What is a miracle? Truly? Some people would say life is a miracle. I would disagree. Life can be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it can also drive you completely mad. Push you over the edge; make you claim your own life as no more.

Other people would say an important event, like winning the lottery, is a miracle. Not so. Okay, you instantly have a million dollars. You buy a fancy car, get married to the hottest girl/guy in town, and set up a mortgage for your new mansion. In six months, a year if you're lucky, you'll be so broke the bank will reclaim your house, you can't afford to keep gas in your car, and your spouse will take any pocket change you have left, leave you, and start living with the next richest person in town. Not a miracle.

A miracle—in my opinion—is a person… not a thing. Someone who never does the innocent wrong and will try to make all the wrongs in the world right. Someone who doesn't judge even if judged in return. Someone who appreciates the small things and doesn't let the big things weigh them down. Someone who carries the most burdens, but yet is the most free. To me, that's a miracle.

.:oOo:.

I blinked the sleep from my grayed, dusty-green eyes. A stretching yawn made my muscles rev up and prepare themselves for the day. And a long day it was going to be.

Despite the early morning mental haze, I threw my legs over the side of the bed and rose from the warmed covers. A cool morning breeze drifted through the open windows, causing the white cotton drapes to flow ghostly towards the center of the tiny bedroom in a rippling wave.

I hastily swapped out the ages-old linen nightgown for some high-rise jean capris and a crisp button-down shirt. A brush expertly made its way through my long, dark brown hair. Well, the only reason my hair was long was because I've been too lazy lately to get it chopped professionally and I couldn't draw a straight line, let alone cut my hair evenly. Although, I wouldn't be able to afford it cut professionally anyway. My hair had been straight once upon a time, too. I never could understand how my hair went from being straight to lazy, uneven waves to the lank but more defined ringlets I have now. Although my hair was nothing spectacular, it was my pride and joy.

Ah, what the heck. I sigh, gently undoing the bun that I failed to make at the nape of my neck. I covered it with a dusty, floppy sunhat instead. What's the point of looking fancy anyway? A woman looking for a job in the depression? At a prison on top of that! There was almost no chance of me walking out of Cold Mountain Penitentiary with a paying job. It was that one glimmer of hope that made me eat a humble breakfast of some bread and a glass of milk, hurriedly brush my teeth, and set out for the prison on foot.

Uncle Hal Moores. He was my get-in-for-free card. He runs Cold Mountain Prison, and it just so happens that I am his wife's niece. I haven't been in town long. When I heard of Aunt Melinda's tumor, I had to come from New Orleans back to the town I was born and raised at to see her. I practically grew up at their house. On the weekends, Uncle Hal would take me fishing all day. In the week, he wasn't around during the day. But when he came home he'd cook on the grill and have a few of his friends over. They were always entertaining. When they'd leave and I'd sleep over, he'd tell me tales of all sorts of things. My favorites were ones he completely made up about three pigs, a farmer, a tractor, and a mud hole.

Aunt Melinda taught me everything I know about life: how to read, cook, clean, garden, and have good penmanship. She would sit on the swing on the porch with me. We'd talk about anything and everything. She'd even read a few of her books to me when there was nothing more to talk about. She set me to work around her house, doing the dishing, dusting, weeding the garden were the ones I did most. When I was done, though, she'd always have something good to eat. The thing I loved the most was her strawberry shortcake and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Nothing was better on a hot summer's day!

I finally reached the main road to town. My shoes had a fine layer of dust on them from kicking up the dirt roads. The scorching sun tortured the withered, dried-up grasses and weeds along the path. They were solemn reminders of what a lifetime without rain could do to you. A cool breeze picked up then, making them whisper hopeful rumors of precipitation to each other.

The town, which I remembered so clearly from my childhood, was gone. Half the shops were closed down, now just empty shells of the buildings I had spent all my spare money in years ago. My favorite of all was no longer running, either. The old candy shop, Warfle's Sweets, now stood abandoned and neglected. Ivy somehow climbed the faded bricks, stealing their sunlight. The windows were boarded, and you could just see the faded image of a swirly lollipop on the shop's door.

A lot's changed.

At that moment, a black Ford pulled up next to me with a middle-aged man behind the wheel. He asked me politely, "Can I be taking you anywhere, miss?"

It grabbed my attention that he was in an officer's getup.

"Cold Mountain Penitentiary."

He narrowed his hazel eyes curiously, "You visiting?"

I nodded, waiting for him to make up his mind. After a second's thought, he replied, "Well, that's where I'm headed. You can go with me, unless you'd rather walk?"

I smiled in thanks, "No, I've been walking a lot lately."

I proceeded to get in the passenger seat of his car. He put his hat on and I took mine off as we pulled down the street.

"The name's Paul Edgecombe, head officer of E Block at ol' Cold Mountain," he said friendlily, "May I ask yours?"

I knew I'd seen his face before, but I hadn't known from where. Now I recognized uncle Hal's close friend that would come over regularly for dinners. His wife, Jan, was a good cook. He even invited me to his house a few times with Hal and Melinda.

"Payton Blake," I answered him, watching his face. His brow furrowed in thought. Did he remember me?

"That's good. I was afraid you'd come to visit someone in my block."

My eyebrows raised out of surprise that he didn't recognize me, but he took it that I was offended, "Not that I don't want you on E Block. You seem like a polite young lady and all, but my block holds people on Death Row until their execution."

"So you deal with the worst of Louisiana?" I asked for the sake of keeping a conversation going.

He made a face, "My job is to keep the peace in the block. I rarely have to deal with anyone. The prisoners and I get along fine most the time. They're under enough strain as it is; they don't need to be pushed over the edge."

