times. Julia fell in love with the peace and tranquility of the city, so she decided to move there after graduation. She seemed much happier now.
“So, got any boys to shop for?” Julia asked in a teasing way.
“Well, there are my brothers,” Cynnie began.
Julia rolled her eyes. “I meant non-family members.”
Cynnie grinned. She had known exactly what her friend had meant. “Right.” A thoughtful look appeared on her face. “Just Darko, I believe.” She realized her mistake as soon as the words left her mouth.
Julia’s face hardened into a frown. “Darko? The rapist? You’re still with him?”
Cynnie bit her lip. “We’re not dating, if that’s what you mean. We’re just friends.”
Julia’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what he wants you to think. He’s just waiting for the right moment to move in.”
Cynnie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m sure he would back off if I wanted him to.”
Julia widened her eyes. “If? Oh my gosh! You like him!”
Cynnie frowned as she tried to figure out if her companion was right. Was there something romantic between her and Darko? Did she want there to be? He had kissed her. That had to mean something, if her hesitation hadn’t scared him off, that is. And she had initially kissed him back. She was definitely physically attracted to him. But was it practical? It was hard enough being friends. Would anyone ever accept them together as a couple? Would she be harassed too? That should not matter. She wanted to defend him. She wanted to prove everyone wrong. She wanted to feel his pain with him so that he would not be alone. She cared about him. She was just not sure how much.
“Cynnie!” Julia said loudly.
Cynnie blinked. She had zoned out there for a second. She frowned. “Sorry.” She paused. “I can’t say what will happen in the future, but right now I’m just trying to be his friend. That’s what he needs.”
Julia crossed her arms and shook her head. “Cynnie, I thought I warned you about him. He’s no good.”
Cynnie put a hat back and turned to face her friend. She was calm. For now. “And I told you that you don’t know him. I trust him.”
“And that’s a mistake!” Julia exclaimed. “What he needs is to stay away from temptation. You said Green Bay is a family town. He does not belong here.”
“Yes, he does!” Cynnie insisted. “For the very reason you say he does not! The best way to prevent sex offenders from reoffending is to fully integrate them into society. A secure, supportive city like Green Bay is the perfect place for that.”
Julia narrowed her eyes. “He does not belong in society.”
“Then you might as well sentence him to death,” Cynnie said bitterly. “No one can survive total ostracism.”
Julia turned her shoulder. “Good.”
Cynnie’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing. She did not think her friend was like this. “How can you be so heartless?”
Julia spun around to face her. “Me?” Her eyes were ablaze. “What about the victims of sex crimes? Do you have any idea what they have to go through? The damage is permanent. Why should the offenders not be permanently punished?”
“Because everyone makes mistakes!” Cynnie cried.
“Most people’s mistakes do not ruin other people’s lives in such a horrible way!” Julia shot back. “They should have known better. Something so disgusting is unforgivable, and I can’t believe you would be so cruel as to accept one them as a friend.”
Cynnie stared at her with her mouth open. She had never seen Julia act so cold, especially against her. What she was suggesting was preposterous. Cynnie’s compassion towards Darko was not cruel. It was a good thing. How could everything be so messed up?
Julia left without saying another word.
Cynnie had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She and Julia never fought. Not like this. Where was their friendship headed?
Snow flurries surged through the air. They got caught in Darko’s eyes, causing him to blink rapidly to get rid of the water. He remembered how he had always dreamed of seeing snow when he was younger. Now all he wanted was to be in his safe, warm Louisiana, away from the cold and what was called wind chill. Excessive heat he could handle. But this was torture.
He felt better as he stepped into the gelateria, but this soon disappeared. John was working at the cash register. His eyes immediately locked onto Darko’s. There was no one else in the shop. Darko guessed not many people wanted ice cream in December.
Then he remembered that they served hot cocoa as well. He wondered how the Italian kind differed from the American. It was supposed to be good. John kept his steely eyes on him as he approached the register. “A small cup of hot cocoa, please,” he said gruffly.
“It’s hot chocolate,” John said coldly.
Darko blinked. “What?”
John shook his head. “Never mind.” He took the money and cashed it. Then he turned around and began to fiddle with a machine.
