"You look younger."
"Says here you've been a model inmate."
I learned my lesson, sir."
"Did you really?" He looked at Shadow intently, the birthmark on his forehead lowering. Shadow thought about telling the man some of his theories about prison, but he said nothing. He nodded, instead, and concentrated on appearing properly remorseful.
"Says here you've got a wife, Shadow."
"Her name's Laura."
"How's everything there?"
"Pretty good. She's come down to see me as much as she could - it's a long way to travel. We write and I call her when I can."
"What does your wife do?"
"She's a travel agent. Sends people all over the world."
"How'd you meet her?"
Shadow could not decide why the man was asking. He considered telling him it was none of his business, then said, "She was my best buddy's wife's best friend. They set us up on a blind date. We hit it off."
"And you've got a job waiting for you?"
"Yessir. My buddy, Robbie, the one I just told you about, he owns the Muscle Farm, the place I used to train. He says my old job is waiting for me."
An eyebrow raised. "Really?"
"Says he figures I'll be a big draw. Bring back some old-timers, and pull in the tough crowd who want to be tougher."
The man seemed satisfied. He chewed the end of his ballpoint pen, then turned over the sheet of paper.
"How do you feel about your offense?"
Shadow shrugged. "I was stupid," he said, and meant it.
The man with the birthmark sighed. He ticked off a number of items on a checklist. Then he riffled through the papers in Shadow's file. "How're you getting home from here?" he asked. "Greyhound?"
"Flying home. It's good to have a wife who's a travel agent."
The man frowned, and the birthmark creased. "She sent you a ticket?"
"Didn't need to. Just sent me a confirmation number. Electronic ticket. All I have to do is turn up at the airport in a month and show 'em my ID, and I'm outta here."
The man nodded, scribbled one final note, then he closed the file and put down the ballpoint pen. Two pale hands rested on the gray desk like pink animals. He brought his hands close together, made a steeple of his forefingers, and stared at Shadow with watery hazel eyes.
"You're lucky," he said. "You have someone to go back to, you got a job waiting. You can put all this behind you. You got a second chance. Make the most of it."
The man did not offer to shake Shadow's hand as he rose to leave, nor did Shadow expect him to.
The last week was the worst. In some ways it was worse than the whole three years put together. Shadow wondered if it was the weather: oppressive, still, and cold. It felt as if a storm was on the way, but the storm never came. He had the Jitters and the heebie-leebies, a feeling deep in his stomach that something was entirely wrong. In the exercise yard the wind gusted. Shadow imagined that he could smell snow on the air.
He called his wife collect. Shadow knew that the phone companies whacked a three-dollar surcharge on every call made from a prison phone. That was why operators are always real polite to people calling from prisons, Shadow had decided: they knew that he paid their wages.
"Something feels weird," he told Laura. That wasn't the first thing he said to her. The first thing was "I love you," because it's a good thing to say if you can mean it, and Shadow did.
"Hello," said Laura. "I love you too. What feels weird?"
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe the weather. It feels like if we could only get a storm, everything would be okay."
"It's nice here," she said. "The last of the leaves haven't quite fallen. If we don't get a storm, you'll be able to see them when you get home."
From American Gods by Neil Gaiman. © 2001. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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