Standing in the center of the governor’s office, a calm aquamarine gaze settles on the Wentworth Correctional Services insignia displayed on the wall.
Years ago nervous fingers had traced the outlines of that seal, stitched onto the shoulder of her very first prison issue uniform. That little symbol had filled her with wonder, pride and hope for a bright professional future back then. In truth, however, that simply would not be. Denial had finally given way to anger, bargaining, depression until she reached the fifth, most welcome stage of grief: acceptance. This is a prison, not some young girl’s fairytale; and Wentworth wants your soul.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Turning toward the interruption, she meets Will’s gaze with a small gentle smile.
“Yes. It’s time, Will; I don’t belong here anymore.” Too much trauma has passed within these teal walls and she’s finally had her fill. Some dreams are worth forgetting, if it keeps your sanity in check.
“I don’t know if I can run this place without you.” He bows his head as he moves forward, looking up to meet her gaze with his sad, coffee eyes. Wrapping a gentle hand around his forearm, she offers a reassuring squeeze.
“Yes you can. You’ll do better than I have; the women still trust you. I lost their trust the moment I saved Ferguson. Plus, you’ve got Proctor on your side. The two of you can really make a difference for these women. You’re a good man, Will, and you’ll be an excellent governor.” He doubts that, for a multitude of reasons, none of which he’ll ever have the guts to tell her.
“I’m really gonna miss you, Vera. You’ve been a real friend.” He offers her a sad smile and returns a gentle embrace as she leans in for one last hug.
“You’ve been a great friend too.” She muses as she pulls away. “Take care of yourself, and remember to lead with this and you’ll be fine.” Patting the bulk just above his heart, she smiles and nods up at him. He nods almost imperceptibly, lips pursed as he reigns in his emotions; that pumping muscle has lead him astray at least once before. With a final pat to his bicep, Vera makes for the door.
“Take care and good luck.” He calls to her as she reaches the threshold. Turning back, she offers one last sympathetic smile.
Heart pumping and lungs burning, a runnel of sweat makes a lazy trail down the column of her spine and fresh droplets collect in the fine curls at the nape of her neck. Vera tastes the salt in the air as she takes her early morning run. Gold-tipped waves lick the sand beneath her feet as daybreak crests over South Fremantle’s horizon. At the end of her customary route, she stops along the water’s edge, taking a seat on the soft white sand to slow her heart rate and watch the early summer sunrise. She enjoys these quiet mornings, while the city sleeps, when this stretch of South Beach lies barren.
Often, these runs serve a dual purpose: exercise, as well as a time for silent reflection. In no rush since she’s off work, she lingers longer than usual, enjoying the meditative sound of the turquoise sea as it laps at the shore. Much like the waves that ebb and flow, her life here has fallen into a steady rhythm, providing comfort in it’s simplistic, but reliable pattern. She takes satisfaction in the calmness that her cross-country move has granted, her chaotic life of just six months ago slowly becoming a distant memory.
With the sun fully risen, she decides to make her way back home before the rest of the city awakens, jogging the short distance to her bungalow just a few blocks past Hollis Park. The sale of the former Bennett estate had provided her with enough money to purchase the small property that sits on a quiet street across from an empty field, giving her the convenience of location as well as a bit of privacy.
Pulling the house key from the thigh pocket of her leggings, she startles when she hears movement on the far side of the porch. Turning toward the sound, her jaw hits the floor, heart thundering in her chest as she lays eyes on the cause. A ghost from the past rises slowly from the swing, the wide brim of a straw sun hat partly shielding her face, but Vera would know that regal profile anywhere. A confusing mixture of relief and dread produce a violent swirl of nausea in her belly.
“Hello, Vera.” To Vera, the honeyed timbre sounds like a banshee’s wail.
“Joan?” She blinks, shocked and equally terrified by the unexpected visit. “How, how did you find me?”
“Surely you don’t expect me to give away my secrets?” Joan croons with a touch of arrogance.
“I could call the police.” The tremor in her voice and violent shaking of her hands makes Joan release a low chuckle.
“But you won’t.” Her smirk widens as she takes a step closer to the smaller woman.
“What do you want?” Taking a step toward the door, Vera proposes the question even though she’s afraid of the answer.
“Relax Vera, I’m not here for trouble; Scout’s honor.” Lifting three fingers into the air, she makes an exaggerated vow of innocence. Vera eyes her suspiciously as Joan stands awkwardly at a cautionary distance.
“W-why are you here?” She questions again, her heart still hammering wildly against her fragile ribcage.
“I thought...we might have a chat.” There’s a mellowness to her gaze that Vera hasn’t seen since the time of their debriefings and even then, it was rare.
