“They take us out from the prison but not the prison from within us. The prison stays with us 24 hours of a f**king day”
– A victim of miscarriage of justice for 13 years
“The world seems to be glaring at me, I wonder why,” Danny joked. Dressed in an ill-fitting jacket and skin-tight denims, the former murder convict looked charmingly droll. Martha, just like the last 15 years of her life, could not help the stream of tears from rolling down her cheeks; only this time, they are out of utmost happiness.
Amid blowing her nose in a phlegm-laden handkerchief and chanting Danny’s name with activists, who she believes helped her in quashing the court’s verdict, Martha clutched her only son’s hand and declared in a trembling voice, “Welcome to this side of life. This is what independence looks like.”
Martha and David McGregor are ‘proud’ parents to Danny aka David McGregor Junior and had been a constant source of support and reason for survival in their supposedly notorious son’s life. The world came crumbling down for this ideal family of three when Danny, then 13, found himself in the bedroom of a murdered cocaine addict Leona, who had already taken three gunshots to her abdomen by the time a curious Danny entered to inquire why her door had been open since morning.
Next thing the McGregors knew, a written confession was produced in Danny’s name admitting to the crime and the state of Texas decides to try him as an adult for the cold and calculated murder. Despite public furore over corrupt policemen beating the confession out of an innocent 13-year-old, who could not even tie his shoe laces without a little help from Momma, the Texan judicial system was convinced that he had carried out the heinous crime and incarcerated him for life without a possibility of parole.
“Do we really need to do these interviews? I am not sure if I even know the English language well anymore, let alone giving a heroic speech,” remarked prisoner number 12567. “There was a lot of pressure on the jury, thanks to these guys. A speech would mean you are grateful to them,” Martha explained to her son.
“Okay…Let’s try this. Hmmm…I once saw a dog playing with his master from inside the prison and broke down. Independence…In…deee…pendence… (after a pause) This has been insanely hard but I am glad that I will get to play football again and tickle my pets, eat turkey on Thanksgiving and most importantly…I will have something to be thankful for (giggles),” he spoke to them.
After reaching home, Martha invited over 200 guests to celebrate Danny’s homecoming but the only hindrance was, Danny wouldn’t move an inch from the side of the window in his room. As embarrassed as Martha was, she requested her guests to excuse the boy as he is drained- physically and otherwise.
“WE HAVE TRIED TAKING YOU TO THE BEST RESTAURANTS AND PLACES YOU LOVED AS A KID, WHY WOULDN’T YOU COME. YOUR GRANDMA IS DYING AND SHE WANTS TO MEET YOU. MOVE YOUR ARSE, NOW,” demanded Martha. It had been two months since he was vindicated but Danny’s progress in pulling himself back together and blending in with the crowd had been rather stagnant.
His anger did not seem to have an outlet; Danny was angry over the police officer who had been long dead and the ruthlessness of his fellow inmates. He now threw glasses at his parents as if they had conspired against him. He is highly delusional and seems to have trapped his battered soul inside the tall walls of the prison that wrongfully held him for 15 years.
When Danny was convicted, his wisdom tooth had just started to make its presence felt and Bill Clinton was the President of the United States. At the age of 28, he had to learn how to shave and struggle with an unprecedented force that would draw him to the window and make him stare outside, every single day.
“MA, I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO KICK A FOOTBALL. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT ‘FOMO’ MEANS AND WHY IS LADY GAGA’S SUPER BOWL PERFORMANCE SUCH A BIG DEAL. I DO NOT FOLLOW THIS POP CULTURE. I AM SCARED OF THE DARK AND CANNOT HELP LOOKING OVER MY SHOULDER EVERY TIME I VENTURE OUT OF THIS ROOM. WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO. WHAT?” he cried in pain. Danny looked much older than he should have. The eyes that once twinkled with joy over mundane pleasures of life, now only gazed out at eternity; not by choice but out of sheer habit he had inculcated during his time as a prisoner.
