by Teretha G. Houston
It had taken Thomas Leggett years to accomplish a perfect life—a beautiful wife, three adorable children, a wonderful career—but it took only one word to destroy it all. One small word. Two meager syllables. Six lousy little letters. His life was over.
Had his life not gone wrong, at that very moment, he would have been twirling his wife Denise around the dance floor at some upscale New Year’s Eve party. Instead, he was alone, just another broken man tossed into society’s garbage heap, still wondering what had gone wrong in his perfect life to put him there.
The word that had landed him in The Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, seventy miles northwest of New York City. Metal fences with looping razor wire at the top awaited any man daring or desperate enough to try to escape.
Leggett was one of the prison’s inmates who had been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives wishing they could be a part of the world on the other side of the fence. Instead of dancing away the old year in a grand ballroom arrayed in formal attire, as he and Denise had done the year before, he was spending it in a cramped seven-by-nine-foot cell wearing a casual blue shirt and tacky blue jeans. His six-foot three-inch, muscular frame lay catty-cornered on top of the covers of his tiny cot in his lonely, musty cell. The back of his head rested on a thin, lumpy pillow. His long legs hung over the edge of the cot, allowing his feet to rest on the floor.
Prison officials called it a room. No matter what they called it, it was still a cell to him. The cell was dark except for the dim light shining through the little square opening in the steel cell door and the trickle of moonlight shining through his window between the bars. The dim lights just on the other side of his cell door burned around the clock. Leggett kept his cell as clean as possible. Still, he detected the ever-present scent of something that smelled like mildewed gym socks, marinated in urine.
He twirled a piece of a jigsaw puzzle around in his right hand. His hand was on autopilot while his mind was focused on something more critical. How did I end up here? he kept asking himself. How did I end up sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for committing an unthinkable crime? A crime I would never commit, even if my life depended on it.
Six thousand miles away in a different time zone, the twinkling jewels of the night sparkled high in the crystalline sky above the South Atlantic Ocean. The pale-yellow moon danced off the ocean’s dark, sedated surface between Brazil and Angola. The sky had no end, and the ocean had no beginning. They both became one in the black, seamless, endless night.
Far below the ocean’s peaceful surface, in stark contrast to the tranquility above, a raging catastrophe was nearing the boiling point.
A long dark submarine stole quietly through the silent, pitch-black depths of the frigid water. Twenty-four nuclear missile tube doors lined the top of the sub. Beneath these tube doors, in the belly of this lone submarine, lay twenty-four missiles—together carrying enough nuclear warheads to destroy the entire world. They lay dormant, waiting for the tube doors to open. They were all closed, for now.
A Chinese crest was painted on both the starboard and the port side in blazing red and gold paint. A large gold five-point star with four small gold five-point stars arranged in a vertical arc to the right of the large star all rested on a blood-red background.
The same crest was waving on a flag half a world away. A busy breeze fanned the flag above one of China’s submarine bases at the shores of the East China Sea.
Another submarine with Chinese insignia glided across the surface of the waters off the coast. It was the identical twin to the sub in the South Atlantic Ocean. At 0359 Zulu time that Tuesday morning, it slowly disappeared beneath the surface of the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, in the South Atlantic Ocean, the submarine’s propeller rotated slowly then gradually came to a stop. The submarine hovered silently in the still, gloomy water. Most of the world was celebrating New Year’s Eve. But here, where the New Year was already two hours and fifty-nine minutes old, it was as quiet as a graveyard.