• Kelly Collins

Set in Stone (Chapter One)

Three years ago, I landed in prison for vehicular manslaughter. Today, I stood on the frigid sidewalk outside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. For a fleeting moment, I wished I were locked up again. Was it wrong to crave the predictability of my past? The day Tyler lost his life, I’d lost a lot, too. At least I’d know how to survive when I’d been Tyler’s hostage or a prisoner of the state. Today, I was stepping into a new world full of possibilities, and it scared the hell out of me.

My teeth chattered while the wind whistled across the blank slate of freshly fallen snow. With one hundred and eighty-six dollars to my name, and my only outfit a prison-gifted pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, I was lacking in everything except hope.

The sound of the horn hit me before the vehicle could be seen, but the minute the blue truck did a donut in front of me, my life became brighter. The girls had arrived. In seconds, the truck was turned off, and Mickey and Holly were wrapped around me. Their loving arms reinforced my desire to push forward despite my dreadful circumstances. I had never been so grateful to see their goofy grins and feel their warm embrace.

“Shit, Megan, is that all they gave you to wear?” Mickey ran her hands up and down my near-frozen arms. She pulled the too-big T-shirt up to cover my exposed shoulder.

“I’m no longer their problem.” For the first time in a long time, I was free. Free to choose, free to live, free to love and be loved. In all my years, I’d never been free or loved.

“Put this on.” Holly took off her jacket and draped it over my shoulders. Her warmth seeped into me like hot syrup on pancakes.

“Thank you. S … s … sorry,” I chattered. “I’m such a pain.”

Would I ever feel like I wasn’t a scab on someone’s arm? My therapist told me I had to stop the negative feedback that played in an endless loop in my mind, but I’d been programmed to feel worthless. Mom had planted the message on my eighteenth birthday when she’d left my suitcase on the front porch with a note that said good luck with your life. What mother says peace out as soon as their child can no longer earn them EBT from the welfare department? The next sets of messages were felt loud and clear. Tyler reinforced my feelings of worthlessness each time he raised his voice and his fist.

Mickey stood in front of me and pulled my chin forward, giving me no option but to look at her. “Megan, stop it.” She glowered at me while Holly looked over Mickey’s shoulder with sympathy swimming in her eyes. “You’re not a pain. You’re a strong independent woman. You can do this. Don’t fall back into old habits.” She pulled me into her arms and squeezed me tight. “We’re your friends, and we’ll always be here for you whether you’re a pain or not, and today you’re not.”

“That’s right.” Holly stepped to Mickey’s side and looked down at my rolled-up sweatpants, prison sneakers, and baggy shirt. “There’s no way you’re spending another minute in that hideous outfit. Mickey and I owe you Christmas presents, so let’s go shopping.” She clapped her hands and danced around me. Her enthusiasm was enough for the three of us.

“I have some money.” I dipped my hand into my bra and pulled out the check I’d received that morning for two years of laundry service. “I don’t want to be a charity case.”

“Oh, shush.” Holly wove her fingers through mine and pulled me toward the passenger side of the truck. “Get in. I’m freezing.” She wrapped her sweater-covered arms around herself and shivered. “Today, your money isn’t needed.”

Once in the truck, the girls got all chatty about life at the ranch. Mickey got soft looking when she spoke of Kerrick and all he’d done for her.

“Without Kerrick and his brothers, I’d have nothing. The McKinleys saved my ranch, and I’m paying that kindness forward. You’re the recipient.” Mickey twisted the key to the old beat-up truck. The engine stuttered, then rumbled to life. “When you can, you’ll do the same. Natalie and Robyn are getting out soon, and they’ll need help too.”

The fabulous five was what we called ourselves. Who would have thought that five women who came from such different walks of life could become best friends? Soon Natalie and Robyn would be released, and I’d be the third set of arms wrapped around them. Holly draped her arm over my shoulders and pulled me to her side. In her arms, I felt safe, cozy, and valued. These were the sisters I’d never had. The family I’d always wanted.

