Darko leaned against the right wall of the jail cell, both his arms and ankles crossed. There was a calm and almost peaceful look on his face. He was unaware of the snow slowly melting outside, but he had an internal sense that everything was going to turn out for the better. He had hope. He swore to himself he would never lose it again.
The third time Cynnie visited him had been on Monday. He was happy to see her. He wanted to relate to her all the changes that had occurred inside of himself. She seemed different too. For starters, she was wearing a Brett Favre jersey.
“You’ve made a decision,” he commented as she walked up to the jail cell. He nodded at her shirt.
Cynnie blinked and looked down. Then she nodded, smiling slightly. “I’ve been needing to make a few of those in my life. I’ve decided that I want to stand by you and fight for you no matter what.” She frowned and added hesitantly, “That is, if you’ll let me.” She bit her lip nervously.
Darko felt a flash of guilt. He should never have pushed her away like that. She only wanted to help. He had been so absorbed in his own misery that he had failed to see her needs. “I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting, Cynnie. I should never have treated you that way.”
Cynnie smiled slightly. “It’s ok. I understand. You’ve been through a lot in your life. I don’t know what it’s like to really suffer.” She paused. “But I think I do now. We’re in this together.”
Darko dipped his head in gratitude, feeling her compassion rolling over him like waves. It felt wonderful to have someone care about him like this. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“I think I’m starting to,” Cynnie said softly. She had come as close as she could; her fingers held onto the bars. She was gazing at him almost in serenity.
“I’ve realized something since I’ve been here,” Darko said. “I know what I’ve been doing wrong.” He hesitated. How was he supposed to explain this to her? She smiled and nodded him on, so he took a deep breath and continued. “I haven’t been trusting God enough. He’s in control, not me. I’m going to let Him lead me wherever he wants me to go, whether it’s prison or home free. But I’m going to fight. I know now that only God can give me the strength to overcome this challenge. With Him, I will fight my hardest and then accept the results in the end.”
Cynnie seemed shocked by his assertion; she was looking at him in surprise. Then a huge smile overcame her features. “Wow, Darko! Your faith is amazing! Anyone else in your place would have given up.”
“I did,” Darko said. “I just took the second chance given to me.”
“Well, that’s great. I hope you’re right.”
“It’s all I’ve got left to hold onto.”
“I’ll be there to fight with you too,” Cynnie vowed. “We’ll find a way out of this.” She paused, a curious look crossing her face. “Darko, there’s something I found out about all of this that you should know.”
Darko raised his eyebrows in interest. “What?”
“It’s Julia!” Cynnie exclaimed, her eyes wild. “She’s finally done it! This is her fault!”
Darko blinked in astonishment. “What?” He could hardly believe it. He knew Julia hated him and refused to see him any differently, he did not think she would actually do something to try to get rid of him. Then again, he should have seen it coming. This was bound to happen at one of the cities he moved to. “What did she do?”
“She fed that little girl lies about your encounter with her!” Cynnie said. “You probably don’t even remember it. It’s stupid, really.”
Darko’s eyebrows furrowed into deep frown lines as he listened to the story. He could vaguely remember the girl. Cynnie was right; it had been nothing. He felt bad for the child. She was being forced to view the event as traumatic. It wasn’t right.
“We’ve got to tell someone!” Cynnie said when she had finished. There was pain in her eyes. “I know you said no one will believe the truth, but there’s got to be something we can do.” She seemed to be almost pleading with him.
“I think there is,” Darko said. A plan was forming in his mind. It might have been a long shot, but he would have taken anything at that point. “I’ve got an idea.”
Cynnie looked at him, seeming surprised. “Great. What is it?”
Instead of answering her, he called to the officer. The policeman had a weary expression on his face as he walked over to the cell. “What is it?” he asked almost boredly.
“If I can prove I’m innocent without a trial, will you let me go?”
The officer frowned. “How do you propose to do that?”
“I’ll address the town,” he said. “I know I’ve been framed. If I can get the person to admit it, charges should be dropped, right?”
The officer shrugged. “Theoretically, if you can get the victim to agree. But the state could still choose to try the case.” He shook his head. “This is highly unorthodox.”
“I know, but I want to try,” Darko said firmly.
The officer let out a heavy sigh. “Fine. Let me see what I can do.” Then he trudged back to his desk.
Cynnie was staring at him in wonder. “Wow. Do you really think this can work?”
Darko shrugged. “I don’t know. But what choice do I have?”
That had been Monday. Now it was Saturday. Everything had been arranged. It was only a couple hours until it would happen. Darko could not deny that he was nervous. This was not the last option available to him, of course, because he could still find a lawyer and argue in court. And yet, he felt like this was his last shot to gain everything he wanted. He was going to find out if he could really belong in this city.
