Darko drove down to Louisiana in his pickup truck. Cynnie had offered to pay for airplane tickets, but he had declined. He needed the time on the road to think about what he was going to do and say. Plus, this way he could bring Elva along. She sat in the middle between him and Cynnie. There was not much talking as they drove straight down. He concentrated at the task at hand.
The tension inside Darko grew as they crossed the border into Louisiana. It was near extreme levels by the time they reached Montgomery. Darko wondered how long it would take for someone to recognize him. He suddenly hated having been brought up in a small town. There was no place to escape or disappear to. News spread fast. Once one person knew of his return, the whole town would soon find out.
Elva rubbed against his side. He did not dare take one of his hands off the wheel to pet her. They were gripping it tightly. “It will be alright,” Cynnie whispered softly.
Darko nodded so that she would know he heard her. They were heading to his father’s office. His father had worked as a therapist for many years. It was funny, for someone who had spent so much time studying psychology, his father was not very understanding of everything going on with his son. He had always been harsh and condescending. He was the one Darko most feared seeing again. Darko thought that by seeing him first, the reaction of everyone else would seem much more pleasant.
Darko grew stiff as he walked out of the car. He thought about dressing up in a nice suit but had decided against it. He needed to wear something in which he was comfortable. Besides, if his family was not willing to accept him, there was nothing he could do to impress them. Instead, he wore his Brett Favre jersey and Packers cap. He knew he looked out of place. He did not care.
The woman at the front desk asked them if they had an appointment.
Darko cleared his throat. “I’m here to see my father.”
Recognition crossed the woman’s face, and her mouth fell partly opened. She mumbled the correct room to him and sent them on their way.
When they arrived at the correct room, Darko knocked on the door. He heard his father’s gruff voice say, “Come in.”
The door creaked as Darko opened it. He had to force himself to take each step. Cynnie took a hold of his hand, which helped a little. He stopped in the middle of the room, his eyes fixed on his father. Darren Stroud was a heavyset 66-year-old with light brown hair and green eyes. He was dressed in a grey business suit. As he looked up, his steely eyes locked on his son’s and hardened.
“Darko,” the man said in a harsh tone. “What are you doing in my office?” He glanced at Cynnie. Self-consciously, Darko let go of her hand.
“I came to see you,” he said in a small voice.
Darren’s eyes narrowed. He looked his son up and down. “You’re a Packers fan now?”
Darko nodded. “I live in Green Bay. This is my friend, Cynnie. She lives there too.”
Darren looked at Cynnie again before returning his gaze to the boy. “I see. You should not have come here. I don’t know why you would think I would be happy to see you.”
Darko swallowed. He should have expected such a response. He should never have come. What had he been thinking? Before he could decide what to do, Cynnie shouted at his father angrily, “Maybe because he’s your son?”
Darren raised his eyebrows at her. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Cynnie said hotly. “You should be ashamed. People in Green Bay know what family means. It’s actually important there. Family sticks together no matter what one member has done. Actually, family should be supportive especially if someone has done something wrong. That is when family is needed the most.”
Darko was surprised at her intensity. He did not know she felt so strongly. She must have assumed that all families were like her own. Now that she knew about his, she could defend families better.
Darren seemed shocked as well. He quickly returned to a calm, hard demeanor. “I’m sorry we don’t do things the way you do, young lady. I have been a father for many years. I do not need anyone telling me how to do my job.”
Cynnie’s outburst gave Darko courage to speak himself. “Just let me explain,” he began. “If you just hear me out-”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” his father said coldly. “I’m tired of it. It’s far too late. The damage is already done.”
Darko’s eyes fell to the desk. There was a small, New Orleans Saints bobble head that sat in the right side. Something inside Darko suddenly snapped. His gaze was hardened now as he looked at his father. “You forgive the Saints and not me?”
Darren let out a tired sigh. “What are you talking about?”
“The bountygate scandal,” Darko replied quickly. “Surely you heard about it?”
Darren did not seem bothered by the statement. He simply raised his eyebrows at his son. “Yes, of course. What is your point?”
In March, it had been discovered that the defensive players were being paid by their defensive coach to purposefully hurt opposing offensive players. Brett Favre had been the highest target; the offer had been twenty thousand dollars to knock him out of the game. “You’re still a fan of them, right?” Darko said. “Despite what they’ve done. And yet you won’t do the same for me. They’re a football team. I’m your son.” He became more worked up as he spoke. The injustice of it all was outrageous to him.
Darren shrugged. “Football is a violent game. This happens all the time. They just don’t get caught.”
“Neither do many sex crimes,” Darko said. “Temptation is common among teenage boys. But that’s not the point. What I did was wrong, but what the Saints did was wrong as well. And they knew it at the time. I did not even know I had committed a crime. It happened so fast. The Saints continued their practice for at least two years. And they severely hurt many great players just to win a game. If you can look past all that, why can you not try to understand me? People are more important than teams. Why don’t you have more loyalty to me? I’ve done all I can. It’s your play now.”
He did not wait for a reply. He could not bear it. He turned around and stormed out of the room. Cynnie quickly followed. He tried to calm his mind. He had to go to his old house now. Perhaps his mother would be more understanding. If her husband was not with her, that would be much more likely. It was worth a shot.
Darko knew he was being watched as he drove through town. It was nearing evening. People would be getting home from work. Many would return early because the next day was Mardi Gras, a holiday. He ignored the stares and drove on. He stopped at the house in which he had grown up. He knew his family would still be there. People did not move around much in his town except to go to a different city.