She’s not entirely certain she can trust her, but there seems to be something different about the normally stoic woman, a hint of insecurity that seems to color her movements and speech. After a long, silent showdown and against her better judgement, Vera unlocks the door and steps inside, leaving it open behind her. Joan follows in silence, closing and locking the door as she follows Vera into the kitchen. Placing her cell phone on the island between them, Vera looks up with a stern gaze.
“Keep your distance, or I call the police.” Joan lifts her hands in surrender with a compliant nod of her head, though there’s the faintest flicker of disappointment in her umber eyes.
Taking a seat on the bar stool, she removes the wide brim hat and places it on the counter. The swathes of silver at her temples have widened in the months since Vera last saw her and the usual hard glint in her eye seems surprisingly absent. She’s lost weight, but still maintains an envious figure. Her scarlet ring has dulled to a thin line of rosy pink that stands out against the porcelain skin of her long neck. At a loss for words and troubled by the confusing sense of relief she feels at seeing the escaped fallen angel, as well as the conflicting emotions beginning to bubble to the surface, Vera sets to making a pot of coffee. She pours two mugs, sliding one across the counter to Joan as she stands opposite and eyes her expectantly.
“Thank you.” Joan accepts the cup with a grateful nod and slips back into silence.
“You wanted to talk, so….” Vera finally states, irritation and a touch of fear pressing her voice a half octave higher.
Joan scrutinizes her over the rim of her mug and after another long silence, eventually speaks. “You look well tended, “ she hums as she takes a sip from her steaming mug.
“I guess that comes from finally being free of you.” Vera retorts, her green-blue eyes signalling a tempest on the horizon.
For Joan, the barb stings and she feels the heat beginning to rise in the pit of her stomach. Her lip twitches as a dull ring begins to buzz in her ears. Drawing in a calming breath, she suppresses her building irritation. “Now Vera, I’ve paid you a compliment, there’s no need to be rude.”
Vera releases an annoyed sigh. “What is it that you want, Joan? I know you didn’t track me down just to pay false compliments.”
Joan resists the urge to correct her misguided assumption; Vera’s too cautious at the moment to believe she speaks genuinely and trying to convince her now would just make her more suspicious. Instead, she chooses to allow Vera to lead the game, it’s the only chance she has of it ending as she wants it to.
Conceding to Vera’s will, she asks her true question. “Why did you leave?” Catching her off guard, it’s not what Vera expected.
Staring at the mug between her slender hands, she sighs deeply in resignation and admits the truth, “I needed a change.”
“So a move to the private sector? To Melaleuca, with it’s bleeding heart policies and programs? Let me guess, it’s that humanity again, hmm?” Unable to simply bear her true feelings, she opts for her usual defense.
The hint of condescension is obvious in Joan’s sonorous voice. The tone strikes a chord in Vera, picks open old wounds that were beginning to heal. In a sudden wave of heated passion, she unleashes her anger, reminiscent of that ill-fated dinner now years ago.
“Really? You’re going to lecture me about some decision I made when you’re the one who decided to fucking escape from prison ?! And now, after all these months you track me down and show up on my doorstep just to rub it in my face?”
“You know that was an act of self-preservation.” Joan whispers, knocked down a peg by Vera’s surprising fortitude. Coal black eyes fall to the steam rising from the mug clasped tightly in her grasp.
“Did you forget that it was me who saved your life after that lynching? Then you betrayed me by making your escape, nearly taking my entire career with you!” Joan flinches at the memory of the noose around her neck, the burn of that first gasp of air in her lungs, the sheer relief in the ocean eyes looming above before she faded out of consciousness once again.
“And did you forget that it was I who handed you back the governorship on a silver platter?” She mewls, mimicking Vera’s provocation.
Vera growls in frustration, “And that’s exactly why I didn’t take it!” she finally confesses. The curious expression on Joan’s face pushes her to further explanation.
“Every success I had at Wentworth was in some way influenced by you. My first governorship- handed to me after you burned down the prison, then this second time when you left me the files to take down Channing.” She sighs heavily as her anger peters out. “I wanted...needed to see if I could gain my station on my own.” Her bottom lip quivers as she speaks the words, hearing them said aloud holds an unexpected painful power.
“Well, of course you could, Vera. I wouldn’t have mentored you otherwise.” It’s stated like an indisputable fact and Vera releases a sarcastic laugh as the typhoon begins to swirl in her ocean eyes.
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you! I thought I was ‘such a disappointment’?” She quotes the hurtful phrase that started the rift that quickly grew between them. She blinks and quickly wipes the tear that slips down her cheek, desperately trying to hold together the dam that’s shuttered in all these painful memories.
“It was...unfair of me to use that phrase against you.” Joan offers a conciliatory bow of her head.
“What difference does that make, if it was true?” Vera retorts hotly.