He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was ready.
The sun shone down brightly on the city, melting the snow and leaving puddles of slush on the pavement. The residents were still huddled in jackets and scarves. Many people were gathered outside the jailhouse. Darko stood behind a podium that had a microphone hooked up to it. His eyes were clear and bright. People in the crowd murmured to each other. Darko knew they did not trust him. Still, they had come, and that was enough.
He recognized Cynnie and her family. He also spotted Fr. Luke and several of the members of the Bible study he had attended. He pushed back the uneasiness he felt. They had accepted him once; they just needed to know the truth. The little girl was off to the side with her parents and police for protection. Julia was near them, her arms crossed and a scowl on her face.
Darko tapped the microphone. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Darko Stroud. Most of you probably know me. I was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting Hailey Briggs.” He paused to look around at the crowd. They seemed to have become angry and bitter, but he remained poised and confident. He could do this. God was with him. “I can assure you I did not do it. In fact, I don’t think there was a crime at all.” He had to stop because people started shouting angry protests. He held in a sigh as he waited for the commotion to die down so he could continue.
“Darko!” a voice suddenly called out.
Darko was surprised to see, pushing through the crowd, a determined Todd, one of his friends. He watched him make his way to the podium.
Todd stood beside Darko, facing the crowd with a hard look on his face. “I believe him!” he declared. “I didn’t listen to him when I first met him, and that proved to be a mistake. I will not do it again. I know he is a good person. Like everyone else, his is innocent until proven guilty.”
Darko stared at him in shock and wonder. He had not expected anyone to stand up for him. He felt humbled. He closed his eye for a second and thanked God.
“I believe him too,” said Jimmy, another friend. He came to stand up front as well.
John strode up next, saying, “Of course I do as well.” He gave Darko an apologetic look. “I’m sorry I doubted you.”
Darko merely nodded. He watched in amazement as the rest of his friends came to stand beside him, including Cynnie. He felt full of gratitude and happiness. He had gotten through to them after all. They actually liked him. They accepted him. Suddenly, it did not seem to matter whether he was convicted of the crime or not. Ever since the incident, he had not found what he had there at the moment. It was almost too overwhelming.
“Thank you,” Darko choked out. His eyes were blurred as he looked around at the crowd. He wondered if he would be able to go through with this. He had noticed Cynnie had left the front. He saw now that she was gently coaxing the girl Hailey and her mother to come near him.
“It’s ok,” Cynnie said softly. They stopped a few yards away from the podium. “He just wants to ask you a few questions.”
“This is an outrage,” the mother growled.
“Let’s see what he has to say first,” the officer said.
Darko studied the girl carefully. She did not seem like she had been sexually molested. She was scared, sure, but what kid wouldn’t be with all this attention and the accusations? “Hailey,” he said calmly, “do you remember meeting me?”
The girl hesitated. She looked behind her before glancing back at Darko and nodding.
Darko raised his eyebrows, noticing that she had looked at Julia. This was not fair. Poor girl. “It was at the mall, right?”
“Yes,” the girl said timidly.
“No, it was not,” Darko said firmly.
The girl started. Her mother glared at him. “This proves nothing!”
“Do you remember anything at all?” Darko asked.
“You helped me and then-” The girl shook her head, refusing to go on. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Don’t make her cry!” Julia said as she walked up to stand near the girl.
“Julia, I was hoping you would show up,” Darko said.
Julia glared at him. “What?”
“Is it true that you had this girl lie just so that I could get arrested?” Darko’s words were harder now.
Julia gasped in surprise. Everyone’s eyes were on her. No one stirred. “That’s crazy!” she exclaimed. “Why would I do such a thing?”
“Hailey, did Julia talk to you after the incident?” Cynnie calmly asked the girl.
Hailey hesitated. Then she said quietly, “Yes. She said I had to report it.”
“Well, she had to go to someone!” Julia said indignantly.
Cynnie turned to her. “You manipulated her and you know it. Darko was only trying to help her reach something from a shelf, right?” She turned back to the girl, who nodded slowly. The crowd murmured.
“He shouldn’t have even done that!” Julia exclaimed.
Darko shook his head. “I suppose I should just ban myself from children, right? I’ve never hurt a child in my life. My previous crime was against another adult. I let passion get the better of me. Why would I want to do anything to a little girl? I’m not attracted to kids.”
“That’s not the point!” Julia said frantically, appearing panicked. “There has to be something that can get you out of here!”
Darko narrowed his eyes at her. “So you got a little girl to view something normal as tragic? Sexual assault is a serious matter, Julia. It’s cruel to have someone feel the effects of it if it did not really happen. I’m not the one who’s at fault here.”
Julia gasped, eyes wide, and stumbled back. “I- I didn’t-” Everyone was staring at her in shock. “I was just trying to save the town! It would have happened for real eventually!”
