Darko heard Mary’s happy cry. Elva must have jumped out of his truck. He did not look to check. His eyes were focused on the girl in front of him.
Why was she there? Was she going to yell at him? Tell him how much pain he had caused her? He already knew. He did not need to be told. He had just begun to feel good about being home. He did not need anything to ruin it.
His heartbeat sped up, and his chest tightened. For once, it did not help that Cynnie was beside him. He could feel all eyes on him. Everyone was waiting for the confrontation that was about to happen. He wanted to run, but his feet would not move. There was no escape. “Clare,” he breathed. He was unable to say any more.
Clare’s blazing eyes bore into his. “It’s been a long time,” she said smoothly. “I was wondering if you would be coming back.”
Darko swallowed hard. Maybe this had been a mistake. He should have never come back. He should have known she would be here waiting for him. He barely felt the pressure of Cynnie’s hand on his shoulder.
“Clare,” Curtis began sternly.
Clare shook her head at him. “Let me speak. I need to say this.”
Curtis fell silent and stepped back. No one else said a word.
“Darko,” Clare said steadily, “I forgive you.”
Darko stared at her, unsure he had heard her right. “What?”
Clare smiled. For the first time, he noticed a happiness and light about her that he had never seen before. “I forgive you for what you did to me.”
A murmur broke out through the crowd. As the noise grew louder, Darko made a motion with his hands to make them stop. “I don’t understand.” He looked at her in confusion. How could this be possible? This was not normal, was it?
“To tell you the truth, I never did feel like I had been the victim of a crime,” Clare admitted. “Not at first. It was wrong and I was horrified, but I never wanted to bring you to trial. It was my parents and my lawyer who convinced me that I had been violated. They messed with my mind. They had me believing that I was affected much worse than I actually was.” She smiled grimly. “I know they were trying to help, but they probably did more to escalate the situation into a tragedy than you did.” She shook her head.
Darko blinked. He was too stunned to say anything. He nodded, urging her to continue. He needed to hear. He needed to understand. He needed to be sure this was not all a dream.
“The real harm came when I discovered I was pregnant,” Clare went on.
Darko froze again. Pregnant? This was the first he had heard about it. Why had no one told him? Did he not have the right? Of course not. He had been a criminal. His heart suddenly felt very heavy.
“I was given a hard time by everyone in the town,” Clare said. “Everyone was pressuring me to ‘get rid of the problem.’” She hesitated. “I wanted to, but I could not go through with an abortion. I could not justify murder just because I had had my rights violated. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” She shook her head. “Sadly, most people don’t see it that way. No one understood my decision. So I had to leave.
“My cousin was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma. I went there to live with her and study at the university. She was very supportive and helpful. I was very agitated and probably annoying at the time. I was starting to view everything with a negative lens. I grew resentment against you and other guys. I was bitter and angry most of the time. I could not make many friends. It was a very hard point in my life.
“Ironically, things started looking up once I had my baby. Her name is Hannah.” Her eyes were brimming with tears. “She was beautiful. She still is. I found a joy and happiness in her that I could not have imagined. Taking care of her helped me heal emotionally and psychologically. How could I not love her? She was a part of me. And she was pure and innocent. I poured all of my devotion into her. For awhile, everything was fine.”
Darko swallowed a new lump in his throat. He had a daughter. Hannah. He could hardly believe it. His wrong act had brought forth life that had blessed his victim. How amazing.
“I met Ted when Hannah was two. I was a senior in college. He was five years older than me. I would never have met him if not for her. I ran into him because I was chasing Hannah at a local pool.” Clare smiled. “It took me awhile to learn how to trust him. But he was patient and kind. He showed me the goodness in the world and taught me how to love again.
“We married three years ago. We moved back to Montgomery right before the wedding. It was a very healing experience to be reunited with those in the town. Everyone accepted Hannah.” She paused. “Someone introduced her to Curtis’ kids, telling her that they were her cousins. I was furious. I still hated you, Darko, and I blamed you for a lot of the misfortunes in my life. Hannah was confused. I tried to explain, but it just made everything worse.
“After the wedding, I thought those struggles had passed. Ted convinced me to let Hannah see her cousins on a limited, supervised basis. A year later, I gave birth to a baby boy. His name is Nick. He was beautiful as well.” She smiled sadly. “Hannah was six and she had begun to act up again. She started ignoring me. Finally, I asked her what was wrong. What she said shocked me. She asked if I had stopped loving her now that I had Nick. She thought the only reason I had loved her was because I did not have a true child of my own conceived by an act of love. She then mentioned you. She said that if I hated you I had to hate her as well because she would not be born if it were not for you. Even at that young age, she rightly understood that she was a part of you and I could not separate the two. How could I love her if I hated the one who had given me her?”
