It started out as a normal Sunday morning. Cynnie made coffee for her parents and herself and then ate a quick bowl of cereal before going to Mass. She knew something was wrong as soon as she entered the church. Something was missing. Someone was missing. An ominous chill hung in the air.
As they took their seats, Cynnie turned to her parents and frowned. “Where’s Darko?” she asked in a soft voice. Her parents had begun going to church shortly after Cynnie began going with Darko.
Her father considered the question before smiling. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he overslept or something. Watch him show up halfway through.” He winked at her.
Cynnie allowed herself to accept this explanation. She was silly to worry. Of course there was a reasonable explanation. Perhaps Father Luke had asked him to come early for some reason. She would see him soon. Still, she could not shake the uneasiness that was forming in her stomach. It was hard for her to pay attention to the Mass. Her intuition would not leave her alone.
Cynnie met Fr. Luke after the Mass in the commons, where he was shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with the parishioners. He smiled when he saw her. “Good morning, Cynnie. Where is young Darko today?”
Cynnie frowned. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”
The priest hesitated before saying, “Perhaps he is with your brother.”
Relief flooded through Cynnie. John! Of course! They were friends too. She grinned. “Right. Thanks, Father.” She spun around and ran off in search of her brother. She found him with his wife Daisy near the doughnuts. “John!” she cried.
John turned and smiled. “Hello, Cynnie.”
“Hi,” Daisy said politely.
“Have you seen Darko?” Cynnie asked.
John frowned. “No. I thought he was with you.”
The uneasiness returned. She shook her head. “No. I haven’t seen him all morning.”
A speculative look crossed John’s face. “Well, just call him when you get home.”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Daisy said.
Cynnie found herself nodding, though unconvinced. “Right.” So she found her parents and headed home.
She reached Darko’s voicemail when she tried to call. She left him a message telling him to contact her as soon as he was able. Her parents told her not to worry, so she made more coffee and helped prepare lunch.
It was the first Sunday without football. Cynnie found herself wishing for some sort of distraction. The Milwaukee Bucks were playing. She was never a big basketball fan (the Bucks were never worth watching anyway), but she needed something to watch. Her parents did not object.
“Cynnie, honey, I think you should see this,” her father said. He held the newspaper in his hands. His face was contorted in a frown.
Cynnie shakily took the paper from him. She gasped at the headline: Local Sex Offender Arrested for Molesting a Child. She knew before she even read the article that it was talking about Darko. What astonished her was that the alleged victim was one of her students in school – Hailey Briggs. She was a pretty, quiet girl who excelled in most subjects.
Cynnie fumbled with the remote. She changed the station to the local news. Sure enough, they were talking about the incident. She could not believe it. There must have been some mistake. Little Hailey had accused Darko of forcing himself on her. It made no sense. The facts did not add up. Darko’s previous crime had nothing to do with children. He was as much likely to commit this one as anyone else. And she knew him. She knew he was more careful than everyone else. He had not done this.
“Where are you going?” Antonio asked with a frown as she stood up.
“There are some people I have to talk to,” she said quickly. She was trying to stop her body from shaking. She swallowed hard. “I’ll be back as soon as I figure this out.”
It did not take long for Cynnie to round up all of her and Darko’s friends. They were those who had attended the Bible studies in the past. They met at the church in the same room. Father Luke was unavailable, so they found themselves alone. Cynnie stood at the front of the table. John was standing near her. Everyone else sat. They all had heard the news already.
Cynnie slammed her hands on the table and fixed everyone with a determined look. “Well,” she said. “Let’s talk.”
“What’s there to talk about?” a guy named Jimmy asked. “Darko deceived us, didn’t he? That girl yesterday was right.” He glanced down at the table, looking glum.
Cynnie gasped, a look of shock crossing her face. “What are you talking about? He’s innocent!”
A woman frowned. “But the paper said-”
Cynnie waved her hand. “Forget what the paper said. There hasn’t even been a trial yet. There’s no proof against him.”
Jimmy frowned grimly. “That little girl admitted it. What other kind of proof do they need?”
“Have you ever heard of false testimony?” Cynnie cried. “If I just had a chance to talk to Hailey-”
“That would never be allowed,” John said, shaking his head. “You can’t tamper with a witness.”
“But what if that’s what’s been done with her?” Cynnie exclaimed. “What if someone is making her accuse Darko?”
A man let out a heavy sigh. “It’s no use, Cynnie. It’s time to face the truth. We gave him a chance but he let us down. Now let’s move on.”
Cynnie shook her head stubbornly. “I will not move on! He’s innocent! We have to help him!”
John eyed her warily. “Cynnie…”
She ignored him. “Is there anyone who believes me?” She looked around in vain. No one stood or raised their hand. Cynnie felt crushed. Why were they so quick to lose faith in their friend? Her resolve and face hardened. “Fine. I will have to do things myself.” She turned to leave the room.
“Cynnie!” John called after her.
But she was already gone.
