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Legacy of the Elder
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Fiera
All rights reserved.
The prison bunk was bolted to the wall with the drafty window. Suffering from a lack of heat in the cell, I lay awake, watching the moisture from my breath as it dripped down the inside of the narrow vertical window, just missing my threadbare blanket. It froze in a puddle at the base of the rusted sill. A frigid blast of air whistled between the Plexiglas pane and brittle tar seal. I shivered. Was it because my face was three inches from the window or because of the nightmare that had become my life?
Curling into a ball, trying to warm my icy fingers and toes, I wanted to feel something—anything besides numb—but my heart and soul were as cold as my extremities. How could everything go so terribly wrong?
Granted, my early years hadn't been a smooth ride, but no one ever expects to be set up when they're following the rules and obeying the laws. And there's nothing you can do when your entire life is the evidence stacked against you.
I was born to a struggling single mother who had suffered from severe bouts of chronic illness for as long as I could remember. The doctors had run every test and tried all kinds of medications and treatments, but nothing ever helped. She was labeled a hypochondriac by some and a lazy bum by others, but I knew the truth. I witnessed her agony when her arms and legs spasmed and jerked uncontrollably for hours on end, tearing her down and leaving her painfully weak and debilitated.
When Mom couldn't get out of bed, we really suffered. If she wasn't working, we weren't eating or paying the rent. And this was during a time when it was easy for poor people to get food stamps and other government assistance. But in order to receive the aid, an adult had to walk into an SRS office and answer questions. Then a load of paperwork had to be filled out. Mom spent days—at times even weeks—in bed, unable to lift a pen, let alone go to any appointment.
We lived as drifters, packing our few belongings in the middle of the night and fleeing to avoid bill collectors. I couldn't tell you how many grade schools I attended. Eager to learn and wanting out of a depressing house, I always managed to keep up with the rest of the kids in my class, even though I was impeded by the constantly changing curriculum.
Even when Mom was working, the bills would get out of hand and we couldn't always afford the necessities of life. Occasionally one of her boyfriends would bring us groceries, but most of the time I had to fend for myself or go without. If the cupboards and fridge were bare, it was up to me to steal dinner or we'd go hungry. If my shoes were too small, I had to walk out of a store with a new pair on my feet. School supplies and shampoo didn't grow on trees, either. I became a skilled shoplifter, but the odds were against me. I eventually got caught—a lot.
The first couple of times, a store manager would nicely phone my mom. She'd apologize, either paying for the stolen goods or putting them back on the shelf before taking me home. But after I became a repeat offender (or if Mom was too sick to pick me up from the store), the cops would haul me down to the police station. With a growing rap sheet of thefts following me from town to town, it shouldn't have come as any surprise that the police brought a social worker into my case when I turned twelve.
A few months shy of retirement, Imogene had heard all the lies and cries during her thirty-five years with Child Welfare Services, and she knew a hungry kid when she saw one. The 4'9" silver-haired, African-American woman was as round as a wrecking ball and a force just as powerful. Introducing herself with a business card in one hand and a clipboard in the other, she quickly barged past me and through the door of the ratty hovel where Mom and I were staying.
Heading straight for the kitchen, she opened the fridge and cupboards, asking what I'd had for breakfast that morning. She scared the bejeebies out of me, so my lips were zipped tight. I ran to the bedroom where Mom was laid up and quickly locked the door to keep Imogene out.
She ordered me to open the door before she huffed and puffed and blew it down (which wouldn't have taken much, considering it was hanging by one hinge). Mom said to let her in, so I did. Seeing that Mom was sick, Imogene rushed to her side and announced that she was there to help. She told me to run ahead and draw a bath as she assisted Mom to the bathroom.
While Mom was in the tub, Imogene opened the windows to air out the stale, musty smell of illness. She stripped the bed, and I rummaged around the closet to find clean sheets. We made the bed together.
When Mom emerged from the bathroom, the three of us sat down at the kitchen table to discuss our problems. Imogene wasn't oblivious to our situation. She knew that all Mom and I had were each other, but we needed more than love to make it. I'd been doing my best to take care of us, but Imogene thought that Mom needed professional assistance and that I should be in a structured home, receiving the proper guidance a kid required.
I put up a good argument that we were getting along just fine and didn't need any help, but Mom started crying, distracting my rant. I couldn't believe my ears when she admitted that Imogene was right. She told me to go pack my stuff, but I ran out the door, taking off down the street instead.
I hid on the back stoop of an abandoned two-story house a couple of blocks away. The thick overgrown weeds surrounding the place would've concealed my whereabouts if my earthshaking sobs hadn't given me away. It took Imogene mere minutes to find me. She'd sniffed me out like a bloodhound.
