Snow still christened the ground, but the temperature was slowly rising. Thick stratus clouds covered the sky, keeping in the warmth. The town square was packed with people. A small stage had been set up. Upon it was a microphone and musical devices. Darko stood facing the crowd. He took hold of the microphone and gripped it in his hands.
He, Father Luke, and John had met with the mayor of Green Bay, who had agreed to organize this assembly. Darko was supposed to talk to them. He was going to explain himself and try to gain their acceptance. It was a daunting task, but his friends were there to support him. He would not be alone.
“Hello,” he began in a steady voice. “My name is Darko Stroud, and I am a registered sex offender.”
The crowd broke out into murmurs. Some people yelled threats or vile accusations. Many people were booing him.
“Shut up!” Cynnie yelled from the bottom of the stage. She glared at the people angrily. “Will you just let him speak? You don’t have to be here, you know?”
Darko nodded in her direction. “Thank you, Cynnie. That’s enough.” He looked at the crowd again, determination suddenly apparent on his face. “I want to tell y’all what exactly I did to get put on the registry. It may not be what you think. Will you let me do this?” There were no objections, so he went on.
He explained the circumstances of the situation and his motivations for what he had done. He described the consequences of his actions and what he had to go through since then. He made sure to make it clear that he was not condoning his own actions. He was sorry and took full responsibility for what he had done. “But contrary to what laws and society seem to be implying, I do not have a duty to hate myself for what I did,” he said seriously. “Neither do you have a duty to hate me. If it was, why not just kill me or lock me in prison for good?”
He shrugged. “I wish none of you any harm. You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at my record. I have not broken even the smallest crime since leaving prison.” He paused. “There is more. I have repented and received redemption. I am a new man. There are some here who can vouch for me.” He turned to see if anyone would step up.
Father Luke walked up onto the stage. He took the microphone from Darko and turned to talk to the people gathered. “I’m Father Luke. I am the priest at Saint Mary Magdalene’s. I have been conducting Bible studies with Darko and other members of the parish. I can tell you, I have not seen many people with the faith that he has. He understands the concepts of forgiveness and love. He is truly sorry for what he has done and wishes to do good in the world. But he cannot do good if no one will give him the chance. I would implore you to find it in your hearts to reach out to him and accept him as a member of our great city.”
Cynnie came up next and introduced herself. “I have been Darko’s friend since he arrived in June,” she said. “He has never once done anything to harm me. He has inspired me in many ways. And he makes a great Packers fan.” She smiled. “I went with him to his hometown in Louisiana. He reconciled with his family and other people in his small town. And then something amazing happened. His victim came forward and forgave him. If the girl he hurt deems him as a worthy person, do we not owe it to her to do the same? Let’s let everyone move on.”
The rest of her family spoke after her. Then some of Darko’s new friends stepped forward to talk about him. The crowd had long ago fallen silent. They seemed uncertain and contemplative. At the end, Cynnie walked onto the stage again, this time carrying a saxophone case. Darko looked at her in surprise.
Cynnie smirked. “Did I tell you Darko is a great saxophone player?” she said into the microphone. “And he can swing dance, too. How about he shows us what he can do?”
Darko did not expect the cheer that broke out through the crowd. He blinked as he accepted the saxophone from Cynnie. He saw John turn on a music box at the end of the stage. Big band music filled his ears. The sound relaxed him and made him feel more at ease. So he began to play.
The crowd cheered again. Darko could not believe it. They liked him? They actually liked him? Was this really happening? He did not know what to do but to continue to play his instrument.
After a few songs, Cynnie grabbed his hand and pulled him back. He gently set the saxophone down and turned to her. She smiled and nodded at him. He glanced at the people of the crowd. They were looking at him expectantly. He knew what they wanted. “The basic steps of swing is not too hard,” he said. He took Cynnie’s other hand and demonstrated. He was pleased when the others seemed to get it. He liked teaching. It felt good.
Soon everyone was doing it. Darko found himself more comfortable as he swung Cynnie around and showed off his moves. The big band music played loudly in the background. It seemed like everyone was having fun, including him, which was a rare occasion. He had succeeded, he realized. He had been accepted.
A female voice yelling broke up the joyous occasion: “What are you all doing?!”
The music stopped. The dancing stopped. Darko turned to see a very angry-looking Julia standing at the back of the crowd. She promptly marched through the sea of people until she stood before the stage. She turned around to face everyone.
