A cold front was moving in from Lake Michigan. There was no rain, but there were dark clouds in the distance rolling closer. The wind tore at the branches of trees, threatening to take leaves with it. Not many people were in the park together. Darko was just getting back from a walk. He had on a light blue sweatshirt and jeans, his hands stuffed in his shirt pockets. The cold bothered him, but he ignored it. He stopped when someone was blocking his path.
It was Cynnie.
He immediately knew something was wrong. She did not look happy and cheerful as usual. She was biting her lip and frowning. She shuffled her feet and looked down at the ground. He knew she saw him, but she refused to meet his eyes. She did not speak.
Darko’s muscles grew tense. “What’s the matter?” he asked in a steady voice.
“I- ” Cynnie’s voice cracked. She tried to look up at him, but her eyes quickly darted away. He saw her swallow. “I knew I would find you here.”
Darko’s eyes tightened ever so slightly. “You were looking for me?”
It was a minute before she responded. “You had me curious the other day. So I did some research online. And I found some things.” Was that a blush on her cheeks? Now she was definitely looking anywhere but him.
Cold dread filled his belly. She had found out. She had to have. Most people did not come to him after finding out unless to shout at him, but it was not unusual. She was just a different person. She thought she needed to confront him first. After they parted, she would leave for good. He stared at her unblinking. “What did you find out?”
Hesitation. “Something about you.” She finally looked up at him. Her eyes were pained and torn. He thought he saw betrayal there too.
Still, he retained his calm demeanor. He was an expert at it now. “What about me?”
She looked down again. “You’re on a list,” she mumbled.
He was growing frustrated with her indirectness. Or maybe he was just mad at himself; he had caused this. Why had he been so stupid the other day? He should have known she was curious enough to delve into the topic. Did he want her to know? Did he think he was any different than everyone else he had met? Well, she wasn’t. If his own family had rejected him, why wouldn’t she? He knew he was worthy (and in need of) love and affection, but no one else did. “Just spit it out already,” he nearly growled.
“I looked at the Sex Offender Registry!” she exclaimed in a gasp. She was looking at him again. Her eyes were wild and fearful. “You’re a sex offender!”
Darko rolled his eyes. He could not help it. “According to the government, yes. But the government knows nothing. The term ‘offender’ implies that what I do is offend. That is simply not true. I committed one offense nine years ago. That would make me a former offender. Not that anyone cares to know the difference.” He glared at the ground, tasting bitterness in his mouth.
Cynnie grew silent. She stared at the ground while biting her lip. When she finally looked up, her eyes were pained. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Darko resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. “Why would I have? Do you tell everyone you meet the worst thing you’ve ever done? Who wants to be judged based on that?” He almost spat out the words. He knew his attitude was probably confirming the new conclusion she had of him. It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It had happened time and time again. He did not try to stop it. There was no point. It would never work.
Cynnie stared at him for a long time. He grew uncomfortable, so he looked away. At last, she said in a quiet voice, “It was only one time?”
Darko suddenly felt his energy leave him. He gave her a defeated nod and sighed. He was tired of playing this game. He never won. “I was 18. I had just graduated from high school. I was young and stupid, like most teenage boys. People make mistakes, you know.”
Cynnie frowned. She seemed to be considering this. Her eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “But you wouldn’t be on that list unless there was reasonable suspicion you would do something again.”
This time Darko did roll his eyes. “You assume the government knows what is best.” He shook his head. “This is not the case. Politicians don’t care about protecting people; they care about looking like they’re protecting people. There is no discretion on putting so-called sex offenders on the registry. They do not take situational circumstances into consideration. It doesn’t matter to them. To the people who are motivated by fear and anger, we’re all monsters. Even if we just made one mistake.” His eyes were downcast. There was a hint of sadness in his voice. “One mistake does not define a person.”
“I know that,” Cynnie said softly. She seemed hesitant and afraid.
Darko looked up at her with weary eyes. “Will you let me tell you the story of what happened?”
Cynnie immediately nodded. “Yes, please do. I want to understand.”