“It wasn’t true...which is why it makes a difference. I only aimed to wound with that remark, and it seems my intent was achieved.” After a pause, she lifts her espresso gaze and again Vera sees the flash of insecurity there but recognizes the honesty in those intense eyes.
Vera shakes her head in defeat, the angry flush slowly dissolving from her face. Joan watches her in silence, bemused by this sudden change in energy.
“Joan, why are you here?” Vera presses once again, doe eyes imploring for total honesty.
“I...am leaving the country. It’s taken me these few months to finalize my arrangements, but I leave first thing in the morning.” Vera grows wide-eyed and an odd panic begins to knot in her stomach at the thought of Joan being caught and being sent back to prison. “I’ve secured connections I had through my father; I’ll be out without detection.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Confusion dominates her tone, but there’s a suggestion of hope behind her trembling voice. Joan meets her gaze, but says nothing, allowing instead the silence to stretch between them. Despite the looming finale, she still can’t express the emotions she’s hidden for years.
Vera waits expectantly and when the words never come, the monsoon within her gaze finally spills. She shakes her head in sadness as she wipes the salty tears from her cheeks.
“I gave you the chance to come clean, and you still can’t manage to tell the truth.” Surprise flashes in Joan’s dark eyes and she swallows hard, avoiding Vera’s accusatory gaze.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” She states flatly, though it’s far from convincing.
“Aren’t you tired of this stupid game we play? We continually draw our swords, but do we even know why we fight anymore? I looked up to you, hung on every word you said. I was faithful to you as your Deputy, despite whatever ridiculous theories you had in your head. I would have done anything for you; I did in fact. I lost the respect of the women, and ultimately my power over them by saving your life that day....but I didn’t care...because I was more concerned about you.” She wipes another tear from her face and releases a sad chuckle. “How’s that for a little graceless child?”
Joan instantly looks up from the table, shock clearly written across her handsome face.
“How did you...where did you hear that?” She questions in quiet wonder. Wordlessly, Vera gets up from the island and leaves the room, returning moments later with a book in her hand. She slides it across the counter to Joan and takes a seat.
Tentatively, as if it’s a hot coal pulled from the fire, Joan reaches for the familiar tome, long fingers trembling slightly as they fall upon the cover. As she opens it to the bookmarked page, she fingers Vera’s note that she memorized long ago. Her eyes burn with the realization, but she forces back the sting.
“I found it in your cell the night of your escape. It’s about me, isn’t it?” Blinking, another fat tear rolls down her cheek. Joan looks up with a timid gaze, rendered mute by the revelation of Vera’s discovery, but the truth behind her stormy eyes is undeniable.
“I tried to reach you, countless times, but you always pushed me away.” The heaviness of the truth hits hard for them both.
Overcome with guilt, Joan simply stares, until Vera dissolves into sobs. Unsure of how to comfort, she timidly reaches for the smaller hand resting on the counter, but Vera pulls it away.
“No, don’t. Just...just leave...please.” Vera cries as she wraps her arms around her trembling frame.
Joan watches her for a long moment, compelled to offer comfort, a confession, a promise of a better future, but old habits are hard to break and her will gives way to silence. Eventually she rises from the stool and comes to Vera’s side, placing a timid hand on a heaving shoulder. Vera doesn’t move, but doesn’t acknowledge the gesture either and finally Joan concedes. Though devastation fills her already broken heart, she honors Vera’s wish as she feels there’s no other way. With a final gentle squeeze, she leans in and offers one final shot at reconciliation.
“I was wrong to ever doubt you. May my absence bring you the peace you deserve and desire. Goodbye Vera, I’ll never forget you.”
As she walks away, the woman made of stone begins to crumble.
Returning home from a long day at work, Vera stops at the mailbox to collect her mail. A few colorful envelopes mix with the usual ads and bills and she smiles at the thoughtfulness of her long distance friends.
A purple envelope bears the birthday card from Bridget and Franky, no doubt picked out by Franky judging from the comedic slant. Their well wishes bring a smile to her face and she thinks of calling them later. Blue is the color from Will, containing a simple, but heartfelt message of well wishes.
One other card remains, in a deep red envelope, and confusion knits her brow as she ruminates on the possible sender. There’s no return address, so she slips a finger through the seal, curious to see who sent the unexpected greeting. The card bears a beautiful painting of a bouquet of flowers- red roses, daffodils, pink hyacinth and white chrysanthemum. Opening it, a folded paper slips down to reveal the pre-printed standard birthday greeting and a small cursive note that simply states.
I hope this finds you well.
She picks up the slip of paper and folds it open. It bears the printed receipt for a round trip plane ticket to San Diego, dated for 5 weeks from today. At the bottom of the page is another hand written message.
Happy Birthday, Vera.
Trembling fingers trace the elegant initial at the bottom of the page as a brilliant smile lights her pretty face.