Darko glanced down at his feet. He should have considered himself lucky. He had wanted to talk to Cynnie’s brother alone. Now he had his chance. He had practiced a hundred times what he was going to say. Nothing seemed adequate. He decided to just go for it.
He lifted his head to look at his adversary, whose back was to him. He cleared his throat. “John.”
John looked back at him and raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”
Darko did not know what he was supposed to say. Was he supposed to apologize for something he did many years ago that did not affect John? It was the future John was worried about. He thought Darko was going to hurt Cynnie. It was more than that, he knew, but this was a place to start. “I mean your sister no harm,” he said calmly. “She has been a friend to me when no one else in her position would. I would never betray her trust.” He spoke confidently and seriously. It was all true. He could never dream of doing anything to harm Cynnie. She meant too much to him. You do not turn your back on the only person who refuses to turn their back on you.
John’s face darkened. He turned and poured a thick, brown liquid into a foam cup. “Why should I believe you?” he said thickly. “Even if you are being sincere, how do I know things will not change? What if temptation gets the better of you?” He turned his back to him as he continued his work.
Darko shrugged even though he could not see it. The point was fair enough. But he saw no reason for him to be singled out. “Sure, there could be temptation. But any guy could have that same temptation. And I’ve already dealt with the consequences of giving in. I know how serious my choice can be. Because of that, I have an advantage over every other guy who would blow off something like this. I know I will make the right choice.”
John turned around stiffly and held the cup out to Darko, who slowly took it into his own hands. His expression was deadly. “You’re trying to trick me in order to gain acceptance. If the law thinks you dangerous enough to be on a public registry, why should I not treat you the same way?”
Darko frowned. He supposed it was not all John’s fault for believing what he said. The law was messed up. People assumed all offenders on the list were the worst type. Lawmakers did not bother to correct them. Darko hated them and the government that gave them power. There was no justice in America. Not for him. “Look up the facts before saying something like that,” he said icily.
John glared at him. “Get out of my shop and stay away from my sister!”
Darko obliged to the first part of the order, but he knew he would be ignoring the second. If Cynnie wanted to continue to see him, he would let her. Once he was outside, he took a sip of the hot cocoa. It was thick and rich. It warmed his body despite the weather. He hoped he would be granted peace on his trip back to his apartment.
Luckily, no one bothered him except one lady in his apartment building who glared at him as he walked past. He considered this a success. But he had not been in his room for long before there was a knock on the door. His heart jumped. Could it be Cynnie? She had not said she was coming over today.
He opened the door to reveal a blond girl. Not Cynnie. He immediately froze. This had to be someone to threaten him, call him vulgar names, or assault him in some other way. He felt his defenses turn on. He resented that this was necessary. He did not want to defend what he had done. He knew it was wrong, but what other choice did he have? He forced a smile. “May I help you?”
The girl was shooting daggers at him. “I’m Julia, Cynnie’s best friend.”
Darko’s eyes widened in surprise. Cynnie had told him about Julia once. She was a good friend to her. That probably explained why she was there now. She thought she was protecting Cynnie. Just like her brother. Great. How many allies did she have in this city? “I’m Darko,” he said slowly. “Cynnie is my friend as well.”
Julia’s eyes tightened. “Don’t give me that. I know what you’re up to.”
Darko raised his eyebrows. He did not want to shout. His neighbors would hear. “I’m up to getting close to Cynnie.”
Julia gasped and pulled back, looking revolted.
Darko realized his mistake and rolled his eyes. “I did not mean it like that.”
“But your subconscious did,” Julia shot back. “Don’t even try to hide it. You’re deceiving Cynnie!”
“I am doing no such thing,” Darko said calmly. “Will you just let me explain?”
“No!” Julia snapped. “I don’t want to listen to your lies. You may be fooling Cynnie, but I’m onto you. I will find a way to expose you.”
Darko was tempted to yell at her, but he could not do that. This was Cynnie’s best friend. She meant a lot to her. He did not want to hurt either of them because of it. He did not want to give them a reason to fight. He let his anger out in a deep sigh. “You’ll be wasting your time.”
Julia continued to glare at him. She seemed frustrated. “We’ll see about that.” She spun around and stormed down the hall.
Darko watched her go wearily. He felt saddened by the encounter. He was causing too much trouble in this city. Would he ever find a home?