Prequel to the Kate Neilson Series
THE PRISON GATE CLANGED SHUT behind Kate Neilson, the sound as loud and harsh in her ears as coupling train cars. She’d heard that clatter of metal against metal hundreds of times during her five years of incarceration. Yet with each slam, her stomach lurched and her shoulders jerked. Try as she might to steel herself against the jarring crash, she couldn’t help but react like a startled bird.
For the first time, Kate stood on the visitor side of the barred gate that separated the reception area from the wide fluorescent-lit hallway leading to the cellblocks. She still had to walk out the front door of the building and through a gate in the fence that surrounded Patterson State Penitentiary. But she’d crossed the final interior barrier.
The female correctional officer who escorted her, Officer Arledge, paused and spoke into the radio clipped to her gray shirt, notifying the control desk of their location. Kate clutched the plastic sack that held the meager possessions she’d accumulated during her time at Patterson and took a steadying breath. The room smelled vaguely familiar.
Floor wax. That’s what it was. The smooth surface at her feet was so highly polished it reflected the ceiling lights. On the other side of the bars, the gray concrete floors were mopped by inmates but never waxed.
She could have turned for one last glimpse through the gate. After all, the building housed the culture that had transformed her from a lost-and-lonely Pittsburgh street tramp into a college graduate with a marketing degree. Instead, she focused on the double glass doors at the other end of the room, doors that led to freedom and to her future.
Unlike the muted light that filtered from the glass blocks imbedded in her cell wall, sunshine streamed through the doors, illuminating columns of dust motes. But as much as she itched to dart across the room and charge outside, she had one more hurdle to clear. Between her and liberty stood a reception desk staffed by two male COs seated before computer monitors.
She had a side view of the men. Like the female officer, they wore light gray shirts, dark gray pants and black duty belts. Loops and pouches attached to the belts held flashlights, pepper spray, eye protection, handcuffs, handcuff keys and more—but no guns. Kate couldn’t see their feet, but she’d never seen COs wear anything but black work boots identical to what the officer beside her had on her feet.
Arledge motioned her toward the desk. “The last phase of your checkout is here.”
Earlier that morning, just before she left her unit, Kate had been strip-searched. She’d endured the humiliating contraband hunt on more occasions than she cared to remember, and she hoped to never again hear, “Strip, Neilson.” But right now, she would comply with everything the COs asked of her—whatever it took to walk out those doors today.
At the desk, Arledge stated Kate’s last name and inmate number. One of the men said, “I already have your file pulled up, Ms. Neilson.”
Kate smiled for the first time since she’d started the nerve-racking trek from the far side of the massive compound. Whether intentional or not, he’d called her Ms. Neilson, not just Neilson or her number.
The printer behind the man whirred to life and spit out two sheets of paper, one after the other. He pulled them from the tray. “We have two final forms for you to sign.” Sliding one of the papers onto the counter, he said, “This one says we returned all the items you had with you when you were admitted.”
Kate pressed her lips together. Admitted suggested she’d been checked into a hospital for short-term care, not into a prison for five mind-numbing years of incarceration. She kept her thoughts to herself and placed the bag she’d carried across the complex on the counter.
The other officer produced a sealed plastic pouch from beneath the desk. The clear pocket on the front had also been sealed. Inside was the card Kate filled out when she first entered the facility. He pulled scissors from a drawer, cut the bag and the pocket open, and shook out the contents.
A lacy red thong landed on top of the pile. The corner of his mouth twitched and he glanced at the other male officer before giving her instructions. “Check the contents against the card. If everything is there, sign the form.” He handed her a pen.
Kate ignored his smirk and pushed aside the underwear, along with the skimpy tank top and threadbare cutoff shorts she’d been wearing when she was arrested. The clothing still held a hint of the perfume she favored back then. She checked off the items. No bra was listed because she hadn’t worn one that night—she never wore one when she worked the streets.
The collection was small. She was glad to see her watch, a birthday gift from her Great-Aunt Mary, but the screen was blank. Probably needed a new battery. She picked up her driver’s license, saw that it had expired, and made a mental note to stop by the DMV to pick up a manual.
She would have to take the driver’s test again to get a valid license so she could drive to Wyoming. Her stomach jumped again, but this was a happy jolt because she’d been accepted for a marketing internship at a guest ranch. Her girlhood dream of visiting a Wyoming ranch was about to come true.