"Don'tcha dare try to run from me, Fiera!" she yelled, pointing her fat little finger at me. The weeds were taller than she was and were smacking her in the face, pissing her off.
Yeah, I could've easily outrun her. But what was the point? If Mom didn't want me anymore, where was I to go?
Imogene already had my clothes and things loaded into her little Honda, conveniently parked at the curb of the boarded-up house. "How did you know I was here?" I asked as I buckled my seatbelt.
"I know a lot about how kids think. Believe it or not, I used to be one."
"Yeah, well, you never grew up, but you certainly grew out!" I lashed.
"You've got a smart mouth, but from what I've heard from your mother and teachers, you have the brains to go with it."
No comment. I just stared ahead while she drove.
Imogene offered, "It's past lunchtime. Would you like to join me for a burger and fries before I take you to the home where you'll be staying?"
Hell yeah! I was starvin' like Marvin, but my pride answered, "No. I'm not hungry."
"Suit yourself," she said, pulling into the parking lot of an ancient little diner. A delicious aroma of salty grease wafted on the breeze, making my mouth water and my stomach rumble.
We sat at the counter on round, red-and-white vinyl stools that left our feet dangling several inches from the floor. Imogene ordered two cheeseburgers with everything, large fries, and a strawberry milkshake. I told the waitress I didn't want anything, but she brought me a soda anyway. That was nice.
While waiting for her meal, Imogene stirred her milkshake and said, "This is the hardest thing your mother has ever done. She loves you more than anything in this whole wide world and wants you to have a better life than she can provide. She hates to be separated from you. Please don't be mad at her."
"I'm not." I couldn't stay mad at Mom. I loved her too. That's why I wanted to stay and take care of her. But nobody seemed to think my feelings mattered.
Imogene's order arrived on several plates, and I had to look away as she cut one of the big juicy burgers in half and doused it in ketchup. After two or three bites, she complained that the milkshake had filled her up, and she was no longer hungry.
"Fiera, I just hate to see all this good food go in the trash. Will you please help me eat it?" she begged.
When she put it like that, I had to eat something, right? "Okay," I said, cramming a french fry in my mouth, "but you really shouldn't waste food like this. There are people starving in third-world countries."
"There are people starving in America too," she said matter-of-factly.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," I lied, with a mouthful of the best burger I'd ever eaten in my life.
"If you sleep, you don't eat!" barked the prison guard, bringing me back to the present. He unlocked the bean hole in the steel door to remove the cold, untouched breakfast that had congealed on a tray. Dumping the slop into a trash can outside my cell, he said, "This afternoon, you see the psychologist, and if you're not 'Hannibal the Cannibal,' you should be moved to a cell in the general population unit in the next few days." He laughed at his own humor.
His joke didn't register. I couldn't have cared less where they put me, as long as they left me alone. What I really wanted was to fall asleep and wake up in a different, warmer place. I rolled over to face the window, and my teeth chattered uncontrollably until I once again became lost in thought.
After we left the diner, Imogene dropped me off at a home in a neighborhood so perfect it could've been the set of a 1950s black-and-white TV sitcom. When Ward and June Cleaver came out to greet me, I knew it was over before it had even started. I ran away the next day. I needed to check on Mom anyway.
Child Welfare Services labeled me "Trouble" (note the capital T) after I ran away from nine homes in four towns over a six month period. Nobody wanted to mess with me anymore. That is, nobody except Imogene.
Surprising me with a visit at the juvenile detention center where I'd been locked up for about a month, Imogene was all smiles—happily retired from her job as a social worker. Now a licensed foster-care provider, she wanted to know if I'd stay with her if she pulled some strings to make it happen.
Jail sucked, but I wasn't so sure Imogene and I were a good fit. However, she piqued my interest when she mentioned the possibility of a pet.
"I want an alligator!" I demanded in a huff with my arms firmly crossed. Mom had been telling me "No!" for years.
"Alligators are illegal in this state. How about a cute baby ball python or a beautiful orange-and-black Bismarck ringed python instead?"
Surely she was blowing smoke up my gullible twelve-year-old ass. "For real, Imogene? You'd let me have a snake?"
"Of course! Raising harmless snakes for the pet trade happens to be my hobby. It's a lot of work keeping a climate-controlled herpetarium for my legless family members. I could use some help if you're willing to stay and learn about their care and maintenance."
"Hell yeah!" I exclaimed. "Let's go!"
"You'll clean up your language at my house," she remarked, pointing that fat little finger of hers.
"As much soap as I've eaten, my words are spotless," I chuckled.
She wasn't amused.
When it came time for my transfer to another home, Imogene asked if she could adopt me. Yeah, she loved me—incurable potty mouth and all! And since she let me visit my mom anytime I wanted, the three of us decided that adoption would be a good thing. Two great moms. How cool is that?
Against the odds, I straightened out to become a model teenager. Graduating high school with honors, I received a full scholarship at a local community college where I got an A.S. in business management. Soon after, I was hired to run a small family-owned grocery store less than an hour's drive from both moms.
At twenty, life was looking rosy and sweet. The money wasn't too shabby, and my bosses were easy to work for. The middle-aged couple had careers of their own when they inherited the store and put very little effort into the business. They entrusted me with nearly every facet of management, and I made them happy by turning a profit.
I'd been working at the grocery store for three years when I glanced up from the office computer one morning to see two police officers standing in the doorway. One asked if my name was Fiera. I said, "Y-e-a-h." She announced that I was under arrest for embezzlement and continued to read my rights while the other officer cuffed me.
"What the ...? I haven't stolen any money!" I argued.
"That's what they all say," the male officer scoffed.
"No, really! I haven't done anything wrong! Call the owners.
They'll tell you."
"Look, sugar," the female officer began rudely, "your employers are the ones who caught you doctoring the books."
Knowing that wasn't true, I relaxed a bit, thinking it was all a practical joke. Where was the hidden camera? Staring customers pointed, and the checkers, baggers, and courtesy clerk all huddled together, whispering as the police led me out the front of the store. I wanted to crawl in a hole to hide!
It was a relief to see my bosses watching everything from the parking lot. I called to them for help, but they turned away, looking offended. Yeah, I hadn't expected that reaction! What the hell was going on?
I was taken to the police station and booked for embezzlement and eleven counts of felony theft totaling $38,619.12. I stared at the iron bars in disbelief. My clothes came from Wal-Mart. The old beater I drove was worth maybe $2,500. If I'd stolen that kind of money, what was I doing with it?
The whole situation was preposterous! Since my bank accounts lacked the funds to retain a lawyer, I was assigned a public defender who showed up late to my one o'clock arraignment. When the judge asked for my plea, the attorney loudly declared, "Not guilty!" as he stumbled into the courtroom, straightening his tie. With his shirt tail hanging out and hair a mess, it was obvious that he'd scored a nooner on his lunch break.
The judge ordered the court to enter the plea on record, and the bailiff escorted me to a small room adjacent to the courtroom, where the attorney and I could discuss my case. The law lizard refused to listen to my side of things. Having reviewed the evidence, he claimed that the prosecution's case was airtight; only a fool would believe it could be won at trial. He strongly recommended taking the first plea bargain offered or else I'd get no less than six years in prison. He further advised me to take responsibility for the crimes, acting remorseful. If I turned on the waterworks, the judge might feel pity and show leniency at my sentencing.
Anytime there had been trouble in the past, I'd always owned up to it. But I wasn't going down for something I hadn't done. Not without a fight! I wanted a trial. Period. Mr. Law Lizard informed me that it would be in my best interest to hire a different attorney. Yeah, we finally agreed on something! I'd never trust anyone who coaches their clients to lie in the courtroom.
Why would an innocent person ever accept a plea bargain? This was America, for crying out loud! I'd been properly fed all the patriotic propaganda. I thought the U.S. courts were the best in the world and that people were innocent until proven guilty. I sincerely believed I would get a fair trial, because that's what my junior high school civics teacher had taught me.
So, I sat in the jail cell day after day, waiting for my "constitutionally promised" right to a speedy trial. Fact: there is no such thing in the United States. Television and movies lead people to believe that trials happen in a few days or weeks. It takes months—sometimes years—for a case to go to trial. It took mine ten months to make it to the courtroom.
During that long and stressful wait, my fair-weather friends deserted me, but Imogene visited every week during the hour permitted on Thursday evenings. When Mom was feeling up to it, Imogene brought her to see me too. By this time, Mom was in a wheelchair and living in a long-term care facility.
Imogene never once questioned my innocence. She knew I hadn't embezzled the money and was mad as hell that I'd been framed. But she was much older and wiser, having been a social worker for too many years not to notice the moral corruption within the judicial system. She knew how high the stakes were and the gamble I was making by taking my case to trial. She never told me to accept the plea bargain when it was offered, but I could tell she wanted me to. Three years in prison and $38,619.12 in restitution just didn't seem fair to me. I was too proud and headstrong to cave in.
Excerpted from Legacy of the Elder by Fiera. Copyright © 2015 Fiera. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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