My heart did a little dance as I shoved my suitcase under the bed and turned to take in the room. I’d finally moved into my dorm at SFU. After all the shopping, all the planning, all the parental lecturing, Victoria Jennifer Johnson was actually in college in San Francisco. I tapped my fingers on my hips and turned to the unmade bed across from me. My roommate hadn’t checked in yet, so I didn’t know how that was going work out, but I was so freaking excited it didn’t matter. I just couldn’t believe I was really on my own and in San Francisco. After growing up in Connerville, I’d moved to a real city—a place pulsing with life and energy, not farm reports and grange meetings.
I smoothed out my bedspread, then nudged the green and white striped garbage can that matched the desk set my Mom helped me buy. Everything was in place. My new life was official and I was ready to live.
I grabbed the pink leather purse I bought on my last shopping trip with my friends, fished out my car keys, and all but hopped down the hall. I had to get out to see the city, the traffic, the people, the buildings. I’d visited San Francisco with my parents a few times, but now it was time to see it my way.
I decided to just drive around and be a tourist in my new town. It didn’t matter which direction I went—everything was going to be awesome. With my MP3 player plugged in, I tapped the steering wheel to the music as I pulled out of the parking garage. Soon I found myself in a quiet neighborhood with tall houses mashed together and moms and strollers all over the place. I bounced with the music and wished my best friend, Cassie, was with me. We talked forever about being in college together, but it just didn’t work out for her.
Not surprisingly, my phone chirped. It was Cassie.
Hey V. What r u doing?
I held the phone to the steering wheel and texted back as I drove, glancing up at the road. It was a quiet side street by a small park.
In my car
Where u going?
Anywhere. I’m in SF!
Is it cool?
Tell me everything
I tapped send and wondered if I would need to keep her posted on every bite I took, when something hit the front of the car. I looked up from my phone and slammed on the brakes. A woman ran out from the park and dropped an armload of presents on the pavement. I turned the music off and tried to make sense of what I saw in the rearview mirror. People ran out to the street, shouting. The woman who dropped the presents was screaming. She was screaming. A birthday balloon floated away on the breeze.
A horror began to rise up in my stomach. The nightmare that played out on the street behind me didn’t seem real. Nothing made sense. Another second and the horror rose up to my throat.
An old man opened my car door and shouted at me to get out. He leaned in and grabbed my car keys. “You hit that boy!” he yelled in my face. A vein bulged in his neck as he glared at me. “You hit my grandson.”
I couldn’t understand what he said. It was as if he spoke another language, an ugly, horrible language that stripped everything good and beautiful from life. I got out of the car mechanically groped my way to the back. I tried so hard not to look, but I had to. A small boy lay in the street, unnatural and twisted. He looked about five years old with a head full of blond curls. Blood pooled on the pavement underneath him, staining the perfect curls the color of my favorite nail polish.
I whirled around and threw-up. Nothing made sense. None of that could be real. I tried hard to wake up because nothing that was happening could be real. And then the screaming grew louder. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the sound came from my own throat.
I did two years in prison for gross vehicular manslaughter. Totally my fault. I had been ticketed for texting and driving four times before the accident, so they threw the book at me. Why did they let me out? I knew who I was when I was inside¾guilty, convicted, prison scum. Outside, I was supposed to find a life back in society, but I was still guilty, convicted, prison scum. There was no life.
I tapped ash from my cigarette as I watched normal people drift past my bench in Golden Gate Park. Crazy Igor and Crazy Ahab were going at it over part of a burrito tossed in the garbage. I named the homeless guys because I lived in their world now. Not that I’m homeless. I was supposed to find a life, now that I was back in society. But, seriously, how was that going to happen? Like those guys digging through trash cans, I live in a world ignored by normal people. I didn’t blame anyone for that. If I actually had a life, I’d ignore me too.
A teenage boy stopped in front of me, white T-shirt, pants hanging off his butt. “Got a cigarette?” He had his hand out like he expected a cigarette to magically appear in it.
“Sure.” I pulled one out and helped him light up.
“Thanks, man.” He walked off in that exaggerated sway they used to be bad as smoke trailed behind him.
I sighed as I watched him walk away. Who sees me? Clueless teenage mooches. Awesome. I ground out the last of my smoke in the dirt and tossed it in a metal garbage can. I sat back against the bench barely noticing the row of Edwardian houses across the street. It was my day off from the only crummy job I could get as an ex-con and I’d spent it doing nothing. Somehow I’d managed to waste hours staring into space. The mooch made me look up and realize how late in the day it was getting.
