There was no one to greet Judah Cannon when he got out of Starke, so he just started walking. The sky was gray, the air stagnant, the thick Florida heat already oppressive though it was only early May. Another recently released inmate called out to Judah as he passed through the parking lot.
“Hey, man, you walking or something? You know they got a bus can pick you up, right?”
Judah ignored him.
“You want a ride or something, buddy? My old lady’s got the car packed full of brats, but we might be able to squeeze you in the back somewheres.”
Judah raised his hand in acknowledgement this time, but shook his head. He kept his eyes toward the road and breathed a sigh of relief when his boots hit the asphalt shoulder of State Road 16. After three years, he was a free man again and if he wanted to walk all the way to the edge of Bradford County, he was going to do so. He didn’t look back and he didn’t look both ways for oncoming traffic. He crossed to the right side of the road and headed south.
Judah waited until there was about a mile between himself and the state prison before lighting a cigarette. This had been Judah’s first stint at Starke and there was a romantic notion needling him that his first cigarette as a newly released man would somehow be remarkable. He wasn’t sure why. During one of the few phone conservations with his older brother Judah had been reassured that getting out of prison was about as sacred as going in. But Judah wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t acclimated to prison life the way Levi had. He hadn’t rolled over, but he hadn’t fallen into the rhythm either. He had kept his head down, but his fists raised, and bided his time.
A semi roared past Judah as he was trying to spark his lighter and it took a few flicks for the cigarette to catch. Judah inhaled deeply and tilted his head back to look at the sky. It was the color of burnished steel. The atmosphere was holding its breath, just as Judah was. A hawk circled overhead and a low flying plane hummed in the distance. Judah held the smoke in his lungs and waited.
Nothing. It didn’t burn. The world didn’t appear clearer, didn’t make any more sense. A pickup truck with a bed full of teenagers screamed past him. An empty Coors tallboy landed on the pavement five feet ahead of him accompanied by an insult to his mother. Judah exhaled. The cigarette tasted the same as the last one he had just smoked standing out in the prison yard. As the last one he had smoked before walking into the courthouse for sentencing. The last one he had smoked after his daughter was born. After he had won his first midnight drag race. Lost his virginity. Kissed a girl. Stolen his first pack of cigarettes. It was the same. His brother had been right. Getting out of prison was just another day of getting on with life.
Judah stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of notebook paper. It had been folded and refolded so many times that it was worn soft at the creases. He had taken it with him, telling himself that he didn’t care, but knowing that he did. He clenched the cigarette between his lips and opened the letter. It was dated from almost a year ago. He squinted at the loopy, girlish handwriting, but didn’t let his eyes latch onto the words. He knew them all by heart. Dear Judah. And then some bitching about the K-Mart closing up in Colston. Then some more bitching about how her mother had gotten back into bingo at the Elks Lodge, so she couldn’t babysit no more. There was no inquiry about Judah’s well-being. And then the kicker. She was finished. For real, this time. She meant it. There was some guy, a manager at Denny’s, who treated her the way she deserved. Gave her everything she wanted. Had even bought Stella some new clothes to wear to preschool. Was thinking about paying for Stella to take gymnastic lessons one day. And, oh yeah, by the way, Stella wasn’t his kid after all. She meant that this time, too. So it’d be better for everyone if he just forgot about them. Better for Stella if she didn’t have to see him again. She didn’t end with an apology or even have a nice life. The junker he had left her to drive needed a new transmission, so she had decided to sell it to the scrap yard. Love, Cassie.
Judah hadn’t been surprised about the Denny’s man. At least she had waited until he was locked up this time. He wasn’t surprised at the part about not being Stella’s daddy, though he wasn’t exactly sure he believed it, either. Every time Cassie had threatened to leave, she had pulled that card and every time she needed money or wanted to get back with him, she had sworn up and down that Stella was his. He supposed it didn’t matter anymore. He loved the towheaded little girl, but she probably didn’t even remember him. And didn’t need to.
He had made himself a deal. If Cassie had been waiting there in that parking lot for him, leaning up against that busted up Oldsmobile, maybe wearing that short blue dress he liked and those white, high heeled sandals, he would have forgiven it all, and he would have gone back to Colston with her. He had played the scene over and over in his head as he lay on his lumpy mattress night after night and stared at the concrete ceiling above him. But if she wasn’t waiting for him, well then.
Judah raised the letter until the corner of it brushed the end of his lit cigarette. He inhaled, the cherry flared and the paper began to smoke. He let the letter smolder in his hand and when it began to blacken his fingers he dropped it onto the pavement beside him. Judah kept walking. He didn’t look back.
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked and her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, Nonbinary Review and the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a Rhysling Award and was a semi-finalist for The Big Moose Prize. She is currently the writing coach at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, Florida.