The Darkest of Night

By David Van Houten

Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I can remember what my life was like before I was sent to the Wynne Unit. Of course, it’s rarely quiet here, but that’s actually a good thing, as it keeps me from focusing on the hell my life has become.

I’m glad that we have a justice system that prosecutes offenders to the fullest extreme for those who truly deserve it. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where the system is only concerned about convictions, not justice or truth. Now all you need to convict, especially in child sex cases, is the testimony of someone who has a bone to pick with you - which I learned the hard way.

I was a popular seventh-grade teacher - popular with the kids, not so much with other teachers. I was good at what I did, and the other teachers were jealous of all the accolades I received from the administration recognizing my accomplishments. It got under some teachers’ skin that the kids all loved me so much. I simply treated my students with respect and would listen to them on any topic, even if it was how they felt they were being mistreated by other teachers at my school.

When one of the teachers told me she was “going to get me,” I should’ve paid attention, but I didn’t comprehend what civilized people will do with revenge on their mind.

*****

In the early evening at Wynne, there is so much going on, it’s easy to forget how bad things are. In the dayroom, two TVs blare, one on sports, the other on movies, and the inmates keep the volume level just above a loud roar as they struggle to be heard over each other and the TVs.

I move to my cubicle in the fifty-man dorm, seeking a break from the cacophony. I lay down and stare at the vaulted ceiling covered in dirt and cobwebs from the many decades the prison has been in existence.

My thoughts are disrupted as three inmates walk by my cubicle, deep in discussion over the movie currently at commercial that they have to decipher without actually hearing it.

I can’t believe that the girl’s actually his daughter.” “What? His daughter? Na, she’s an old friend from college.”

“What are you two watching? It’s not even a girl - it’s a dude in drag.”

They continue their argument at the top of their voices as my stomach begins to rumble.

*****

In what is now known to me as the “free world,” I used to sit and watch movies with my wife, discussing intricate plotlines and cinematography. We would sit and hold each other, comfortable and secure in each other’s presence.

“Promise to love me forever?”

“Oh, okay, you talked me into it.”

She poked me in the ribs, “I had to talk you into it?”

“Well, I’ve had a lot of other offers.”

She rolled her eyes. “Like who?”

I nodded at the movie playing. “Reese Witherspoon has always been a big fan of mine.”

“Fine, you can have Reese Witherspoon, but I get Matthew Broderick.”

Satisfied with each other’s impossible love interest, we would snuggle together and enjoy the movie and each other’s company.

*****

I open my locker, looking for food after avoiding the rancid green stuff they serve in the chow hall. As I stare at the ramen noodles, corn chips, and other junk food we can get from the commissary, I try not to think about the gourmet meals I used to make for my family with only the finest ingredients.

An inmate that I often eat with stops by. “Getting’ ready to eat?”

“I guess so.”

“Whatcha got?”

I survey my locker looking for the grossest combination I can find to get him to move on. I’m not in the mood for company. ”Soups, pickles, sardines, and pork skins.”

“Well, throw it in a bowl and let's eat!”

Unsuccessful in my attempt to drive him away, I tell him I’ll bring him some when it’s done and begin pouring hot water on the ramen. As the noodles swell, I look around the dorm, wondering how I ended up at the Wynne Unit and trying not to let it all get to me.

*****

One of my students, Neal, came in to ask me how to solve some math problems. He was a good kid with a learning disability but he never gave up, so I never gave up on him.

After we finished the problem, we started talking while waiting for his mom to pick him up.

“Mr. H, why is Miss Green so mean?

“Mean? What do you mean, mean?”

He smiled at my repetition. “She gave me detention this week.”

“What happened?”

“I forgot my homework in my locker.” When I frowned, he hurried on. “It was done, I just forgot it.”

I have to give a suspicious look. “Really?”

“I swear. I told her I could go get it right then to prove it.”

“What happened?”

“She said if my homework’s not in her class when the bell rings, it’s like I didn’t do it, so she gave me a zero and detention, even though I really had done it.”

“Hmmm...did you remind her about how the principal said we were supposed to give you the benefit of the doubt when we had our last ARD meeting?”