Holly whispered against my hair, “Mickey, Kerrick, and Keagan were my saviors.” She sighed her contentment. “The beginning is going to be tough, but you have a whole family here to help you pull through it.”

The truck fishtailed in the snow as we powered forward and away from the prison. I didn’t look back; that view was burned into my memory. My eyes focused forward where a new life waited.

“First thing on the agenda are clothes. You can’t live in sweatpants and a cotton tee.” Mickey turned on the radio and started to hum along with the song that was playing softly in the background.

I sat a bit taller, feeling pride at having survived the first twenty-four years of my dreadful life. In a way, I’d been reborn the minute I stepped into the frosty afternoon air. This was the first day of my new life, and no one was ever going to bully me again.

The bleak, snow-covered landscape outside the prison turned into a neighborhood of earth-colored houses, then a highway filled with colored cars, and finally, a parking lot where bold colored stores marked the beginning of endless possibilities.

Mickey pulled the truck into a slot and killed the engine. “If we can’t find it here, you don’t need it.” She lightly elbowed me in the side. “Let’s go.” Mickey pushed us forward and into the department store like her hair was on fire, and the store was the only place with water. “We have hair appointments and pedicures scheduled in an hour at the spa down the street—a gift from Kerrick. He wanted to do something special for our reunion.”

Mickey practically swooned when she spoke of Kerrick. She was obviously in love—she lit up like an LED at the mention of her man.

“Tell me about your men.” I looked down at Holly’s wedding ring and Mickey’s engagement ring. “I want to hear how a real man should treat a woman, just in case I run into one. I’ve been told they’re a dying breed.”

So many women gave their men a pass when it came to deplorable behavior. And I was no exception; I spent three years justifying Tyler’s horrific conduct. How many times had I convinced myself that I deserved what I got?

“The McKinley men aren’t easy, but they’re good men. They work hard and play harder, but they’re loyal and loving.” Mickey didn’t need to defend her man. It was obvious he treated her well. Hell, when she smiled, she had all her teeth. The man was obviously a gem.

“Is there a McKinley for me?” I wanted a man who would treasure—not torture—me. Believe in me, not berate me. I’d never known good men. The string of losers that paraded through my childhood home terrified me. Mom was their main course, and they wanted me to be dessert. I spent most of my teenage years sleeping under my bed or tucked in the corner of my closet so they wouldn’t find me. My adult years were spent much the same. “Actually, on second thought, I don’t want a man. They scare the shit out of me.”

“You can’t judge all men by the behavior of one.”

“Well … there’s Killian.” Mickey shrugged her shoulders and kept walking. “He’s the last remaining McKinley living on the ranch, but …” She stopped and appeared to consider her words. “He’s …”

“Rigid,” Holly blurted. “He’s not for you. He’s too intense and a player to boot.”

I looked from Holly to Mickey as they volleyed back and forth.

“Don’t get us wrong,” Mickey said. “He’s a good guy, but he likes to be in charge, and the last thing you need is a man to dominate you.”

Holly didn’t miss a beat. “Outside of Killian, we have a sweet veterinarian named Roland. Then, there’s Cole and the two new ranch hands, Tyson and Greer.” She rushed me toward the jeans and began to pull various sizes from the racks. “Are you a six or an eight?”

My shoulders lifted. “I have no idea. Let’s try an eight. I was a ten before prison, but I’ve shed some pounds.”

“Lots can change after three years in prison—attitudes, clothes sizes, sexual preference. Look at Natalie, she traded men for women when her options were limited.” Holly held up the size eight pants and nodded.

“I’m no Natalie. I could never go there. She says she closes her eyes and envisions Ryan Gosling between her legs. I suppose she has a great imagination because Debra Watson could never be mistaken for Ryan Gosling unless you’re counting her facial hair.” I entered the dressing room laughing. Visions of Ryan Gosling in a women’s prison raced through my head. That poor man wouldn’t stand a chance.

