The inmates were surprisingly sober and sedate as they waited at the prison gates. There was no noise, no pushing, no voices rising. They just waited there, patient with haunted eyes. They knew why they were being released. They also knew they always had the option of remaining in the prison. On the other side of the gates stood a large group of people, family and friends of many of the inmates. They waited just as quietly and stoically as the inmates did.
All over the world, inmates and prisoners were being released. The world leaders had come to an agreement about them: everyone was receiving a death sentence at the stroke of midnight and the prisoners had just as much of a right to be free as the rest of the world’s population. They had agreed that at a quarter to one in the morning, the inmates would be freed to spend their last day as they wished.
Of course they knew these men and women could just go out and commit crimes again. But it was the last day of life and many of them had been writing to and calling loved ones, tears and regret coloring conversations. They were no more likely to commit crimes as any other person would be. The world leaders had agreed to release them, and released they would be.
“Stand back,” a voice spoken through a megaphone said. “Gates opening. Stand back.”
A loud buzz could be heard throughout the complex. A mechanic noise started up right away and the gates began to roll away, parting to allow people through. But inmates, family, and friends waited patiently for the gates to open all the way. No one wanted to get caught between them just in case the wardens changed their minds. Finally, the gates clanked and were still. Silently, the inmates poured out into freedom and went searching through the crowd for their loved ones.
Miles away, at the same time, Valentine sat on the floor in her dorm room, her bags packed and the room bare of everything except the beds, dressers, and desks. Her roommate had departed days ago, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to leave. Her family, her home, was too chaotic. Her mother had been begging her to come home, but she hadn’t broken her daughter down until just a couple of hours ago.
Hot tears burned down Valentine’s cheeks. She hadn’t even fully completed her first year of college. All academics had been virtually shut down about a month before. Students had slowly trickled off campus to return home. Valentine was one of the last to leave. She still clung to college, still hoped all of this would end and she would be told her second year of college was to start in September.
It was late, but they weren’t tired. Their hair was gray and white, but their eyes sparkled with youthfulness. Tomorrow was the last day of life, but it was also their fiftieth anniversary and their grandson’s marriage. There was enough to look forward to that they were able to ignore the fact that they would be dead in twenty-four hours.
Two delicate china teacups sat between them, framed by their clasped hands. Both cups were half full, but cold. It had been a while since they had last sipped from them. Their attention had turned solely to each other in the last hour. Jacob and Anna gazed fondly at each other across the small dining table. They were at peace and knew exactly what they were going to be doing at the stroke of midnight. Besides, they’d lived long, full lives. They had no regrets. It was time to pass into eternity.
His hands gently squeezed hers and his smile widened a little more. She knew what he was thinking and feeling. She knew he was excited about the day, just as she was. For them, it would be a day of celebration, not a day of death.
She sat on the floor of her apartment, staring around the living room Brant had left her alone in. She still kept their apartment just as it was, as it had been when he had left, still clinging to the hope that he was coming back. Everything from their years together still decorated the cozy apartment. Everything. There were stuffed animals, empty boxes of chocolate, dried flowers, jewelry boxes, cards for every holiday and special occasion, and a ring box with a glittering engagement ring.
Stacie wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands. Brant had broken up with her about a week before, claiming she wasn’t good enough for him and he was going to find someone better. It was after he had left for good that she had found the ring box hidden in the nightstand on his side of the bed. More tears cascaded down her cheeks as she thought of what could have been. If the world was going to keep turning, Stacie knew Brant would have proposed. But he had changed his mind about her and had left.
In her early anger, she had thrown everything that had reminded her of him in the trash. But then she had calmed down and pulled everything back out and loving placed every memento back in its place. She wasn’t yet ready to let Brant go. He had been such a huge part of her life. The apartment was empty without something of him.
Her eyes lighted on every stuffed animal, every vase filled with dried flowers, every card that decorated the tasteful furniture. She let her eyes fill with tears and, closing them, let them fall onto her hands in her lap.