His eyes opened wide. “No, do you think I shoulda?”

“Listen, Neal, you have a learning disability.” When he looked down, I added, “There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all made differently.”

He gave me a half smile.

“Mr. Applewhite said that we should give you leeway wherever we can, as long as you actually do the work. Remember?”

“I guess so, but I can’t argue with a teacher.”

”Why not? Teachers aren’t superior beings. We’re people just like you. We make mistakes,” I smiled briefly, “just like you. You have the principal on your side. Stand up for your rights. You have the truth on your side.”

Neal stood up to Miss Green the next day. She confronted me that afternoon, accusing me of encouraging rebellion in her classroom. I told her I would never do that, but I’d always encourage what was right. That’s when she threatened me - but I blew her off. After all, I always follow the rules.

Then came Bianca.

*****

I like things cold and dark, and when I would have a bad day, I could relax in my cave-like room.

After eating, I have a headache, probably from too much sodium. I close my eyes, but the bright fluorescent lights overhead only stoke my headache. I just want to be left alone, but inmates seem to know when that’s what you want. One walks up to me to ask the burning question of the day.

“Hey, you ain’t got no paper, do you? I gotta write down what color tie Drew Carey wore today on the Price is Right.”

Despite being surrounded by drug lords, bank robbers and serial killers, my crime is singled out as the most despised by the other inmates. I’m an outcast amongst outcasts, and every day is a dangerous one of not letting anyone know what I’m in prison for. Being white, educated, and friendly are all indicators to those looking for trouble. Even if they don’t find out, the guards will let them know. They feel it’s part of their job to punish us, as if separation from our families isn’t enough.

The prisons aren’t air-conditioned, and in the middle of August, temperatures can reach over a hundred degrees. I turn my fan on high, blowing directly on me, trying to stay cool as the darkness descends and hoping it will also cool my mounting frustration.

*****

Bianca came from a broken home. I treated her just like I did all my kids. Since she wasn’t used to hearing kind words from adults, she began to seek ways to spend time with me, from tutorials to after-school duties. Before I knew it, she’d developed a crush on me. I tried to rebuff her advances while encouraging her studies at the same time, but it was a fine line. Binaca used every excuse possible to come visit my classroom. I tried to discourage these visits while encouraging her elsewhere. What neither of us knew was that we were being watched. Miss Green was keeping track of how often my class was being visited, by whom, and for how long.

One morning, Bianca entered my room. “Mr. H, gotta sec?”

“Sur, Bianca, What’s up?”

”It’s kinda personal.” ”No problem, what is it?”

She walked to the edge of my desk. She was wearing the typical school uniform of a navy polo shirt and a khaki skirt that was long enough by uniform standards, but just barely.

“Neal dumped me last night.”

”Oh, Bianca, I’m sorry to hear that. Are you okay?”

She sat on the corner of my desk, and her skirt slid up her leg to a dangerous level. “I guess. Why don’t boys like me?”

“What do you mean? Plenty of boys like you.”

She licked her lips. “They always break up with me.”

“Don’t sweat it. That’s the way things are with seventh-grade boys.”

She turned slightly toward me, her legs parting as she did. “Then, maybe I need a man.”

I stood and walked to the door. “C’mon, Bianca, it’s almost time for the bell. You need to get to class.”

She jumped off my desk and walked over to me. “Okay, Mr. H, but one more thing.”

I withheld a sigh. “Yes?”

She suddenly wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me on the lips. Shocked, I pushed her away. I hurried her out of my class, but I knew then that I had to put a stop to this before it got any further out of hand. What I didn’t know was that by rebuffing her advances, my days were now numbered.

*****

As I read a book in the darkening dorm of late evening, another inmate stops by my cubicle. He’s a young white male with a shaved head that is covered with Nazi tattoos - no not the kind of person I’d normally hang out with. Unfortunately, the setup of the dorm doesn’t allow you to keep away unwelcome visitors.

He leans on the edge of the cubicle wall and says quietly, “I saw you hangin’ with Harvey the other day.”

It’s considered disrespectful to interrupt someone when they’re busy - like reading a book - so I simply give him a disdainful look, hoping to move him along.