I was about to head back home when God decided to play a malicious joke on me. Just as I stood up, a woman and little boy walked past. A little boy with blond, curly hair. My throat closed up and pain slammed through my head and throbbed at my temples. I couldn’t take my eyes off the kid as he laughed and looked up at the woman, holding out a melting ice cream cone for her to share. I gasped, trying desperately to breathe, but couldn’t take my eyes off him. I kept flashing back to blood on the street and a small mangled body. I blinked several times, but tears poured down my face.
Suddenly, my view of the boy was blocked by a man peering down at me. He was handsome. He had silver hair but he was I could tell he was only a few years older than me. But it was his blue eyes that that unsettled me.
“Are you okay?” He looked at me like a doctor, checking to see if my pupils were dilated.
I couldn’t answer. Couldn’t even try. My head throbbed and my stomach queased. I was just grateful the kid was out of my line of sight so I wouldn’t throw up in front of the handsome stranger.
“Sit down,” said the guy.
He sat me down on the bench and perched next to me. “What’s going on?”
I wiped my face with both hands and struggled to take a deep breath.
“That’s it. Just relax.” His voice was soothing, like an ice cube melting against skin on a sticky, hot day.
I exhaled and glanced at him. “I’m okay.”
He smirked and leaned back a little, then watched me rub my temple. “Your head hurt?”
“Yeah,” I answered with a wispy, little voice. I didn’t have the energy to deal with him.
“Can I pray for your headache?” He asked with a straight face even.
I stood and swayed a little as I got my bearings. “You can leave me alone.”
He remained seated but leaned forward on his knees and pointed a finger at me. “God can take care of it, whatever it is that’s causing you so much pain.”
Seriously? “I think God’s having enough fun with me right now.” I glared at him and walked away through a cloud of pain and nausea.
I stood at the stoplight and willed the light to turn green. I felt like I had evil super powers drawn from pain and bad temper. I couldn’t get image the guy on the bench out of my head. He was just the kind of guy that Cassie and I used to flirt with. The clean-cut kind we knew we’d marry and have kids with. But that was before.
The light turned and I crossed over to Broderick. I ignored the SUV trying to park in a space a Mini couldn’t get into. Usually I liked to stop and watch the show, but I wasn’t in the mood. I stopped in the middle of the block and pulled out my keys to the glass street door of my building. Inside the lobby, I shoved a tricycle out of the way with my foot. The Garcias upstairs have two little boys, living normal lives.
I unlocked the apartment door and heard the TV. Trish, my roommate, was in the front room with a bottle of wine.
Our apartment building was one of the few on the block not updated since the 1906 earthquake. It was old. We still had the old gas fireplace, crown molding, and yellowing wallpaper. Trish’s worn furniture fit right in.
She lifted her glass to me like a toast. “Jenna!”
I go by Jenna now. Victoria Jennifer Johnson died in prison, along with everything that I used to think was good and right.
“Want some?” She reached down and lifted the bottle.
I hesitated. “Yeah, sure. Just a minute.” I went down the long, narrow hallway to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen from a cupboard and shook some into my hand. I brought back a wineglass and held it out while Trish filled it. I settled on the couch, put my feet up next to hers on the coffee table, and swallowed my pills with something red.
“What is this?” I held the glass up and looked at the color.
“Merlot. Do you like it?”
I sipped again and winced. “Kind of harsh for me, but what do I know?”
“It’s not for everybody.” She winced as she watched me drain my glass. “What’s going on?”
I held the empty glass on my lap and rested my head against the couch with my eyes closed, hoping the alcohol would work faster than the pills. “I was in the park. A little kid came by. Blond. Curls.”
“Oh, geez.” She reached over and patted my arm. “I’m sorry. Here.” She grabbed the wine bottle and poured some more.
“Thanks.” I was glad that I didn’t have to go into it. She knew. She was a good friend, a good person, someone willing to let an ex-con make a fresh start.
“It’s not like you intentionally murdered someone,” she had said when I told her about the accident. “I mean, when you think about it, it could have been me behind the wheel.” She said meeting me changed her mind about ever texting in the car again. I think she was hoping to make me feel better.
I was halfway through the second glass when the alcohol kicked in. My head still throbbed, but I was starting to relax. I waited for a commercial and rolled my head to look at her. “So how was your day?”
She swirled her glass and shrugged. “Haircut, couple of color jobs. No good gossip.” She finished her glass then refilled it.