Holly followed me into the dressing room and put together outfits for me to try on. “Natalie always liked the blondes. She was dreaming of Bradley Cooper until I left.” When I pulled my T-shirt over my head and let it fall to the floor, she gasped. “Oh, Megan, I’m so sorry.” Her cold fingertips traced over the scars left by cigarettes and belt buckles.

“It’s all behind me,” I reassured her, and it was, literally. Not a blemish could be seen on the front of me. Everything I’d endured had been delivered in a cowardly fashion—behind my back, so Tyler didn’t have to see my face.

Over the top of the door, lacy bras, satin bras, briefs, hipsters, and thongs in every color rained down on me. Mickey was outdoing herself in the undergarment department. I was overwhelmed by the choices and must have looked like a deer caught by a bright light. Holly shook her head and began folding the garments. “We’ll take all of these. Try them all out and see which style suits you.” She held up the black lace bra with fuchsia trim and smiled. “Someone is going to love this on you.”

Mickey pulled the door open just as the soft blue material of the sweater draped over my hips. After a long whistle, she declared that I cleaned up nicely.

I turned to face the mirror. “I can’t remember a time when my clothes fit.” I rubbed my hands down my flat stomach. “The last time I wore street clothes my tummy was busting out of my pants.” A tear slipped from my eye before I could wipe it away. I wrapped my arms around myself and let the tears that couldn’t be contained run free.

Mickey pulled me into her arms. “That’s the past, Megan. No one’s asking you to forget it, but don’t allow it to determine your future.” She let me go, picked up the sweatpants and cotton tee I’d worn into the store and tossed them in the nearby trash can. “This is garbage. No more garbage for you. You deserve better.” She pointed to the jeans and soft tunic I was wearing. “You’re wearing that out. You look like million bucks wrapped in denim.” She grabbed armfuls of clothes and rushed us toward the register. “We can’t be late. Pampering awaits.”

The cashier acted like a rabid dog when she found out that she had to scan the tags from my body, but Mickey let it drop that my last residence was the county prison. The cashier banked her irritation and hurried us through the line like we were armed and dangerous. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall in the cloud of Mickey’s confidence. I’d never seen her so capable, and I said a silent prayer that someday I would have a fraction of her self-assurance.

Next stop was a drive-in for coffee. Who would have thought a girl could fall in love with a mocha latte? Men weren’t necessary when you had chocolate and caffeine.

We entered the spa arm in arm. After my toes had been polished Tickle Me Pink, I was taken to the salon where a woman named Coco fondled my hair.

“What are we doin’, darlin’?” She pulled me to the sink before I could answer. I was under a stream of hot water when she asked, “Do you trust me?”

“Um … yeah … I guess.” What did I tell a woman who was in a position to drown me? The truth was, I didn’t trust anyone except Mickey, Holly, Natalie, and Robyn. I’d been burned too many times to trust blindly, but how much trust did a hairdresser require?

She brushed and clipped until layers of soft brown hair flowed over my shoulders. If I thought a mayo rinse made my hair feel soft, whatever Coco used made my hair feel like mink—and smell like watermelon on top of that.

“You like?” Coco stood behind me with a toothy grin on her face. The girls flanked her, nodding like bobble heads on the dashboard of a speeding car.

“Yes. I love it.” I wove the soft locks between my fingers. “You made me look almost pretty.” Who was this girl in front of me? I reached out to touch the mirror. She was me. I was her. We’d get through this together.

Coco shook her head. “Darlin’, you were already pretty, I made your beauty shine is all.” She swiped her hands back and forth and declared, “My work is done.”

In a matter of hours, I had gone from a homeless waif to an attractive woman. There was no glass slipper, and no pumpkin carriage, but I had two amazing fairy godmothers.

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