“Don’t you know Harvey is like?” I grip the book, wrinkling pages, trying to rerein my anger. I’d never heard that word before coming in here, but now I’m assaulted on all sides by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other negative isms that prisons seem to encourage.

It takes everything I have to keep from rising to his bait, but I know these types of arguments often end in fights, something I’ve never done before. I’ve seen fights in here end in paralyzation and even death, so I simply go back to my book, even though I can’t read the pages through the red haze.

*****

Out of the blue, I was called into the principal’s office to explain why a student was accusing me of kissing her. I was suspended until an investigation could occur. While I never got a chance to defend myself, the results were revealed in a school board meeting: Bianca said I tried to kiss her and Miss Green corroborated it by providing documentation that I invited Bianca into my classroom on the date and time Bianca kissed me.

I took advantage of the free time given by my suspension to spend it with my five-year-old son. We’d always had a good relationship, but I never felt like we had enough time together. One day, we decided to watch the entire original Star Wars trilogy together. After watching the lightsaber battle between father and son in the finale, my boy crawled up in my lap, embracing me close.

“Daddy, don’t ever go to the Dark Side.”

I hugged him close and assured him that I will always be good, and he would never have to duel me with lightsabers. I put him to bed as I heard the knock at my front door.

My wife answered it, and when I returned to the living room, the police were waiting to arrest me. Not knowing the law, I assumed they were arresting me for a kiss. It wasn’t until we were on the way to the police station that I learned I was under arrest for the sexual assault of Bianca.

*****

I pull out my photo album and look at pictures of my family. My son is now taller than me, according to my wife. I don’t know because with a child sex charge on my record, can’t visit him. It’s hard on us all, and even though my loyal wife visits at every opportunity, I can feel us all drifting apart.

I should turn on my night light to see the pictures, but I don’t want anyone to see my face. Showing weakness in prison is a good way to open yourself to all kinds of problems.

I put away my photo album; I can’t take anymore. I wipe my eyes surreptitiously in the darkness and lay back on my mattress, trying not to concentrate on the unfairness of my situation.

*****

Bianca really enjoyed the attention she got from her parents after her accusation, so shortly after her first revelation, she admitted that I had sex with her several times in my classroom. Since there was no evidence of a physical assault, I assumed it would be a quick acquittal - but that just showed how little I knew about Texas’s criminal justice system.

The trial came down to Bianca’s word against mine. Both sides did what they could to bolster the testimony. Miss Green and five other teachers testified against me, despite having no connection to the case. I had argued at some point with each of these teachers. While each one gave different testimony, they all said basically the same thing: “I never saw anything, but I always suspected something.”

Since other teachers sided with Bianca, the jury was convinced I was lying to protect myself. When I provided actual evidence poking holes in all the circumstantial evidence, the prosecutors used legal loopholes to get my counter-evidence thrown out.

Throughout the trial, all I could do was sit and stare at these teachers, these civilized members of society who were worried about only their own petty revenge, not about truth, justice, or the effect of all this on my family.

“Will the defendant please rise?”

My lawyer had to grab me to keep me from falling over. Before I knew it, I was being shipped off to the Wynne Unit with a twenty-year sentence, wondering how things had come this far.

*****

It’s now dark and most of the inmates are finally settling in for the night. I have work in the morning, but images continue to spin in my head, making sleep elusive.

With a twenty-year sentence, I’m eligible for parole in ten, regardless of how well I follow the rules. However, offenders with my charges are rarely allows to parole anyway. Twenty years is, for all practical purposes, a life sentence, especially considering that I’ll have to register for the rest of my life as a supposed child molester.

My teaching career is over, so what can I do to support my family when I get out? Can I be anything more than a burden once I leave? As it is, both my wife and son have to deal with the treatment from others over their relationship with me. Do I have anything positive left to give my family?

It’s now one-thirty in the morning. The temperature has finally dropped to a tolerable level, and the inmates have quieted down to where sleep is possible.

But on nights like tonight, when the Wynne Unit is finally quiet, I stare at the blade, broken out of the razors they pass around each week. It’s here, in the quiet dark, I think about my wasted past, my hateful present, and my destroyed future and contemplate the value of my life.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez