With Love from the Inside@Angela Pisel

GRACE

The police took “normal” away from me the moment they came rushing into William’s hospital room. They dragged me from his crib while my helpless baby lay hooked up, struggling to breathe, needing his mother. I had been to doctor after doctor, but no one would listen to me when I tried to tell them something wasn’t right.

“Bradshaw, your attorney is here to see you,” an unfamiliar voice barked at me through the steel door, and snapped me into the present.

Tuesdays were my usual lawyer days, not Thursdays, so the news couldn’t be good. I slid the pen inside my worn leather journal and tossed it on my cot. As I stood, the shooting pain in my back reminded me I wasn’t sleeping at the Hilton.

The stark, cold walls and the constant clamor of cursing and flushing toilets wasn’t at all how I’d pictured my life. It was a stagnant existence, every day like the one before and the one after. As unjust as I know that to be, nothing I could do will change my situation or my reputation. The latter, as crazy as it seemed, still mattered most to me even after seventeen years. I would prefer not to be remembered as the monster the local newspapers dubbed me, and especially not as a baby killer.

“Hurry up,” a new officer growled through the narrow horizontal opening in the door. “Give me both your hands.” His tone startled me, and I bit the inside corner of my lip, a nervous habit I’d tried and failed to break. This time I tasted blood.

I handled officer changes better than some on the row. Jada, I suspected, was right now sitting with her hands clasped around her legs, rocking back and forth like someone residing in a psych ward. She once told me that when she was little she never knew who her “daddy” would be when she woke up in the morning. I pictured a four-year-old Jada peering around the corner in footsie pajamas, surveying the situation—praying that whoever she might see at the breakfast table would be kind to her. A sanguine version in my mind, but Jada still panics, even more than the rest of us, when an untried voice gives her orders.

I placed my left arm through the slit and elevated my right shoulder a bit to get my other arm to cooperate. My limbs had gotten stiff and slow, and sitting in a cell all day didn’t help. The officer pulled my wrists together, snapping the cuffs tighter than necessary before he pushed my arms back through the hole and unlocked the cell door. “Your attorney is waiting on you.”

I avoided eye contact with him as he escorted me, kept my eyes on the floor, counting the gray concrete slabs to keep calm. My count was interrupted when Roni started screaming.

“Keep it down,” the officer snapped, “or you won’t get a shower this week, either.” I knew by the sharpness in his voice that he meant what he said.

“Okay, Cowboy,” Roni shouted back. “Okay.”

Cowboy spelled backward is YOBWOC, and it stood for Young Obnoxious Bastards We Often Con (one of the many useless things I’ve learned in prison). I don’t include myself in the “we” part of that acronym—I just do my best to get along—but Roni does. She’s the one in here I’ve tried to connect to the most, the one I’ve tried to help. Maybe it’s because she’s young enough to be my daughter, but for her own sometimes inexplicable reasons, Roni chooses to make trouble whenever she has a chance, or whenever she has no chance at all.

Only four of the seven cells in this wing of the prison were occupied on death row, but only outsiders called it that. Those who resided here called it the Hell Hotel. On the inside, hope was something no one seemed to believe in except me.

Mainly, I just missed the ordinary. The uncomplicated, taken-for-granted things like the sound of my husband’s house keys rattling in the front door at exactly two minutes before six o’clock, or the buzzer on the duct-taped dryer signaling a load of warm towels was ready to be folded; the gritty feel of the hot driveway on my bare feet as I walked to the mailbox to raise the rusted red flag, or sitting in my cold minivan making sure the windows defrosted before driving my daughter to school. Or burying my face in the space between William’s chest and his rolled chin just