Hailey started crying. Her mother picked her up and shot her a look. “I can’t believe you,” she retorted. “We trusted you.” She turned to her daughter and smoothed her hair back.
Julia wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
“You know this means he can press charges against you for falsely accusing him of a crime,” the police officer near her said.
Julia gasped and looked up at Darko with terror in her eyes. “Please,” she said, barely audible. “I’m sorry.”
Darko’s first instinct was to do as the officer said, but something held him back. He remembered God. Perhaps it was best to consult with Him first. Darko closed his eyes. He could clearly feel what he was being asked to do. He opened his eyes and focused them on Julia. “It’s ok,” he said slowly yet deliberately. “I will not press any charges. I forgive you.” Through all the times he wished he could have heard those words said to him, it felt wonderful to say them himself. Was it true that forgiving someone was more for your sake than the other person’s? Being on both sides of the coin, he supposed it depended on the situation.
Julia stared at him with her mouth open. “What?” It took her a minute for her to be able to say anything else. The crowd seemed shocked as well. “You should hate me. I’ve done nothing but torment you since you’ve got here. You should relish the chance to get back at me.”
Darko stared at her calmly, feeling peace overtake him. He knew he was making the right choice. That was all that counted in the end. He would do right for its own sake, not for the approval or forgiveness of others. “I know the power and destructiveness of hatred and revenge. I’ve been on the receiving end of it all for years. After all I’ve suffered, why would I want to cause anyone similar pain? I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through anything that I’ve been through, even on a smaller scale. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone deserves another chance. Hatred and anger just push them farther away from where they need to be. Trying to protect people and prevent crime is fine, but those who make mistakes are people too, and they should be treated as such.”
Julia was staring at him with a mix of shock and wonder. She wiped her eyes and sniffled. “I never thought about it that way,” she mumbled. She glanced at Cynnie. “Maybe you were right the whole time, Cyn. I’m sorry.” She looked back up at Darko and added sheepishly, “To both of you.”
Darko nodded his head. “Thank you.”
Cynnie smiled brightly at her friend. “It’s ok! I forgive you too.”
Julia glanced at her and hesitated. “Thanks, but there’s something else I have decided.
“What is it?”
“I don’t think I can stay here in Green Bay any longer.”
Cynnie’s smile fell. “Why not?”
Julia let out a heavy sigh. “Too much has happened here. There are too many bad memories.” She glanced at Darko. “It’s nothing personal; I just need to start over. Get away from all of this.”
“I understand exactly what you mean,” Darko said.
“But I’ll miss you,” Cynnie said sadly.
Julia stepped up and hugged her. She said something Darko couldn’t here. When she pulled back, she addressed the curious crowd: “I’m sorry everyone. I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble. Goodbye.” Then she turned and ran off.
Everyone’s attention was back on Darko. He knew he had to say something else. He cleared his throat. “Am I free to go?” he asked, looking at the officer.
The policeman nodded. “Yes. We’re sorry about all this.”
“We’re sorry none of us believed you,” Jimmy said. “And for misjudging you.”
Darko looked around at the crowd, a small smile on his face. “It’s ok,” he said into the microphone. I forgive y’all.”
He was surprised at the cheers that erupted. He looked at Cynnie in astonishment. She just smiled at him. Darko felt happy and humbled. He bowed his head and stepped away from the podium.
The crowd began to break up as he parted through it to reach Cynnie. He stopped a foot away from her, gazing at her with contentment. “We did it,” he said in a soft voice.
Cynnie smiled. “You did it.”
Darko took her hands in his. “You were the first one who believed in me. Because of that, it has infected the whole city. I could never thank you enough.”
“You’re a wonderful person,” Cynnie said. “They just had to be forced to see that.”
Darko felt full of compassion and happiness. He felt driven to tell this girl how he felt. “I love you,” he said.
Cynnie’s eyebrows raised in surprise. Then a look of pure joy overcame her face. “Oh, Darko! I love you too!” She jumped on him, flinging her arms around his neck.
Darko laughed as he hugged her back. He closed his eyes and took in her scent. He knew this was what he wanted forever. When Cynnie pulled back to grin at him, he took his chance. He leaned in and kissed her with confidence. She responded readily and kissed her back.
It was perfect. There was no lust or temptation. Only passion and love. There were tears in Cynnie’s eyes when they pulled back at the same time, and Darko could feel his own forming. “You know,” he said once he was able to speak again, “this means I can never leave this city.”
Cynnie laughed. “Do you want to?” She smiled. “Maybe someone will tell your story, so that the rest of the country can read it and be inspired to change. I think it’s time Green Bay was known for something other than the Packers.”Darko laughed. He put his arm around her and turned to greet their friends