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John Briese


The branches of the apple trees bent low with the weight of their fruit. Justin sat on the front porch rocking chair smoking a cigarette watching the kids play with the dogs in the front yard. He could hear his mother Karen’s voice through the screen door, “Come on y’all, dinner’s ready!” she yelled.

As an adolescent, Justin seemed like he sought out trouble wherever he would go. He was first arrested for public drunkenness at the age of 14. He served a six month stint in prison for stealing a neighbor’s car at 17. After prison he began dealing drugs and cooking methamphetamines. Living in a dilapidated trailer house on the far end of the five acre lot he had grown up on, Justin brought nothing but pain and misfortune upon himself and his family.

Justin had enlisted the help of his younger cousins Brett and Jimmy to help cook up and distribute his drugs. One evening the three boys were drinking beer and playing pool in Justin’s house when an unexpected knock came at the door. “Who is it?” Justin yelled crudely.

“It’s Jamal,” the man replied with a deep stern voice.

“I don’t know no damn Jamal. Get the hell outta here,” Justin yelled as he grabbed a gun off the kitchen counter.

As Justin walked towards the door it sprang open violently and ten armed men burst in yelling.

“Get down, put the gun down right now! Get your ass down on the ground!”

Justin, realizing he was outnumbered, put the gun down, and the men threw him to the ground. They searched him, then ransacked his house taking anything they thought of value and breaking everything else.

“Where you been cookin’?” Jamal asked.

“What you talking bout man? I cook in the kitchen.” Justin said with a smirk on his face.

“OK smart ass.” Jamal kicked Justin in the chest. Justin laughed, coughing out “That all you got?” He wouldn’t have been laughing had he known where they had just come from.

“I found it,” one of the other men yelled from the back. Jamal and a couple of his men walked to the back of the house.

“See, I told you it would be back here. We didn’t even need to go in that big ol’ house up there,” one of the men told Jamal.

Right then chills ran down Justin’s back and looking out the window, he noticed a large fire coming from his parent’s house. He knew immediately what he would have to do. With the bulk of the men in the back room smashing up his meth lab, Justin grabbed the man left behind to guard him by the ankles and pulled him down to the ground. Following his lead, Brett and Jimmy did the same. Shots rang out as the men tried to fight off the three boys who eventually got the best of them. Brett grabbed the gun out of the man’s hand and shot him in the shoulder. Right away, Jamal and the rest of his crew ran into the room firing.

“Kill that white boy!” Jamal yelled out to his men. Brett was shot three times before taking out four of Jamal’s men. “That was not smart,” Jamal said angrily to Justin as he threw him back to the ground. “Now I’m gonna have to kill you and your little whitebread friend here.”

Jamal walked over to Jimmy who was quivering on the floor crying , aware that his young life is about to come to an end. “This is on you son,” Jamal said to Justin as he put three slugs in Jimmy’s chest.

Justin began to cry at the realization that he was next.

“You been stealin my customers for a long time now, I was just gonna rough you up a bit, maybe see if we could make a deal, but then your dumbass momma had to go runnin her mouth and whippin out kitchen knives.”

“What did you do?” Justin yelled with tears in his eyes.

“Son, I just did what needed to be done to shut that woman up,” Jamal replied.

“I’ll kill you if you did anything to my momma.”

“Really? You’ll kill me? How you plan on doin that with yo ass down on the ground and me holdin the gun?” Then the whole room jumped as a shotgun blast tore holes all through Jamal’s chest and blew him back to the floor. Before the remaining men could realize what was happening, Justin’s father, Kenneth, opened fire. Justin grabbed Jamal’s weapon with a vengeance. Between the two of them, they finished off the res,t but not before Kenneth took a bullet to the stomach.

“Dad!” Justin screamed as he ran to his side.

“Call an ambulance and go take care of your mother,” Kenneth said gasping for air.

“Dad, I’m not gonna leave you here like this, I’ll carry you”

“Boy, they shot your mother. Now go help her NOW!” Kenneth yelled.

            Justin sprinted as fast as he could the 500 yards between him and his mother. He found her lying in the grass with his 16 year old brother Stephen holding her and his 15 year old brother Chad trying to put out the fire. “They came in and asked us where you were cookin. Then momma tried to stab one of ‘em with a damn kitchen knife so they shot her,” Stephen said.