With his childhood sweetheart married with two kids to a man she loathed as a rebellious teenager; and the school band dismantled, Danny, honestly, saw no hope or motivation to turn the tables.
“Look Ma, I am a liability to you both. You have suffered a great deal for me. I may harm myself and you too. Please put me in a shelter for the homeless,” Danny begged.
Martha and David had left no stone unturned trying to instil positivity and enthusiasm in him but to no avail. Danny wouldn’t date girls nor would he meet his folks. He would not take the dogs out for a walk and needed his mother’s help for every little thing that he did once in a while.
Despite the government authorities’ repeated requests to put him in a state-funded rehabilitation programme, the McGregors vehemently refused to live in the mercy of a system that had failed them so terribly.
“No, you are no orphan. You will walk out of this home over my dead body. OVER MY DEAD BODY, do you understand?” yelled Martha.
“I CAN’T. I AM TOO BROKEN FOR THIS WORLD. I CANNOT FUNCTION AGAIN.”
“GIVE IT A SHOT”
“GO AWAY OR I WILL DRAG YOU OUT OF HERE. JUST LEAVE… LEAVE”
Human progress is an eccentric phenomenon; its course of action can neither be measured nor determined. Even the media had grown out of Danny McGregor’s horrific tale of miscarriage of justice and moved on to more scandalous stories but he hadn’t.
His window was still his solace; he still gazed out of the window for hours at length- hopelessly, aimlessly. As if he had been surviving in an ICU and his body no longer belonged to him.
Martha, the adamant mother that she was, storms into his room with a knife. “This has to be my last resort and knowing Danny, it will work,” she assured David.
“Now, if you, Danny McGregor and my goddamn son, do not move out of your room then I will slash my wrist right here and let you watch me die.”
“Put that away and tell me what do you want?”
“Tomorrow, Rockport Beach.”
“It was long ago, it does not mean anything. I have been through hell and the memory of that beach has wiped out.”
“This is it. Goodbye”
Danny may have been withdrawn and aloof but his love for his parents remained intact. He had lost his childhood to a concrete monster called Law & Order, he could not lose that one person who looked beyond his chained hands and written confession. He could not let go of that one person who baked him cake on his birthdays while fellow inmates fed on his body calling it the ‘birthday treat’.
“Okay, but if we fail. I am not doing this again, ever.”
Just like school picnics, Martha and David Sr packed breakfast comprising of food Danny once loved- pancakes, chocolate chip muffins, waffles and cheese omelette- and headed to the beach on a pickup truck, again, just like old days. Danny wore a printed trouser his mother forced on him that made the poor thing look like a drunk Mexican lost in an American beach, and sat in the front seat of the truck for his father wanted him by his side. But one thing was not thrust upon him, his once infectious smile.
Danny stuck out his hand to feel the gust of wind and smiled to himself. This is what had been missing, a little familiarity. Martha was right; Danny is still that 13-year-old Mamma’s boy. The prison may have destroyed him internally but it could not teach him anything new. The prison may have snatched years from his adult life but it could not loot him of his boyhood memories.
“The beach is just as refreshing, go there.”
“You come with me”
“No, this is your battle against your inner demons. Fight them alone”
After initial hesitation and a little push from Dad, he ran towards the sea and rushed back to his mother waiting at the shore when waves hit him hard. He laughed hysterically; their eyes welled up.
Prisoner No. 12567 David McGregor Jr was Danny again- collecting pebbles and chest bumping the highest wave. Martha could have murdered the world for this sight, so could David.
Danny soaked in the beach vibe and frolicked with his parents. He brushed his unjustly hardened cheeks against the gentle breeze. He was back to building sand castles with Momma and Pappa again- carefully carving out the room that they would live in together.
“So, are we coming here next month?” Martha asks with her heartbeat racing.
“Next week should be fine.”
They looked at each other and smiled. Danny was finally home.