A cold front was sweeping over the state. Snow was in the forecast. The outside world looked dreary and dull. The inside of the jailhouse did not look much different. There were two police officers. One was working behind a desk and the other was standing guard. They let Cynnie go talk to Darko, who was the only person in the jail cell.
Darko was sitting against the left wall. He looked defeated and downtrodden. Cynnie could feel her spirits sink as she approached. She held onto the bars and looked down at him. “Hey,” she said softly.
Darko looked up, seeming surprised to see her. “Cynnie,” he said. He stood up and walked over to her. “What are you doing here?”
Cynnie frowned. “I came to see you. How are you?”
Darko shrugged. “I’ve been better.” There was not much life in his face, which scared her. “But I’ve been here before…” He trailed off and cast his gaze away.
Cynnie bit her lip. “How did this happen? I mean, you didn’t do it.”
Darko glanced back at her without much expression. “I’m glad someone believes me.” He let out a heavy sigh. “But that doesn’t make much of a difference to them, does it? I’m a sex offender. I’m as good as convicted.”
Cynnie gasped. “Don’t say that, Darko! You can fight this! You’re innocent until proven guilty!”
Darko let out a bitter laugh. “Is that what you think? Maybe it’s true mostly, but certainly not when it applies to sex crimes.”
Cynnie did not like the cynicism he was expressing. It was like the last time they had seen each other. Except it had grown. “But people have to believe the truth.”
“Have you talked to anyone?” Darko asked, his face suddenly serious. “Have you asked anyone if they think I did it?”
Cynnie grimaced. She did not want to tell him the truth, but she knew better than to lie. “I met with our old Bible study group. I tried to convince them, but…” She looked away for a second before gazing at him sadly.
nodded. His face was hard and rigid. “Of course,” he said gruffly. “I should
have known nothing had really changed.”
Cynnie dropped her hands from the bars. “But if you’re found innocent, they’ll apologize and be friends with you again!” It had to be true, right? They were just confused. They probably did not know what to think. She could not really blame them.
Darko shook his head. “No, Cynnie. They will always see me differently just as the world sees me differently. I’ll always be the first suspected if something goes wrong. I’ve been branded for life. It will be better if I’m convicted. Prison is preferable to the treatment I’ve received in most cities.”
Cynnie could understand his last statement. From what he told her, his previous life had been a nightmare. But that was no reason to give up! “But Green Bay is different!” she cried in distress. “Think of all you’ve accomplished. Life won’t be perfect, but it can still be good. Just stick with me. We’ll get through it. I promise.”
Darko stared at her for a long time before replying. When he spoke, his face was solemn and his voice was controlled. “Green Bay is great as long as you’re accepted,” he began slowly. “I saw that from the beginning. It was my fault for thinking I could be accepted. Maybe they were willing to give me a chance, but I should have known it would never last. These people can be vicious if you give them reason. All the good things about Green Bay just make it hurt more when you’re rejected. It’s like seeing everything you’ve ever wanted, but it’s always just out of reach.” He shook his head. “I’m tired of hoping. I’m tired of believing that I can belong.”
Cynnie had calmed somewhat. She was now gazing at him with a look of despair. She tried to think of something, anything, to change his mind. “What about Brett Favre?” she asked gently.
Darko’s face contorted into an angry scowl. “That’s exactly my point,” he said, seething. “If Brett Favre knew what was best for him, he would never come back to Green Bay. These are not the kind of people he should want as fans. They treated him horribly, and they’re never going to change. There’s no use wishing for things that can never be.”
Cynnie’s eyes had now filled with tears. She gripped the bars again. “Please try to fight, Darko. For me? I – I love you.” It was the first time she had said it out loud, and yet she had known it for a long time. She would have done anything to help him out of this mess.
Darko’s eyes widened. He suddenly turned on her, his face containing unexplainable ferocity. “Don’t say that!” he exclaimed. She was so surprised she backed away from the jail. She looked at him in fear. “You shouldn’t! You can’t! I’m not worth it.” His shoulders were sagged and he seemed to calm. He spoke more softly, “You’re better off without me.”
Cynnie shook her head stubbornly. A tear slipped down her cheek. “No, I’m not. I want to help you.”
Darko sighed. He looked at her wearily. “Even if I were to be set free, we could never be together without you getting hurt because of me. Anyone who sticks up for someone like me is condemned too. There’s nothing I can do about my status, but I can save you. Please don’t go down with me. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.”
For the first time that day, she thought she understood what he was saying. “But I don’t want to live a safe life if it’s without you,” she nearly whispered. “Please say you’ll fight.”
Darko gave her the saddest look she had ever seen. “Leave,” he said softly. Then he turned his back to her.
Cynnie felt crushed and heartbroken, but she did not know what else to do. So she left.
When she returned home, she had a message from Pittsburg. She suddenly remembered that she had applied to jobs across the country because she wanted to go see the world. She had never expected to actually receive a reply back; it had just been a hopeful fantasy.The message said she had been accepted.