“Here’s my phone. Call the fire department and an ambulance,” Justin said. “I’m gonna see if I can help Chad.” Right then sirens and flashing lights began coming up the dirt road to the house.

“I already called them. Where’s Dad?” Stephen asked.

“He’s at my house. He saved my life,” Justin said as he was running to catch the ambulance. The ambulance approached, and Justin told the paramedics the situation, that both his mother and father had been shot.

“You two help her,” the ambulance driver told two of the paramedics. “We’re going down there.” Justin stayed with his mother and watched as the firemen began to put out the flames, when all of a sudden,


Justin’s house exploded and flames shot 100 feet in the air. “DAAAAADDDDD” Justin screamed as he fell to his knees crying. The ambulance had not arrived there yet and reversed its course as it was being showered with flaming debris from the explosion. Justin ran towards his house still yelling, “DAD!!!!” until he was stopped by one of the paramedics.

“You can’t go down there boy,” he said. “You can’t go down there. Whatever was there is gone now. You have to stay and be with your mother.” Justin collapsed to the ground and was crying uncontrollably.

The ambulance transported Justin’s mother to the hospital with his two brothers riding along. The firemen were able to put out the blaze and save half of the house.  The police officers escorted Justin down to the station for questioning. The crime scene investigators determined that the cause of the blast was due to the improper mixing of the chemicals used to make methamphetamines. Justin was charged with manufacturing and the distribution of narcotics and later sentenced to eight years in prison.

Justin’s mother, having been released from the hospital, had some hard days in front of her. She had to arrange to have what was left of her home salvaged, along with the burden of having to bury her husband and two nephews all in the same week. As Amazing Grace was sung at Kenneth’s grave site, Chad, with tears running down his face, turned to his mother and asked, “How is it you’re not crying?”

“Your father is helping me son,” she turned and said to her youngest son as she put her arms around him. “Plus this is a time to be strong. There is a lot of work to be done.” She spent the coming weeks hassling with insurance adjusters and trying to get her family back on track.

A few months passed, and the family was still adjusting to the sudden changes in their lives. “Are we gonna go visit Justin, Momma?” Stephen asked.

“Not right now. Your brother has a lot of demons to conquer by himself. You boys need to focus on your school and getting into college. Don’t you go worryin about your brother.” What her two sons didn’t know was that she was visiting Justin once a week in prison. He was being held in a facility just over an hour away, and when Stephen and Chad were in school she would go see him.

The first visit was hard. She went in there with the intention of disowning her son, blaming him for the death of his father and cousins and for the horror that had been brought upon their family. As she saw him come to the window dressed in that orange jumpsuit, she broke down and cried. “Momma, momma, don’t cry, please. I’m so glad you’re here. I didn’t think you would come,” Justin said.

“Why? Why did you do it? Why did you bring this upon us? Why? Do you know what my life is like? Do you know what I have to go through now? It’s all because of you.” Justin quickly wiped away tears from his face.

“Momma, they can’t see me cry in here. I can’t be doing this. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for what I did, I can’t say that enough. I can’t tell you the guilt that I have to live with. It’s so hard in here, I have looked forward to this for days, but I can’t do this if I’m just gonna cry, I can’t do that momma, I can’t do that.” Justin said in a whisper.

“What happened to your face?” his mother asked.

“It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it. I’m fine”

“No, that’s a big cut. What happened?”

“Momma, don’t worry. I’m fine,” Justin said trying to convince her. “Now how are the boys doin’? How is the house?”

“The boys are OK. They ask about you a lot and want to come see you. They planted three tiny apple trees in the front yard for your Daddy, Brett, and Jimmy. The house is almost done. They just have to finish the roof. I’m so tired of hearing drills and saws all day I just want it all to be finished. “

“Oh ya, did they do anything different?”

“Ya they made the kitchen bigger and built me more cabinets, so I have room for everything. It’s actually gonna be very nice when it’s finished.”

And before the two of them knew it they were carrying on a regular conversation like nothing had happened.

Five years had passed, and Karen still visited Justin as often as possible. The two had always had a strong relationship. Even when Justin was dealing drugs and getting into trouble he always had a soft spot in his heart for his mother. She allowed her two youngest boys to come visit with her once a month until they both went to college. Everything was going well until the two boys came home to go with their mother to visit. It was a cold rainy Saturday morning when they went in to hear the news.