Clare grimaced. “I talked to Father Evan and I learned that he had forbidden you to come back to church.” She frowned. “That did not sit right with me. A younger priest had just started working at the church, so I talked to him. He had a much different perspective. He taught me about God’s love and forgiveness for both victims and offenders. He made me see that the only way I was ever going to truly heal was to let go of my anger and forgive you. He showed me that forgiveness helps the person forgiving a lot more than the person who is being forgiven, especially if that person does not know.”
She smiled. “It took a lot of time and prayer, but I was finally able to do it. Hannah was with me every step of the way. You were always a good friend to me. I realized that you probably did not mean to hurt me. I was sure you were sorry. I wanted to be able to look back at the good memories and smile again. I wanted to remember you positively. Thankfully, I can do that now.
“Once I was ready, I began researching sex offender laws out of curiosity.” A sad look crossed her face. “It’s terrible the way they’re treated. It must be horrible to never be able to get past your mistakes. I’m sorry I ever agreed to the trial. If I had known what it would cost you…” She shook her head. “The criminal justice system really should consider a victim’s views. If I could, I would get you out of the registration requirement and everything else. You’ve dealt with enough for my sake.”
Darko’s eyes were filled with tears. He was overwhelmed with emotion. “You’re sorry? I’m sorry for what I did,” he choked out.
“I know,” Clare said softly. “It’s in the past now; let’s move on.” She paused. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” She turned to the crowd and nodded. A black-haired, brown-eyed man stepped forward. He was carrying a small boy with black hair and green eyes. By his side was a little girl. She had beautiful, short, red hair and blue eyes that lit up when they landed on Darko. “Daddy!” she cried and raced towards him.
Darko acted almost upon an instinct he had never known was there. He bent down and opened his arms. The young child jumped into his arms, wrapping her own around his neck. Darko held her securely as he stood up. He shut his eyes, tears dripping down.
When Darko pulled back to gaze at the girl, she looked at him earnestly. “I told Mommy you would be back,” Hannah said.
Darko could not find words to describe what he was feeling. He stuck with a simple, “It’s nice to meet you.” He set the child down and began to recompose himself. He took this chance to examine the other people around him.
There was a mixture of shock, confusion, and awe. He had never seen these people so stunned. And then there was his father. He had been watching the whole thing. He had a look of contemplation on his face. No one spoke a word.
Darko turned back to Clare. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
Clare smiled and nodded. “Let’s just put the past behind us. This is my husband, Ted.” She motioned toward the man. “And our son, Nick.”
“Hello,” Ted said politely. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Darko suddenly remembered that Cynnie was there. “Oh, this is my friend, Cynnie. She’s from Green Bay. That’s where I’m living now.”
Cynnie waved. “Hi.”
Clare nodded. “I see. Packers fan too. That fits.” She turned and faced the crowd. “Does anyone else have anything they would like to say?”
First there was silence. Then Darren stepped forward. He coughed to clear his throat. “I’m, uh, sorry, Darko. If Clare can forgive you, then I suppose I can too.”
Janet smiled and nodded at him. “Good, Darren.”
Darko smiled slightly. “Thanks, Dad.” It seemed like everyone else felt similarly. He was still not sure what to think himself. He was feeling too much.
“Are you going to stay?” little Hannah asked, tugging on his pant leg.
“Yes, we would love it if you returned,” his mother said gently.
“It would be alright with me,” Clare added.
Darko hesitated. He had never allowed himself to think about being welcomed home. He never thought it possible. But now… It would be good, wouldn’t it? It seemed like he would not be harassed or judged anymore. Someone would give him a job. He would have a home. As long as he stayed in town, he could live a normal life.
But… what about Green Bay? He had already invested so much time and energy in the city. And he loved it there. He was starting to get people to understand him. He had gotten people to change their ways of thinking. How much more good could he do? And there was Cynnie. If not for her, perhaps the offer would be more tempting.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that,” he began steadily. “I have to go back to Green Bay. That’s my home now. I have friends I don’t want to leave.” He looked at Cynnie and smiled. “I’ll come and visit, but I still have work to do up north.” He glanced down at Hannah. “Besides, I don’t think the government would approve.”
“If that’s what you want to do,” Janet said. “But at least accompany us for Mardi Gras tomorrow.”
Cynnie grinned. “Yes, let’s go to it!”
Darko smiled and nodded. “Ok. That would be great.”
Mardi Gras was a great celebration in Louisiana. As a child, Darko had looked forward to dressing up and passing out candy in the parades. But as a sex offender, he was not allowed to dress up or pass out candy, even though his crime had nothing to do with children, plus the fact that no child has ever died from poisoned candy. It was an absolutely ridiculous violation of his rights if not outright unconstitutional.
But he chose to put all that aside as he had fun with Cynnie, his family, and those he had once known in his hometown. The event was just as spectacular as he remembered. And when it was all finished, he left with Cynnie to go back to Green Bay. To return home.