Worn black sandals, a comb, lip gloss, two condoms and a mascara tube were the only other items on the counter. The money she’d had in her pocket had been deposited into her commissary account. Kate checked the final box. “Everything’s here.” She took a moment to read the form before she signed it.
“Place your possessions in the bag,” Arledge said, “and take it to the restroom over there. After you change into street clothes, return the bag, shoes, socks and uniform here. You may keep the underwear.”
Kate started to go, but Arledge stopped her. “Leave your ID.”
Kate pulled the lanyard over her head and around her long hair. The ID tag dangling from the end weighed no more than a credit card, yet she felt as though a boulder lifted from her shoulders. To rid herself of prison ID meant she really was on her way out of Patterson.
The restroom looked nothing like the other bathrooms in the prison and smelled a whole lot better. Kate was about to enter a stall, when she glimpsed herself in the bright, clean mirror. Caught off-guard, she stopped and stared. She hadn’t seen a clear reflection in years. The scuffed stainless-steel rectangles that served as mirrors in the inmate bathrooms blurred every image.
She squinted. So that’s what prison food does to a person. She appeared older and heavier, her dark hair and dark eyes had dulled, and her face was… She grimaced. Pasty, puffy, haggard…guarded.
Sighing, she turned away. Time to make some changes. She’d walked the track around the yard almost every day of her incarceration. But apparently fifteen minutes twice a day wasn’t enough exercise or sunshine.
Kate tossed the thong into the trash receptacle, slipped off the shoes, socks and elastic-waist orange pants, and pulled the orange shirt over her head. She folded the clothes and set them aside. Never, never again would she wear orange. She pulled on the tank top and then the shorts, which she managed to zip and button only after she sucked in her stomach.
Stepping into the sandals, she thanked God she hadn’t been released in winter. Her clothes barely covered her. She was also grateful she didn’t have to walk out of prison braless and embarrass Aunt Mary. Even so, she would dump the prison undergarments the moment she unboxed her clothes, which were stored in her aunt’s attic, last she knew. And she’d drop the extra weight. In the meantime, she hoped she’d fit into at least a few things.
Kate fastened the watch onto her wrist and stuffed the other items into her skintight pockets before she returned to the reception desk. After years of wearing loose prison uniforms, she felt like a sausage in the close-fitting clothes. Averting her gaze from the male officers’ appreciative glances, she laid the bag and prison garb on the counter. “Anything else?”
The CO with the paperwork handed her a check for her commissary balance and had her sign a form stating that the prison returned the correct amount to her.
Kate thanked him, folded the check and shoved it into a back pocket. The digital clock on the wall behind the reception desk flashed eight-eleven in large red numerals. One of Aunt Mary’s friends from church, Gertie Mae Spaulding, was driving her to the prison. They’d been advised to arrive by eight-thirty.
“I’ll accompany you to the entrance,” Arledge said. She turned to the men. “Please let the front gate know we’re coming.”
The two gave each other side glances, as if they didn’t care to take orders from a woman. Kate had seen similar standoffs between other female COs and the male COs who outnumbered them two to one. She glanced at the clock and then back at Arledge.
The woman eyed the men until one of them reached for the phone. Apparently satisfied he’d do what she asked, she strode toward the glass doors, her sturdy body outlined by sunshine. She opened one and motioned Kate through.
The dazzling sunlight blinded Kate. She sneezed and nearly ran into Officer Strunk, an obnoxious man the women in her unit had nicknamed “Skunk” his first day on the job.
Strunk inspected her from head to toe and up again. “So, they’re letting you out, Neilson.” With an arrogant rise of his eyebrows, he added, “Going back to your old occupation?”
She didn’t respond.
“I’ll give you a month.” He sneered. “By then you’ll be working the streets again, ’cause we all know you can’t make it in the real world. Hill District, right?”
Kate, who was well-practiced at maintaining a deadpan demeanor, hoped he couldn’t see her inward cringe.
Arledge glared at him. “One of these days…” Her voice was tinged with disgust. “That mouth of yours will get you fired, Strunk.”
He pushed past them into the lobby.
Arledge motioned with her chin. “This way.”
Together, they walked toward the wide front gate. As far as Kate knew, it was one of six gates in the sixteen-foot-high chain-link barrier that surrounded the compound. Miles of razor wire topped the fence all the way around the complex.
She shivered, partly from the cool air and partly from knowing the metal fence was wired with an electric current powerful enough to kill a person with one zap. She hugged her bag against her ribs. The spring morning was warm but not warm enough for the way she was dressed.
