Michael Patterson was born into your average middle-class nuclear family. They lived in a desirable area of Long Island, New York, seemingly a world away from the gangs and crime of the inner-city. His parents loved and supported him and there was never any physical abuse in the household. But it is here, beneath the Brady Bunch-like façade of suburbia that lays the true ground zero of the never-ending pandemic known as drugs.
Now age 24, Mike is being released from prison, where he spent the past five years on drug-related charges. He is now ready to put the past behind him and start anew. However serious Mike is though, he will find out that the ghosts of the past are not so easily relinquished and that some things cannot be atoned. He will also learn that even if he might be able to survive his own battle with drugs, the war wages on, always eager for its next victim. And its next victim might be closer to him than he ever could have imagined.
Choices. If life can possibly be summed-up by one word, it would be “choices”. In fact, only two things are certain in life: first is that one day you will die; and the other is that you will be forced to make many choices along the way. Sometimes we wish that we did not have to make them. Sometimes we do not even notice we have them. But they are always there. The choices that we make shape us into what we are – and what we will become.
Most choices are trivial: what to wear; what to have for lunch; or where to go on a Friday night. Some choices seem insignificant at the time yet turn out to be anything but trivial. Maybe you chose to get behind the wheel of a car after having one too many drinks. Maybe you decide to stop on your way home from work to buy a lottery ticket – and it winds up having the winning numbers. Maybe you decided to take a later flight – and the flight you were originally supposed to take crashes. Sometimes however, it is apparent when a certain decision may affect the rest of your life. Sometimes it is as clear and profound as being at the proverbial fork in the road. It is a place that all of us will find ourselves. Some will stand there more than others. Sometimes it will be clear which path to take.
Other times it will not. Sometimes we will know which one is the wrong path, but take it anyway. Yet one thing is for certain: we can choose the path, but not the destination it leads to. Perhaps no place is the importance in the choices we make more evident than prison. Of course many people are there not because they made a bad decision or two along the way. They are there because they are career criminals: thieves, rapists and murderers. They lead a life of crime. These people are well aware of the consequences of the choices they make, but deliberately make them anyway. However, prisons and jails are also filled with those who, for whatever reason, just made a bad decision or walked down the wrong path once in their lives. Maybe alcohol or drugs clouded their judgment. Maybe it was rage that made them do something that they would normally never have done. It doesn’t make whatever they did right. It does not give them an excuse or mean that they should not have to face the consequences of their actions. It is just an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes we choose to do something without ever even noticing that there are other choices.
Mike Patterson – inmate 773420 – was not a bad person. He was not an evil person. Yet there he was, in a small cell; a place that he had called home for the past five years. There he was with the murderers and child molesters, sharing the same yard – the same showers. Maybe Mike’s biggest crime was being young and stupid. He was only nineteen when his sentence started. For five years Mike laid in that cell thinking of the choices he had made and how differently he would have chose if only he could go back. However, he also spent five years trying to come to terms with the realization that there was no going back. There was no changing the course of time – and knowing that killed him. It ate at his every thought. It ran through his veins and stuck to his skin. There would be no future or present without the constant reminder of the past. Sometimes Mike even wished he could be more like some of the murderers or rapists, because at least they had no conscious. Nothing haunted them. Nothing kept them up at night. Mike however had a conscious. He knew right from wrong. He knew that things could have turned out so different. Sometimes regret is the greatest punishment of all.
They call being in prison “doing time”, because that’s all there is – time. Mike had time to think about a lot of things over the past five years. He thought about his mother and sister that waited for him back home. He thought about his late father. He thought about his girlfriend that died the day he was arrested. There were so many “what ifs”. He had changed much over just five years. He had turned from a careless boy, into a mature man – but at a very heavy cost. Of course, being in a controlled environment was very different than being on the outside, where all of life’s temptations were constantly being flaunted right in your face. There was nothing that ensured that once on the outside Mike would not return to his old wild ways. There would be no guards to watch over him. There would be no locks to keep him from life’s medicine cabinet of imminent evils. On the outside, everything would be right at his fingertips or just a phone call away. However, the day to test whether Mike had truly turned his life around had come. The long awaited day for the twenty-four year-old to step back into the outside world had finally arrived. Mike Patterson was going home. The freedom that had drifted into myth some time ago had finally turned back into a reality.
As the guard walked Mike from his cell down the narrow corridor, his heart began to beat faster and faster. It was not nervousness, yet rather overpowering anticipation. Suddenly, the loud and constant clamor that filled the prison fell eerily silent. For the first time, Mike could not hear the voices of inmates reverberating off the walls. In fact he heard nothing but the beating of his own heart. He saw nothing but straight ahead. It was so surreal that he wondered if it was just another cruel dream. Was he going to awake only to find himself still in his cell – as he had many times before?
After stopping in a small office to sign some papers, receive some long forgotten, personal belongings and get some last minute instructions regarding his parole, the time had finally come. With prison issued blue jeans and a white t-shirt, a sole guard led Michael Anthony Patterson to the same tall, ominous, barb wired gates that he had walked through five years earlier. Only this time he was on the inside walking out. For endless days he had fantasized about climbing over those gates and running to freedom. He had dreamt about them being plowed-over or broken open in a daring escape. Now, they would open for him. Now, he did not have to run to freedom. All he had to do was take two small steps. With his heart still racing Mike held back tears as the gates slowly rolled open. Oh what a glorious sound they made, he thought to himself. “Well, there you go Mike” was the only thing that the guard said as he pointed towards the outside world. Then, with a simple nod of acknowledgment Mike slowly put one foot in front of the other and just like that, had once again become a free man.
