The Row by J.R. Johansson is a YA mystery that features a seventeen-year-old girl's search for the truth about her father on death row (Available October 11, 2016).
A death sentence. A family torn apart. One girl's hunt for the truth.
Seventeen-year-old Riley Beckett is no stranger to prison. Her father is a convicted serial killer on death row who has always maintained that he was falsely accused. Riley has never missed a single visit with her father. She wholeheartedly believes that he is innocent.
Then, a month before the execution date, Riley’s world is rocked when, in an attempt to help her move on, her father secretly confesses to her that he actually did carry out the murders. He takes it back almost immediately, but she can’t forget what he’s told her. Determined to uncover the truth for her own sake, she discovers something that will forever change everything she’s believed about the family she loves.
I STEP INTO THE REGISTRATION BUILDING and marvel at how it smells the same every time. The strong aroma of bleach cleanser that somehow never manages to get rid of the lingering undertone of mildew and rot is a hard one to forget.
For over ten years, I’ve spent every Friday afternoon from three to five p.m. at the Polunsky Unit except for the two weeks in December it took to get my “hardship privileges” approved by the warden. It still seems crazy to me that I had to get the approval from Warden Zonnberg—the director of death row himself—just to visit my own daddy without Mama present. It was a whole lot of hassle to go through when you consider that I was only ten months shy of being legal at the time. But like Mama says: Seventeen is still seventeen no matter what color you paint it. So once Mama’s work made it harder for her to attend visits with me, the warden literally declared me a case of hardship in order to approve my visits. I have paperwork and everything. Nothing like putting a label on a girl to make her feel good about herself.
And the stupid teens on reality TV shows think they have daddy issues.
Mama sent me with a letter for Daddy—as she always does. I wonder what it says but don’t look. It’s enough that the guards thoroughly examine every piece of communication our family shares. Me snooping through their messages too would be as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party.
Almost instinctively, I walk toward the desk and begin prepping to pass through the security checkpoint. By the time I step up and sign my name, my shoes and belt are off and my pockets are emptied. As always, I left my purse in the car and only brought my ziplock bag with a paper chess set, my ID, change for the vending machines, my car keys, and Mama’s letter—nothing that will raise any trouble. I may not be an honor student, but I am nothing if not a model death row visitor.
Mama should seriously find a bumper sticker that says that about her daughter.
Nancy, the correctional officer behind the desk, smiles when she looks up and sees me signing in. “You’re prepped already. You’ve got to be the speediest girl at the airport, Riley.”
I incline my head. “I’m sure I will be should I ever decide I want to go anywhere. You’ve prepared me well.”
“You’ve never been on a plane?”
“I’ve never been outside of Texas.”
She seems shocked. “Good Lordy, why not?”
I place one hand across my heart and give her a wide grin. “Because I love it so. I just couldn’t bear to leave.”
“Everybody loves Texas,” Nancy says, nodding with a smile, obviously not catching my sarcasm.
I provide the expected response. “Absolutely.”
Nancy opens Mama’s letter and scans through it. When she’s finished she puts it back with my plastic bag and moves them both through the X-ray machine.
I put the pen down on her book, handing over my driver’s license for her to inspect like she’s done so many times before.
“Still not eighteen yet, huh?” She reaches for the red notebook behind her desk where I know my hardship form is kept. The mound of paperwork I had to fill out to get that form is filed away safely somewhere in the warden’s office. I swear the prison system seems to have taken on the sole responsibility for keeping the paper industry in business.
“Nope. I decided to delay becoming legal for as long as humanly possible.”
“Mm-hmm.” Nancy makes a note in the folder. “Are you guys ready for the hearing?”
“Yep,” I say with false bravado before swallowing against the fear that clamps down on my throat any time I think about Daddy’s final appeal next week.
“What day is it?” She takes me through the metal detector and does my pat-down.
“It’s on Thursday.” I’ve grown used to having conversations with people while they’re frisking me, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward. The trick is to avoid direct eye contact until they’ve finished. I stare straight ahead as she runs her hands over my legs.
“Well, good luck then. See you next week, Riley,” Nancy says, and I wave as I head to the front desk to get my visitor badge and let the receptionist inspect Mama’s letter further.
My body follows the usual routine as if disconnected from my brain. I cross the yard and go through the gate to the administration building. I don’t even realize that I’ve passed the green outer door and both steel security doors before I’m sitting in the visiting area designated for contact visits and waiting for Daddy to come in.