“This should be one of the best days of your life,” Arledge said. “Forget Strunk. He’s a jerk destined for self-destruction.” She flipped a backhanded wave at the building.
“But you?” She looked at Kate. “You followed the rules, you completed the twelve-step recovery program, you attended chapel services and you were in the computer room almost every day doing classwork. Plus, you helped the other girls with their studies.” She smiled. “I could tell you were trying to better yourself, and I wish you the best.”
Kate studied the CO’s eyes, seeing her in a new light. She’d had no idea the woman was observing her as well as guarding her. “I appreciate how you always treated us with respect,” Kate said, “like we’re human.”
The officer tilted her head. “Can I ask you a question?”
“It’s none of my business, but I’m curious to know where you’re going from here.”
Kate shrugged. Her plans were no secret. “I just completed a marketing degree online, but I still need to do a three-month internship, which will be at a Wyoming guest ranch called the Whispering Pines. I’ll stay in Pittsburgh with my aunt for a few weeks and then drive west for the ranch’s summer guest season.”
Arledge’s face brightened. “Congratulations, but…” Her brow furrowed. “Considering your circumstances, how was that approved?”
“Chaplain Sam says it was a God thing. The application form didn’t have a section for arrest history and my advisor must not have mentioned my background. Or maybe she did, and the rancher hired me anyway.”
“I bet it’s pretty there.”
Kate smiled. She couldn’t help herself. “If it’s anything like the pictures in their brochure, it’s a beautiful ranch.” She’d stared at the tiny pictures for hours, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the mountains and wake up to such gorgeous scenery every morning.
They stopped at the brown guardhouse that sat just inside the fence. The red flowerbox beneath the austere building’s window ledge looked to Kate like an afterthought meant to provide visitors with a positive first-impression of the prison. Purple and yellow pansies, their colorful faces lifted to the sun, were surrounded by a mix of white and lavender sweet alyssum. Some of the tiny blossoms draped over the side of the box.
Arledge turned to her. “The best of luck to you. Just remember, focus on your future, not your past.”
“Thank you.” Kate thought of Chaplain Sam’s final words to her. Live in the light, Kate. Bury the past and live in the light.
The CO inside the guard house opened the window. “Good morning.”
Arledge handed him Kate’s ID tag. He made a notation on a chart before scanning the tag’s information into a computer and depositing it in a drawer.
Kate assumed the scanner read her number as well as the awful picture that reflected how frightened and forlorn she’d felt the day it was taken. But that was old news. This was a new day and a new life.
Praying no last-minute glitches would prevent her release, she lowered the sack and held it with both hands. The bag was heavy. In addition to her toiletries, it contained her Bible plus several inspirational books Aunt Mary had sent through prison channels.
A breeze fluttered the flowers and goose-bumped Kate’s arms. She breathed in the fragrant aroma. Pansies’ happy faces always made her smile and she loved the smell of alyssum. But these flowers seemed out of place in the prison. In fact, they were the first flowers she’d seen at Patterson. The administration probably thought the inmates would smoke the leaves or stick them up their noses if they were accessible in the exercise yard.
Even so, she’d had flowers in her life. Kate smiled. Along with other minimum-security inmates, she had escaped Patterson’s confines twice a week during the growing season to work at a community garden in the heart of Pittsburgh. Running soil through her fingers, planting seeds and pulling weeds calmed her spirit and reminded her that life went on outside prison walls.
The experience wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Her orange-suited crew was routinely ridiculed by passersby, who called them names and spit at them. Some people even threw rocks. The abuse traumatized several of the inmates, who requested different work assignments.
But Kate had endured the same and worse when she worked the streets. For her, the few hours of normalcy, along with the joy of tending plants and working alongside volunteers who appreciated their help made it worth chancing an assault, verbal or otherwise.
The guard turned from the computer. “You’re good to go.” A buzzer sounded, and the pedestrian gate adjacent to the driveway gate slowly swung open.
“This is where Patterson State Penitentiary releases you back to the world,” Arledge said. “Like I said, move forward with your life, not backward.”
Kate responded with a solemn nod. “I will remember your words.”
The officer pivoted and Kate hurried through the open gate. Another buzz, and it closed quietly behind her, unlike the noisy gates inside the facility. She glanced at the guard tower above her head. Although she couldn’t see into the darkened windows, she knew at least one CO scrutinized her every move. Soon, she’d no longer be under twenty-four-seven surveillance.