“What is wrong with you, Green Bay?” the blond said in a loud voice. “Are you going to let him get away with this?” She pointed accusingly at Darko. “Music and dancing? This is madness! He’s seducing you! Wake up and see the truth! You’re blinded by fake apologies and testimonies. Can’t you see who he really is? Can’t you see what he’s doing? Do not let your guard down! Take a stand against him!”
The people were stunned into silence. They suddenly all turned to Darko, who froze. What was he supposed to do? He had said all he could say. Well, except for one thing he knew would get them going.
The Louisianan took the microphone, leaned in close, and said, “Go Packers.”
The crowd erupted in a cheer.
Darko was elated as he drove back to his apartment with Cynnie. As he stepped inside, he rubbed Elva on the head before turning to his friend. “That was amazing!” he exclaimed. “I did not expect that to actually happen.” His face was a mixture of shock and wonder.
Cynnie smiled. “We’re not unreasonable people. You’re a good person. They just needed one of their own to tell them that.”
Darko grinned. “I guess so.” He stepped forward so that he was close to Cynnie and cupped her face in his hands. “Thank you for standing by me.”
Cynnie smiled at him, her eyes shining. “No problem.”
Darko could hardly contain the excitement inside of him. He leaned in and kissed Cynnie. Sparks shot through his body. He felt satisfaction as she kissed him back. It felt wonderful. There was nothing that could compare to it.
Her fingers were wrapped in his hair. His hands moved from her face to her shoulders. Desire filled him, and he kissed her more forcefully, his hands traveling down her body. Before he knew what he was doing, he had her pushed up against the door. His hands gripped her sides tightly.
He heard her moan, and he knew it was from pain. His hands let go of her body and instead took hold of her shirt. He was in the process of lifting the shirt up when his brain suddenly decided to start working again and he froze, realizing what he had been trying to do.
Horror struck him. He broke away from her and got away from her as fast as he could. He stood behind the couch, his hands gripping the arm. His eyes were wide with fear. “No,” he whispered.
He shut his eyes tightly. His heart was racing. He could not escape the thoughts that flooded his mind. All of those years. All of those people. All of the times he had been called the vilest of names. Was it all becoming true? A self-fulfilling prophecy. That was what it was. Great job, public, he almost wanted to sneer. Are you safer now? Why could they not have just let him live his life in peace? He had never wanted to hurt anyone.
When he opened his eyes, Cynnie was standing there in front of him. He let out a cry of alarm and back away. “Don’t come near me,” he said. “I’m dangerous.”
Cynnie frowned, confusion showing on her face. “What are you talking about, Darko? You’re not dangerous.”
Darko shook his head rigorously. “Yes, I am. Did you see what I tried to do to you?”
Cynnie was silent for a moment before responding, “I would not have stopped you.”
“That’s not the point. It’s what I’m capable of.” A heavy weight settled in his chest. He did not want to feel this way. He wanted to be free. But he could never be free. Society had already determined that. “How long can you be treated like a monster before you become one?”
Cynnie’s eyes filled with sympathy. “You’re not a monster,” she said softly.
“Maybe not yet. But how long will it take?” His stomach tightened with anxiety. There was no escape. No place to run.
“But what about what happened today?” Cynnie cried. “Green Bay accepts you!”
“Yeah, until I mess up and they condemn me again,” he spat. “Don’t you see? There’s no use. It will always be the same in the end.”
Cynnie’s eyes were now filling with tears. “Don’t say that, Darko. It will be alright. I’m with you.”
The anger and bitterness suddenly left Darko and he slumped his shoulders. He let out a defeated sigh. His eyes and voice were weary. “Please stay away from me. I can’t hurt you. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.”
Cynnie took a step forward. “But-”
Darko took a step back. He shook his head. “No. You must go.”
Cynnie stared at him for a long while. Finally, she sucked in a sharp breath and said, “Fine. I hope you figure this out.” Then she turned and walked out the door.
Darko stared at the spot where Cynnie had been long after she had left. Then there was a knock on the door. He suppressed a sigh, fully expecting it to be Cynnie coming back with a new way to convince him that his conclusions were wrong.
The second he opened the door, he was knocked to the ground. He groaned as he tried to register what was happening. A police officer had him pinned. Another one stood beside him. Both had stern looks on their faces.
Darko’s eyelids fluttered in shock. What was going on? He had done nothing wrong! He was too bewildered to voice his questions.The officer that was standing took out his badge and said, “Darko Stroud, you are under arrest for sexually molesting a minor.”