It’s quiet in the barely-bigger-than-a-broom-closet room and my mind goes over the few details Daddy had told me about the current appeal. His legal team had uncovered evidence that at least one jury member from his original trial might have been tampered with. This may be our first chance to be granted a retrial in the nearly twelve years my father has been in prison. This appeal actually seems promising, and for the first time in years, I struggle to keep my hope in check.
It’s what we’ve been waiting for all this time—a new chance to prove that Daddy didn’t do it.
I keep running the envelope containing Mama’s letter through my fingers. I pass it from one hand to the other. I wince as the edge slices a small paper cut into my palm, but the pain helps me keep my focus here in this visitation room. My mind should not be behind bars. It should not be distracted by thoughts of what could be happening right now in a jail cell or by what may happen on Thursday in a judge’s courtroom.
Today is just one more visit with my father … and that alone makes it special.
“Hi, Ri,” Daddy says when the officer brings him in. I study my father as I do every week. When I decide he doesn’t look any worse this visit than the last, I release a shaky breath. Everyone in Polunsky is in solitary confinement, which is enough to drive a person mad if they weren’t already when they came in. That much time alone isn’t good for anyone’s well-being. He’s lost a lot of weight over the years, developing a leaner and harder look. And sometimes he still manages to get bruises he refuses to explain. I’ve seen enough to suspect they came from a chance altercation with another inmate while being moved around the prison … or from the guards.
Once his cuffs are released, he hugs me tight and I hug him back—the same way I do every visit. I guess when you’re only allowed two hugs from your father per week, you’re never too grown up for it.
The officer clears his throat, and Daddy pulls away from me. We walk over to sit down at the table. Once we’re seated, the guard closes the door and stands outside. This is what we’re allowed. This is what our face-to-face relationship is defined by: a hug at the beginning and the end of each visit. When I leave, the guard will give me the letters Daddy has written to me this week to take home. While I’m here, we must sit on opposite sides of the table. We can hold hands if we want, but we rarely do anymore. Not since I was little. When Mama used to come more frequently, she and Daddy used to hold hands sometimes. It symbolizes their marriage—their romance—to me now. I couldn’t take that away from them.
Mama has had to miss visits and hearings too often in the last year and I know they miss seeing each other, but Mama’s new job is demanding. She’s been the executive assistant to a vice president at an investment firm since last summer. Her boss pays her well and gives her job security as long as she works whenever and wherever it’s convenient for him.
After being fired in the past for reasons like your presence is creating an uncomfortable work environment for others or not disclosing pertinent background information, Mama really cares about her job security.
“How is your mother?” Daddy asks first thing, and I smile. Polunsky has aged him, but the sparkle in Daddy’s eyes when he sees me never changes.
“She’s fine. She said to tell you that she’s excited to see you on Thursday.”
His smile falters. “Are you both coming to the hearing?”
“Yes.” I prepare myself for the argument I know is coming.
“I wish you wouldn’t, but you already know that.” Daddy sits back in his chair and pushes his hand through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. “Ben can let you know how it goes after—”
“We want to be there. Having your family there to support you is important during your appeals—both to you and to the judge. Mr. Masters even told us that.” I shake my head, refusing to budge on this one. Benjamin Masters is Daddy’s lawyer, and a longtime family friend. When I was little, I used to think he was my uncle. It wasn’t until I was ten that I finally understood that we weren’t actually related. He and Daddy were partners in their law firm before Daddy ended up here.
“That’s lawyer logic. I know that and so do you.” He frowns so deep it seems to create new lines on his face. “I’m not thinking like a lawyer right now. I’m thinking like a father, and I’m just trying to protect my family. I hate seeing the media circle you and your mother like a pack of coyotes around fresh meat. You did nothing to bring this on yourself.”
“Neither did you, Daddy.” I reach out and give his hand a firm squeeze. “We’re in this with you by choice. Besides, I’d hate it if I wasn’t there to hear the good news.”
He returns a weak version of my smile and I decide to change the subject. Opening my plastic bag, I pass Daddy the letter from Mama before pulling out the paper chess set and putting the pieces in place.
“Now, on to the really important stuff,” I say. “I learned a new strategy on YouTube this week that’s going to blow your mind.”
Daddy chuckles before cracking his knuckles and leaning forward with a grin. “As the things you tell me you find on the Internet usually do.”
Copyright © 2016 J. R. Johansson.
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J.R. Johansson is the author of the Night Walkers Series and Cut Me Free. She lives in Utah with two sons, a wonderful husband, three cats, and a hot tub named Valentino.