It was warm and humid as he left the truck. It should have been familiar and comforting, but he would have given anything for the snow and cold air of Wisconsin. He waited a few seconds before knocking on the door. Cynnie nodded at him encouragingly. He was grateful for her presence.
Janet Stroud opened the door. She was a thin, 60-year-old woman. She had long, black braided hair and blue eyes. She was wearing a simple white blouse and sky blue skirt. Her eyes widened at the sight of her son. “Darko!” she cried.
Before he knew what was happening, Darko found himself wrapped in his mother’s arms. Unable to control himself, he hugged her back tightly, now fighting back tears. “Hi, Mom,” he managed to choke out.
Janet pulled back to look at him, her arms still around him. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she nearly whispered. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Darko found himself suddenly overcome with emotion. “You have?” He spoke almost as softly as her.
Janet nodded. She dropped her arms. “Of course. I’ve been keeping up on your whereabouts through the sex offender registry. I’ve wanted to call you, but I was afraid. I thought you would rebuke me. And your father did not approve.”
Darko stared at her longingly. If he had known she felt this way, he would have made contact sooner. He could hardly believe she still loved him. It was almost too much for him to handle. “I’ve missed you too. I could never rebuke you. I thought you were the one who hated me.”
Janet bit her lip. “I know I’ve probably made it seem that way.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you. I was afraid for you and for us. I was scared for our reputation. And I was afraid you had become someone I did not recognize anymore.” She frowned. “But I was wrong. I am so sorry, son.”
Darko could not help the tears that were spilling over. “It’s ok. I forgive you, Mom.” He stepped forward and hugged her again. This time, he held on longer. It felt so good to be with her again. He felt safe and secure just like he had as a child.
When Janet pulled away, she looked behind Darko. “And who are you, young lady?”
Darko glanced at Cynnie. She was smiling at the two of them. “I’m Cynnie Perrino,” she said. “I’m Darko’s friend.”
“She’s been helping me in Green Bay,” Darko said.
Janet smiled at her. “It’s great to meet you. I’m glad Darko has found someone to confide in.” She turned to her son again. “Let’s go inside and I can call your brother. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
Darko was not so sure. His brother Curtis had seemed ashamed of him. One of his daughters was Darko’s goddaughter. That did not seem to help their relationship. Still, anything could have changed throughout the years. He walked inside feeling more hopeful. Cynnie smiled at him as she went in after him.
It did not take long for Curtis to arrive. He had brought his whole family along. His wife Laura had short, brown hair and hazel eyes. Darko’s goddaughter was 10-year-old Mary. She had wavy, brown hair and green eyes. Curtis’s son seemed about seven. He had short, brown hair and brown eyes. The little girl with long, blond hair and hazel eyes could not have been older than four.
Curtis himself was a 35-year-old with long, black hair and green eyes. There was a look of surprise on his face as he approached his brother. “Darko,” he said, “I did not expect to see you here.”
Darko lifted his head. “I thought it was time to come home. This is my friend, Cynnie.” He glanced at her. “Cynnie, this is my brother, Curtis.”
Curtis held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Cynnie. This is my wife, Laura; my daughter, Mary; my son, Chad; and my other daughter, Holly.”
Laura examined Darko suspiciously. “I want to know what he’s doing here.”
Mary stepped forward and looked at Darko curiously. “Uncle Darko?”
Darko gave her a slight smile. He was unsure as to what was the appropriate response. “Yep. It’s me.”
Mary’s face broke out into a grin. She began to run to Darko, but Laura grabbed onto her and held her back. “Oh, no, you don’t,” her mother said sternly. She turned to her husband. “Curtis?”
Curtis frowned. He glanced at Janet. “What do you think?”
“I have welcomed Darko back home,” Janet responded calmly. “If you want to forgive him for the harm he caused our family, that is your choice.”
“What harm?” Chad asked in confusion.
Laura shook her head. “You’re too young to understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Darko said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” He hesitated. “I never did. I just want us to act like a family again.”
“I don’t care what he did,” Mary declared. “He’s my uncle, and I love him.”
Holly smiled. “Me too!”
Darko was touched by the child’s sincerity. She held wisdom that many adults could not grasp. He was beginning to tear up again. “Please, Curtis.”
Laura crossed her arms. “Well, it’s your decision,” she said to her husband.
Curtis let out a heavy sigh. Finally, he said, “Well, I guess a brother deserves a second chance.” He held out his hand to Darko.
Darko smiled in relief as he shook his hand. “Thank you, brother. It means a lot to me.”
Cynnie smiled as well. “See? I told you there was nothing to worry about.”
Curtis hesitated. “There’s something else I should tell you,” he said to Darko. He paused before continuing. “A lot of people know you’re back, and they’re coming here.”
Darko nodded. That was what he had expected. He sucked in a sharp breath. “Well, let’s go see them.”
Janet looked at him worriedly. “Are you sure?”
Darko nodded. He would have to do it eventually. He led the way to the door. As Curtis had said, there was already a crowd gathered on the streets. They were murmuring to each other. Tension grew as they noticed Darko. Suddenly, a female voice broke through the crowd,
A girl with long, red hair and green eyes pushed through the people to get through the front. There was a determined look on her face. Darko froze instantly when he saw her.It was his victim, Clare.