He stared up at the ceiling aimlessly as he lay upon the cot, though it hardly seemed to resemble one, when it felt so much more like a pile of rubble or maybe a stiff annoyance at best.

How long hand he been in here now?

"Three years and six months precisely."

Long enough to start talking to himself, he realized, slightly appalled by the eccentricity of his own behavior. In truth, he had been here long enough to become accustomed to the dank surroundings, long enough to now care little about his behavior or appearance, and not at all about himself, for that matter.

The lull of his inner ponderings was hushed by the sound of pacing boots and the clank of metal.

"Johnson. You're free to go," came a voice from ahead.

He peered up to see Officer Marshall standing a few feet away in the shell of the entryway. Despite the sincerity of the situation, he couldn't help but yield to a weak smirk spreading across his hardened features, and not for the words just spoken, but for the irony of this particular encounter.

Only in these fading moments did he actually spare the time to reflect on his connection with the officer. They had a level of understanding with one another, nothing too cordial, but relatable still. Their coexistence was tolerable on the occasions that their separate worlds did merge. Coexistence pieced together by small favors and rare attempts at humor. Perhaps he and Officer Marshall could have been comrades or friends in a different time and place. But here, in this unavoidable reality, seeing this man again might mean landing back in this place, and that's not something he planned to ever do.

Mistakes were not meant to be repeated, this he knew well from experience.

One firm handshake and a short trek later, and he could barely believe that he was roaming the open landscape a free man, liberated from fenced-in views and neon jumpsuits. The sun was illuminating, blades and leaves were lush and vivid, but he only had eyes for the vision before him, a slight woman garbed in pale blue and donning a pair of almond eyes.

He approached her slowly, hesitant at first, but soon fell into an even stride.

"Richard," she said shyly.

And that instant, he was grateful that she broke the silence first. There was so much he wanted to say, but he felt rushed. His nervousness left him tongue-tied, thinking himself to be similar to a timid schoolboy in all his embarrassment.

Finally managing the word, he stuttered, "E-Elise, it's so good to see y-you."

She seemed to sense his hesitation, and it took him by surprise when her hand leapt for his, twining the fingers in a reassuring grasp.

"It's okay," she murmured, smiling a bit, "It's going to be okay."

He stared at the woman, feeling both astounded and incredibly happy. He could never imagine what stretches of empathy had given her the ability to pardon him and his actions, but he would be infinitely grateful for having this compassionate woman present in his life, a perpetual resolve.

"Come on," she said as she gestured toward the parked vehicle.

As he slipped in through the passenger door, he thought it to be the threshold from one obstacle to another. Imprisonment and punishment had been cleared, but more trouble waited in the future. Society would not accept him so easily, he was certain. It was natural for them to reject a man such as him. He was a menacing ex-convict, the parasitic decay of all morality, as society deemed him to be.

The notion almost made him want to retreat back into the depths of the concrete building and remain forever concealed from prodding glares and ignorant threats. But the scene to his side was all the more persuasive. Her eyes gleamed at him, brimming with hope and some other element he couldn't quite decipher. Not a hint of doubt or regret was traceable.

At last, he returned the beacon of a smile and said, "Let's go home."

I wrote this short piece last night on a whim. There wasn't much thought put into it, so I'm rather dissatisfied with the end result. Regardless, I would appreciate it if anyone would be willing to offer a review and some constructive criticism.

Thank you.