“Ma’am?” a prison guard asked. “You’re Justin’s mother aren’t you, ma’am?”

“Yes, and these are his two brothers,” she replied.

“Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to come with me.”

“What’s wrong?” she said with worry in her voice. “Did something happen?”

“Ma’am, just come with me please.” They were escorted into a small meeting room where they waited until the Warden arrived a few minutes later.

“Hello, I am Warden William P. Hastings. Thank you for meeting me here,” he said as he shut the door behind him. “There has been an incident, and Justin has been hospitalized.”

“What?” Karen, Stephen, and Chad said in unison.

“Is he OK? When did this happen?” Karen asked.

“It happened yesterday. We were going to inform you late last night, but I saw your name on the role of visitors today, so I wanted to wait to tell you in person,” the warden said. “Justin was jumped by four men and was beaten very badly. His spleen was ruptured; he has four broken ribs, a broken jaw, and a broken arm. He is still in the ICU, and we won’t know exactly the prognosis until later on this evening.”

“Oh, my gosh,” Karen gasped. “Where is he? Can we see him?”

“He is at St. Thomas, but I wanna warn you now. He’s gonna look a little rough when you get there. I just wanna tell y’all how sorry I am about this. Justin was one of the most reformed inmates I have ever seen. He was so close to finishing his degree,” the Warden added.

“What? Finishing his degree? What degree?” Karen asked.

“He only had one more class to take to finish his Associate’s Degree in Accounting; didn’t he tell y’all about that?” the Warden said puzzled.

“No, as far as I know he never finished high school,” Karen replied.

“I guess he wanted it to be a surprise, but he finished his GED a few years ago and has been studying accounting for a while now. He spends all day reading and studying and takes the tests on the Internet.”

“Well, he’ll finish it as soon as he gets better,” Stephen said.

“I hope so. I sincerely hope so,” the Warden said as he opened the door to leave.

Karen and her two boys went to the hospital to visit Justin and arrived at the ICU in shock. Justin was unrecognizable with his face as swollen as it was and with tubes running in and out of him. The doctor came in and explained the situation and said that if he made it through the night, he should be OK. Karen made Stephen and Chad go home while she stayed with him. The two boys fought the decision but reluctantly followed their mother’s orders. Karen didn’t sleep a wink all night, staying by Justin’s side talking to him. He never moved or made a sound, but she was convinced he could hear her. She said that she forgave him for what he did and that if he could just pull through, he could come back and be part of the family again. She spent the bulk of the night with her head lying on his leg, holding his hand.

The next morning the doctors came in and examined Justin. They said that he was improving, and that things were looking a lot better. It took two days for Justin to eventually wake up, and when he did he couldn’t speak because his jaw was wired shut. Karen never left the hospital the whole time and woke up every sleeping patient around with her shriek when Justin opened his eyes. He was held in the hospital for three weeks, which Karen loved because it was the first time she was able to hug her son in over five years. After being released from the hospital, he was held in a minimum security prison for another month until he was released on parole.

Justin went home to live with his mom and began to adjust to life outside of prison. One of the first things he did when he got home was walk with his mother down to where his old trailer house used to sit. Only a few weeds grew over the area of land that had been burned. Evidence of the fire was still in the trees and the surrounding areas. Everything that had been burned never grew back. Justin broke down and cried when he saw it and repeatedly apologized to his mother for what he had done.

He spent his first few weeks at home helping his mom around the house, planting new grass and flowers in the cemetery at his father’s and cousin’s graves, and spending quality time with his mother, something he hadn’t done since before he was a teenager. The two grew very close. Justin then went on to finish his degree in accounting and got a job working as a junior accountant for a large toy company in town. He eventually cleared all the trees out where his trailer house used to sit and cleaned up all the land around it, so that he could build a house there. When his mother asked why he wanted to build a house right there, he told her he never wanted to never forget what happened.

Years passed, Justin married a pretty young secretary who worked for his company. The two had three boys, who grew up 500 yards from their grandmother. Every Sunday Justin, Stephen, Chad and all their families would come to Karen’s house for dinner. Every week Justin would sit on the front porch and watch the wind blow the three apple trees back and forth.

“Come on y’all. Dinner’s ready,” Karen yelled.

“Kenny, Brett, Jimbo, come on—let’s go eat.” Justin smiled as he followed his three young boys through the door.