As the steel gates closed behind him, Mike could no longer hold back the emotions. While inhaling a deep fresh breath of the September air, a tear streaked from his eye followed by another and yet another, until five years worth of suppressed tears flowed freely down his face. He cried not just for the joy of finally being freed or the sorrow for time lost or for the pain that he had kept bottled up inside. Rather, he cried for all those reasons and standing there outside those walls, he could feel an enormous weight being lifted from his shoulders; a weight that piece by piece dissipated into the gray September sky.
Mike’s mother and sister were supposed to be there at the gates waiting for him, but were obviously running late. Not that it bothered Mike. After all, he had waited five years, what was another fifteen or twenty minutes? Besides, he was just happy not to be on the other side of the gates. Enjoying his long awaited return to freedom, Mike stared down the barren stretch of road that once led him to the prison. His tears now subsided a smile grew on his face. Kneeling down, his hands sifted through the loose dirt and pebbles. Letting out a laugh that drifted into the air, Mike made a mental note that dirt had never felt so good. The air had never been so fresh. The sky had never looked so endless. Everything seemed so real, so tangible. That long, narrow road was no longer confined to an image in his dreams or a view from the prison’s yard. It was something that he could touch, could stand on. It was a road that he could walk down if he wanted. No one was going to stop him or give chase.
Mike strolled in silence down the poorly paved road, as a slight mid-September breeze softly combed along his skin. Five years earlier, he had gone down that same road, though it was in the opposite direction. He was also a different person then. Though only five years had passed it seemed a lifetime and a world ago. In fact it felt so distant that in a strange way it seemed like it didn’t even really happen at all – like it was all some bad dream. Yet there he was on that same road, walking back down it under very different circumstances. He was walking back to where he had come from. However, because time changes everything, Mike Patterson was not walking back into the past, but rather into the future. The road may have been the same, but time had inevitably altered where it lead. Though Mike wished more than anything that he could walk down that road into the past and change everything, he knew that was not to be. It may have been the first day of the rest of his life, but he unfortunately knew that some things would never begin again. He knew that some roads led to places that people never come back from.
Mike Patterson grew-up in a suburban part of Long Island, New York called Massapequa. There he lived in a three-bedroom, middle-class house along with his parents and younger sister Melissa. There was never an excess of money, but the family always had enough to pay the bills. There were never any times of dire straits. Mike’s father, who was the sole income of the household worked as a foreman for a bottling distributor. It was not a glamorous job, but it always paid for the roof over their head and three good meals a day. It was a good upbringing. There was never any abuse or talk about bankruptcy or divorce. If Mike’s parents argued it was usually about petty things. For the most part they were a normal healthy family.
Mike, however, always had a knack for getting into trouble. As early as the fourth grade he started getting called to the principle’s office followed by the inevitable calls home to his parents. But it was never anything serious back then. It was usually a case of butting heads with his teachers or getting into scuffles with other kids. His father would scold and lecture him, but as long as Mike had respectable grades, he brushed off the often-minor altercations with his teachers and classmates as just “boys being boys”. Mr. Patterson wanted his son to get a good education but neither did he want him to grow-up to be a sissy. So through grade school and junior high Mike kept his grades respectable and tried to keep his trouble making to a minimum.
As Mike entered his sophomore year in high school, everything changed. It started with the death of his father, John, who had died of a heart attack. As far as everyone knew he had been a healthy man and his untimely passing at the young age of fifty, came as a surprise. For the first four months Mike stopped getting into any trouble altogether and stayed home almost every night with his grief stricken mother and sister. However, he soon jumped back into getting into trouble headfirst. He started drinking, smoking pot, cutting classes and getting into fights. Perhaps Mike was not doing anything different than many of his peers, but he just seemed to push the envelope a little further than most of the other kids. There was a certain sense of bitterness and angst to everything he did. Sure, all teenagers are pissed-off about something or someone, but his anger seemed a little deeper, a little more concentrated. Mike didn’t just hang around a bad group of kids – he was the leader. And it didn’t take long before the parties became wilder, the drugs heavier and the fights more frequent. By his junior year Mike was selling pot and acid. It also became regular for him to cut half of his classes and not return home sometimes for days at a time. Mike’s father was not around to discipline him and his mother, who was still trying to cope with the loss of her husband, didn’t have the strength to deal with him. She also was not aware of the full scope of her son’s troubles.
Halfway through his senior year, Mike dropped out of high school. Although still living at home for the most part, he was making enough money, dealing pot and acid and throwing keg parties to buy himself whatever he wanted. By this time he had a fake I.D. and was hanging out with an older crowd at local bars. For Mike, life had become one big party. The invincibility of youth was much too strong for him to consider any consequences and time was something that appeared to have no end. However, the bitterness that he had worn like a badge of honor was about to be retired. It was at this time that Mike met Katie Fuller, a sixteen year-old sophomore. After meeting her at a party, he instantly fell for the slender, blue-eyed brunette and knew that she was “The One”. She was the one that was going to change his life forever. He was right. Things would never be the same – for either of them.