A small car entered the large, crowded parking lot and slowly drove her direction. Was it Aunt Mary and Gertie Mae? Kate clasped her bag of books and toiletries close again. What was this jitter in her stomach? Excitement to finally be released? Anticipation to see her sweet aunt again? Or, was it fear of the future? She’d blown it so many times. Would she continue to mess up?
She thought again of Chaplain Sam, whose steady, wise counsel she would miss. “Once you belong to Christ,” he’d said more than once in chapel, “it’s not about what you can or can’t do. It’s what he can do in you and through you.”
Sucking in a lungful of fresh air, she raised her face to the sun. Like the flowers that depended on God for sunshine and rain, she needed him now more than ever. Without him, she would wither into the addicted, delinquent person she was when she entered Patterson five years ago. “You know how weak I am, God,” she whispered, “and how many times I’ve stumbled and fallen. Only you can keep me on my feet and on the right path.”
A car horn honked.
Kate blinked and glanced around.
“Katy girl, over here, over here!”
Her great-aunt was standing between cars in the middle of the lot, waving an arm high above her head.
No longer caring what the guards might think, Kate ran toward her aunt, her possessions tight against her chest. When she reached the car, she dropped the bag and hugged her aunt for the first time in years. Although Aunt Mary had been a frequent visitor, prison rules prohibited physical contact between inmates and visitors.
Kate held her fragile, precious aunt close. “I’m so happy to see you again, Aunt Mary.” As always, her elderly relative, her only relative, smelled of wintergreen breath mints. She had “freshened her breath” with the pink Canada kind as long as Kate could remember.
“Katy, my sweet Katy!” Aunt Mary’s sea-green eyes sparkled in the sunshine. She kissed Kate’s cheek. “I’m so happy I can take you home today, sweetie. I hated all those times I visited and had to leave you behind. But Jesus answered my prayers, and today you’re free for good.”
“That’s right.” Kate reached for her bag. “I did my full time. No more Patterson, no parole, no parole officers.” Only one caveat hung over her head. She was a two-time serious offender. Thanks to the “three strikes, you’re out” law, one more arrest could mean she’d spend the remainder of her life behind bars.
But that wasn’t going to happen, and it certainly wasn’t something to think about right now. She opened the back door to put her things inside. Leaning in, she greeted Gertie Mae. “Thank you for coming to pick me up, Gertie. I really appreciate it.”
“My pleasure.” Gertie grinned. “I’d say, ‘anytime,’ but I’d rather not come here again, if you know what I mean.”
Kate nodded and stepped around the door to help her aunt sit in the front seat and find her seatbelt. “I’m impressed you stood without your walker, Aunt Mary.” Her aunt had had multiple sclerosis for years and was becoming more and more dependent on her walker and sometimes a wheelchair.
“I was too anxious to see you to bother with the walker. Besides, I had the door to hang onto.” She looked Kate up and down.
Before her aunt could comment on the way she was dressed, Kate said, “I was super excited to see you, too.” She closed the door and climbed into the backseat, pushing her bag and the folded walker to the other side. “Any chance we can stop by the DMV, Gertie? I need to pick up a driver’s manual to study, so I can renew my driver’s license.”
Gertie backed out of the parking slot. “Sure, be glad to.”
“First…” Mary touched Gertie’s shoulder. “Let’s stop by a department store to get Kate some warmer clothing.”
“I have clothes at your house, Aunt Mary. I’ll change when we—”
“The shopping trip is my treat, Katy dear.” Mary peered around the headrest, waggling her finger. “I felt those goose bumps on your arms. We need to celebrate this wonderful occasion with a nice outfit you can wear to brunch. Gertie and I already picked the place. Right, Gert?”
Gertie glanced at Kate in the mirror. “You’ll love it. They make the best omelets in town.”
“No matter what they cook,” Kate said, “I guarantee it’ll be better than prison food.” She twisted for one last glimpse of the penitentiary, surprised by the mix of emotions that flooded her chest.
Leaving the institution that had been her home for the past five years was a more nostalgic experience than she could have ever imagined. Not only was she leaving three squares and a cot behind, she’d left a circle of friends and a rigid routine. The security of knowing what tomorrow held—and the next day and the next—was something she hadn’t had when she lived on the streets.
The car bumped out of the parking lot and onto the highway. She turned to face the front window. She would have Aunt Mary’s prayers and support, like always, but the fact was, she was on her own again. Could she handle life on the outside? Or was Strunk right?