For a hairdresser, Trish looked nice. I’m just saying. Hairdressers tended to practice on each other. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Trish was Japanese and wore her shiny, black hair cut blunt at the shoulders. It was a good look. She swirled her wine and eyed me as if I were customer. “You could do with a trim soon.”
I pulled at my curls. She’d showed me before how to mousse them to keep birds from nesting, but I didn’t do much else. I looked just like my Mom¾same brown curls, same brown eyes. I was just a slimmer, taller version. “If you say so.” I finished my glass and set it down. I wasn’t in the mood to find out who was going to be voted off the island. “Thanks for the wine.” I stood and rubbed my eye with the palm of my hand.
“You should probably lie down for a while.” She looked up with a caring but helpless look. “Oh! Your mother called.”
“Great. What did she have to say?” Mom was okay. Of course, she was seriously disappointed in me. Who wanted to admit they had a daughter who’d been in prison? Still, she kept in touch and wanted to know how I was doing.
“She just wanted to check up.” She looked into her glass and swirled the rosy liquid. “You know, you can get a cell phone that you add minutes to. It’s cheaper than having full service like mine.” She tipped her glass back and drank, then looked at me with her eyebrows up, an exclamation point to get me to respond.
I nodded. We’d been through this before. Apparently I was the last person on the planet without a cell phone. Certainly the last one in San Francisco. For some reason it was a big shock to everyone when they found out I didn’t one. It was like admitting you voted for Bush. In San Francisco, that was a big deal. There were plenty of people who didn’t own cars here, but no cell phone? It was almost illegal.
“You want to call her?” She put her glass down gently then set her hand on the cell phone lying next to her.
“Maybe later.” I wasn’t up to dealing with Mom wanting me to visit. I hadn’t been home since I got out. I’d only told a few people that I’d been to prison¾Trish; Laurel, my friend at work; and my boss Brenda, because I had to for employment. I could deal with them.
But talking with family? No. Family remembered how you used to be. They remembered your potential and your dreams. I heard disappointment in Mom’s voice every time I talked to her. When she’d come to visit me inside, I could see it in her eyes. She used to be proud of me. Now that place where pride used to be was just empty. She wouldn’t even talk about what Dad thought. I had no idea and I was afraid to ask.
I went to my room and lay down on the mattress on the floor. Besides it, my room was pretty empty—a couple of boxes to hold my clothes, a few books, and that was it.
I rolled on my back and rested my arm across my eyes. Whenever I saw a little kid, I relived the accident in excruciating detail. I saw everything. I heard everything. It was my fault that a mother would never watch her son grow up. I even felt the sudden loss of my own life as dramatically as if it just happened. That little boy died and I lost myself. All my plans, all my hopes, all my respectability—gone in one stupid moment. I sat up and pulled my wallet out of my back pocket. I took out a folded piece of paper and opened it. It had been in my wallet so long the folds were worn and the edges were bent. I set it on the bed and pressed it flat. I didn’t read it, just looked at it and wiped away a wet trail from my cheek.
I closed my eyes and settled back against the wall. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just couldn’t. My whole life was working a stupid job at Copyland and trying to forget. It wasn’t a life, it was a long, slow death. I was young and I was going to be alone and trapped by the horror of my past forever. The image of silver hair and blue eyes flashed through my mind. What kind of guy would want to be with me after he knew the truth? I didn’t care how nice he was, I’d always be the monster who killed a kid. I grabbed my pillow and sobbed into it.
Reviews for Crucible Heart:
“Crucible Heart” rocks. It’s really, really good. Symons has created an neat, quirky cast of characters and given each one depth. Her voice–Jenna’s voice–is unique, sassy and funny. She made me laugh, she made me cry. And repeat.
From the very first chapter The Crucible Heart grabbed my attention and tugged on my heart. I found myself engrossed in the character of Jenna, empathizing with her pain and. celebrating her freedom. What a gripping story of Jesus’ power to bring life and hope!
Got the book yesterday and finished it today; couldn’t put it down! Love the characters…I always base a good book on how well I can “picture” the characters and the author did a fantastic job of this. The story line has a lot of twists and turns with more than many messages being conveyed. Wish the sequel was out already, did not want the story to end. Highly recommended!
I loved this book. It’s very well written, it has great character development, surprises and a wonderful example of the power of Forgiveness. I love how Kingdom principles are sprinkled throughout the book that bring insight and revelation. A must read.