I stared out the window at the dried-up fields, "They're doin' their time. After they've paid what they owe, they'll be let free."

We were quiet for a while. It wasn't awkward, we were just thinking in our own little worlds. We stayed like that until the image of gray-walled, barbed wire fenced Cold Mountain Penitentiary appeared. It looked dangerous for those inside and out. The deadly wire fences dared anyone to try and cross them. Even the darkened windows looked ominous in the bright sun. Prisoners mulled around in the fenced yard, but other than that, there was no movement.

The gates were opened for us and Paul pulled through into the dirt parking lot. After the Ford was turned off, he turned to me, "Can I show you to the office, ma'am? After you tell who you wish to visit, they'll call them in for you."

I looked back up to the various buildings. It struck me that I had no clue where I was going, "Please."

We got out of his car. He led the way away from the parking lot and to the building nearest us. I found it hard to keep up with his stride as we passed the exercise yard. Prisoners waved their greetings to Paul. A few asked "Boss Paul, who dat?" I smiled and waved shyly to the men lined up against the chain-link fence.

"Here we are, Miss Blake," Paul said once we got to the door, "If you need any help, just talk to Warden Moores. He'll aid you to the best of his ability."

I bowed my head, "Thank you for helping me to the best of your aid, Mr. Edgecombe. I'll be fine from here."

He nodded, "Have a good day, ma'am."

I watched him as he walked away. He stopped along the fence to chat with the inmates. A true peace-keeper.

Not two seconds before I was going to open the office door, it flew open on its own. A sharp yelp escaped my lips as whoever threw open the door grabbed me.

"Get the hell off me!" I panicked. Who the hell had ahold of me? An inmate? At that thought, I tried in vain to punch the assailant in the head.

"Ow, Pay! What's gotten into you?" shouted a familiar, deep voice.

I stopped punching, "Uncle Hal!"

It was me this time that attacked him in a heavy bear-hug. I hadn't realized how much I've missed him in New Orleans, but now that I was back home it was all coming back. The days with Melinda on the swing. The nights with Hal eating barbeque. My only true family.

I didn't notice the hot tears sliding down my face until Hal said something.

"Oh Payton, it's okay. You're here now, it's okay," he sighed, gently rocking me back and forth. A stifled sob forced a few more tears to fall.

"I missed ya'll so much. And coming back under the circumstances…"

A few more sobs filled me. I tried to quiet them, but they still went through. Hal made a gruff sound.

"Oh, stop this hugging, "he said jovially, "I can't have the inmates getting' ideas that I'm soft. Here, let me get a look at you."

He pulled out of the hug to look me over. His eyes became glassy and his head shook, "Who woulda known five years could change someone so much?"

It was true. He seemed so much more aged since I left the small-town life for the excitement of the city. The lines on his face had grown deep, far too deep for a man of his age. His light-brown hair had balded out on top of his head and was fading to gray. Even his eyes had changed. They used to be so happy, glinting with cunning. Now, they seemed to have dulled down and show the strain he must feel every time he sees his wife. His wife with a fatal brain tumor.

"You've grown so much. Even your hair's gotten long," he said at last.

"You've changed too, you know," I said jokingly, giving his shoulder a pat.

He laughed, "Getting older, you mean," he rubbed the back of his neck like it pained him, "Now, what brings you to Cold Mountain all by yourself?"

I shook my head, eyes wide, "No, Mr. Edgecombe brought me. He saw me in town and asked if I wanted a ride. And no, he didn't recognize me."

"Well, I don't blame him. You really have changed, dear."

"Uncle Hal, I need a job," I told him, sort of guiltily. I wasn't using him to get an easy job. I had no money, lost it all in the city. I wouldn't be able to afford my house without a monthly income.

His whole demeanor changed. His eyebrows lowered, a shade cast over his eyes. Even his voice became a bit deeper, "Why did you come here then? There is no WAY you're gonna work at a prison! I won't allow it!"

I had expected this much, "Hal, we are in a depression. The worst in American history…you know no one is going to hire a young woman before they hire a man. And trust me; there are plenty of able men looking for jobs."

"Well then I guess you won't have a job! Because I'm certainly not going to give you one!"

This caught me off guard. I was hurt by that, "What? You think I can't do it? You think I can't hold my own? I've been holding my own in New Orleans! Half the guys on the streets are more dangerous than the people in this prison! You don't know what I've gone through!"

"And you don't know what Melinda and I have been going through!" he shot back, "The x-ray! The treatments coming up! Having to keep it a secret from her that she's going to die!"

This made my stomach drop out from under me. I knew the tumor couldn't be removed, but here was the first time I heard it said out loud. That Aunt Melinda's time was limited. Hal's eyes were about to spill over. Mine were too.

"Uncle Hal?" I asked cautiously. A small sob escaped him this time. I swept him in another hug. He kept himself together better than I had. No tears dripped to my shoulder, but he stayed in my hug, his face in my hair. He was composing himself before he emerged, eyes dry and face indifferent.

"I don't want you working here. I can't let anyone hurt a woman, let alone one I know and hired myself," he sounded so resigned, but he wanted me to prove him wrong.

"I can work office duty. I don't need to be in direct contact with the inmates," I suggested hopefully.

He shook his head, "There is only one place we need anyone, and that's because most other people don't want it. It's on E Block."

I nodded knowingly, "Death row. I can do that. I'll be with Paul Edgecombe, you trust him don't you?"

He looked at me sadly. There was so much on his mind, sometimes he wants to just give in, "Fine. Fine. You can start there tomorrow."