Darko blinked in confusion. She wanted to understand? He had never heard that before. And no one had ever actually taken him up on his offer. He was careful not to hope too much. They still had a long way to go if they were going to get through this, and he doubted it would happen. Still, she wanted to hear the story. He would give her a chance to prove she was unlike the others. He let out a heavy sigh before beginning. “Like I said, I had just graduated from high school.”
He could remember the day clearly. He had been very stressed. He had been worried about finding close friends and leaving his home. It had taken so long for him to find his friends. Now he had to start all over. He liked his small town. He did not want to leave it. He had a scholarship to Louisiana State University. He had no major in mind. He did not have any idea what he wanted to do with his life. His uncertain future left him frustrated.
Someone in his graduating class was throwing a party. He decided to go, but he was not having any fun. He thought drinking a few beers would help. This failed. He ended up in a bedroom alone. He put his hands on his chin and his elbows on his legs as he sat on the bed, distress evident on his face.
He looked up when someone entered. It was his good friend Clare. She had long, red hair and green eyes. Her expression was worried. She closed the door and came to sit beside him. “Are you alright?” she asked in concern.
Darko shook his head. “No.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Darko hesitated. He was not one to divulge his problems to others, but he had a good relationship with Clare. She was always there for him and he knew she could help. He could feel something stirring inside of him at her presence. “I just don’t want high school to end. I have no idea what life has in store for me. I don’t want to leave everyone here.” He paused before adding in a mumble, “Especially you.”
“I’m going to miss you too,” Clare said in a kind voice. She gave him a soft smile. “We can still keep in contact.”
Darko sighed and leaned back. “I know. But it’s not the same.”
A thoughtful expression crossed her face. “Well, we’ll just have to make this summer the best one ever. What do you say?”
Darko smiled slightly. He did not think this solved the problem, but her proposition made him feel warm inside. “Ok,” he agreed.
Clare suddenly seemed hesitant about something. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you,” she said slowly. He immediately looked at her with keen interest, willing her to go on. “I was hoping we would spend this summer as more than just friends.” She gave him an almost fearful look, like she was afraid of being rejected.
Darko raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really?” A huge smile crossed his face. “I was thinking the same thing.”
Clare smiled, seeming more at ease now. “That’s great then.”
Darko nodded. He was excited now. All the reasons for his stress seemed to have vanished. All he cared about was Clare. He could feel his heart swelling with happiness. He had to act now while he had the courage.
He slowly moved his head closer to hers. She scooted closer to him and did the same. He smiled. He knew she wanted this too. He hesitantly lifted his right hand and placed it on her cheek. Then he leaned in closer and kissed her.
The feeling of their lips meeting was electrifying. He had never kissed a girl before. He had never even had a girlfriend. He had always liked Clare though. He never dreamed she would feel the same way. His mind was still buzzing with alcohol. It increased his excitement and passion. He felt stronger and bolder than he ever had before. He could do anything!
He started kissing Clare more fervently. She responded in kind. This was not enough. His hands grasped her shirt. She offered no resistance as he stopped for a few seconds to pull it over her head along with his own. He gently pushed her down onto the bed so that she was lying on her back as he resumed kissing her. He left her lips and began kissing down her neck. She let out a gasp followed by a soft moan. This only spurred him on further.
He returned to her lips as he fumbled with her bra strap. After getting the tricky thing off, he tossed it to the side. He felt her breasts beneath his hands. His emotions were going wild. He could not stop what he was doing. It was like someone had taken hold of him. He barely had control.
He felt Clare shake her head. “No…” she moaned.
Darko was not sure what she meant, so he continued. He was in the process of getting her pants off when she spoke again. “Darko… stop. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
What? Had she not just said that she wanted him? She had to be playing with him. Women did that. They thought they had to resist, but they secretly wanted it. He pulled her pants off and got to work on his own. She would thank him for this later.
He soon had him both naked, him on top of her. “Stop!” Clare said more forcefully this time. She tried to push him off of her. “Don’t do this.”
He ignored her. He was onto her game. Besides, he was not sure he could control his passion. It was no big deal if she was serious. She liked him. They were good friends. She would be able to brush it off and get over it.
She pushed harder. She tried to claw at him with her nails.
Darko growled in frustration. He practically pounced on her and pinned her down. She struggled, but she could not break free. He finished what he started.
It was over soon enough. Darko rolled over on his side and lay there, gasping. It was then that he noticed the girl standing in the doorway, her mouth open and horror and a phone in her hand. He thought the girl was Christy, but he could not be sure. What was she doing there? Did she not know this was private? And what was with that look on her face?
Clare quickly jumped up and began gathering her clothes. Darko figured he better do the same. He ignored everyone else as he got dressed. He had just finished putting on his shirt when two police officers barge into the room. They each grabbed one of his arms and began dragging him forcibly out of the room.
Darko blinked in surprise. “Hey, what’s going on?” He recognized the officers, but he could not recall their names.
“We got a report of rape,” one of the officers said.
“Thought you would get away with it, huh?” the other officer said gruffly. “You make me sick.”
Now Darko was even more confused. Rape? He did not rape anyone. Sure, he had been with Clare, but… It must have been a misunderstanding. This could be resolved easily enough. “Clare!” he called.
The second officer roughly jabbed him with his elbow. “We’ll have none of that!” he barked.
Darko remained silent as he was led down the stairs and into the living room where the main party was going on. His head was starting to spin. The music stopped. His friends and classmates stared at him with shocked expressions. Turning his head, he could see Clare slowly coming down the stairs after him.
He saw a look on her face that he would never forget. It was one of sheer and utter terror. His heart sank.
“I never thought one of our own would go bad,” the first cop said with a sigh.
Darko gulped. What had he done?
In the end, Darko was accused of forcible rape. He grew angry at Clare for bringing the charges, feeling she had betrayed him. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. While in jail, he grew angry at his family and friends for their lack of support. Then he was angry at himself for being so stupid. Eventually, however, he realized his wrong and repented. He then looked forward to the day when he could make amends in his town.
“I was let out on parole after four years,” Darko said, now looking at Cynnie. “Prison had served its purpose. I realized I had made a mistake and was determined to do good from then on out. Sounds like a success story right? The criminal system accomplished what it was supposed to.”
He let out a bitter laugh. “Two things prevented that from happening. One, my whole town, including my family, immediately turned against me. Everyone hated me for what I had done. I was an outcast. That was why I left after my parole was up. I could have been fine if I was able to start a new life somewhere else.”
“But you weren’t,” Cynnie said. She was staring at him with cautious interest.
Darko nodded. “Megan’s Law says that anyone accused of a sexual offense, no matter how minor, must be registered publically as a sex offender for a minimum amount of time. The requirements differ by state. Some are 10 years for first minor offenses. Some are life no matter what. This destroyed my life. How was I supposed to move on if the whole world refused to do the same? I was treated the same everywhere I went. That is why I moved around so much. I stayed until they all found out.”
He shook his head and sighed. “I’m not a danger to anyone. I’ve learned my lesson. Do I really deserve to be ostracized from all of society? Does no one give second chances anymore?” His eyes had grown desperate. He was pleading with her to understand. “I can’t take this anymore. No one ever stays with me once they find out. I need someone to be my friend. Please don’t leave.” He thought he sounded pathetic, but he did not care.
Cynnie bit her lip. Her eyes were swimming with emotion. “I-I don’t know. I want to believe you, but…” She shook her head and sighed. When she looked back at him her eyes were sad. “You won’t hurt me?”
“I would never hurt you,” Darko said. “That is the last thing I would want to do. I was stupid in the past. I won’t do it again. You can trust me. Or at least let me earn your trust.”
Cynnie was silent for a long while. Then she said, “I need to think about this, ok? This is too much to take in at once.”
Darko nodded. “Ok.” He would accept that. It was the most he had ever gotten.
“I promise I will come back and tell you my answer. I won’t just start ignoring you.”
“Good. I’ll see you later then.”
Cynnie smiled slightly. “Later.”
Darko let his shoulders sag when she was gone. He felt defeated. He dreaded the thought of losing her. He feared that she would come to her senses once she was alone. It was almost impossible to believe that she would stay. But he had to hope. He shivered from the cold. As he headed back to where he parked his car, he decided to seek solace in his cat and his saxophone.