SPRING HILL — Susan Hagen-Rizzo left her home in the half-lit dawn to pick up her son on his last day in prison.
"It was an accident," she said, driving her old blue Chevy Lumina east on State Road 50, headed toward Kissimmee.
Said his brother in the back: "He made a mistake."
On a dry, sunny afternoon in December 2004, on a stretch of U.S. 19 busy with Hernando County Christmas shoppers, Aaron, in a yellow Dodge Neon, raced a blue Honda Civic and jerked out of control and skidded across three lanes and hit a construction worker so hard Bayflite was called off.
That day, Aaron sat distraught on the curb and cried when the state trooper took him to jail. For months, he couldn't sleep and was physically sick. When he was sentenced to five years in prison, he looked at the judge and said, "I wish I could take back what happened, but I can't."
He went into prison shy and soft, in both demeanor and physique, quietly petrified it was no place for most folks and certainly not for someone like him.
• • •
Now his mom pulled into the parking lot.
The Kissimmee Work Release Center doesn't look like a prison. No sharp coils of wire on the tops of high walls, just a single-story motel down from a Caribbean grocery and a psychic who speaks Spanish, six inmates to a room.
The front door opened.
Aaron was dressed in an orange shirt and blue jeans and worn white sneakers. He carried out two trash bags stuffed with clothes and shower sandals and magazines read and reread. Folded up in his pocket were his release papers labeled Notice of Restoration of Civil Rights.
He hugged his mother. He hugged his brother. He hugged his sister and his 6-year-old nephew and his 4-year-old niece.
"Let's get out of here," his mother said.
Aaron got into the front passenger seat. Susan pulled out of the parking lot.
"Careful, Ma," he said. "That car's coming up pretty fast."
• • •
He was in Perry, and then he was in Cocoa, and then he was here near Disney. The first two places were work camps. He got driven around in a windowless van and swung a sling blade by the side of the road. For the last year, he worked on work release as a dishwasher and prep chef at a Macaroni Grill. He rode a bicycle 8 miles each way.
He developed a bald spot. He turned 30 last year. His stepdad died.
Prison, he said in the car, is 15-minute phone calls and mattresses as slim as a gym mat. Prison, he said, is like being babysat by men who hold guns. Prison, he said, is boring.
But what prison is not, he went on, is rehabilitation, or therapy, or counseling. There's no talking with a professional about how you feel, or how you're supposed to feel, or how you hope to feel, about how in an out-of-character moment you did something that ended in the death of a stranger who was doing his job.
He had to work through that on his own.
"The first thing that I need to do," he wrote in a letter to the sister of the construction worker he killed, "is let everyone know how truly sorry I am that I have put you through this. Words cannot describe the sorrow I feel in my heart for those that I have hurt.
"I only ask of you and God," he continued, "that one day, whether it be tomorrow, a month from now, maybe even a year or more, that you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
She wrote back to say she forgives him.
She says now, still, that she knows it wasn't malicious. She says she hopes Aaron is doing well. She says she means that. She says she doesn't want to hear from him again.
• • •
They stopped at the Macaroni Grill to pick up his final paycheck.
He was a dishwasher before he was a prep chef, and once he pressure-washed the roof, and he also planted the plants by the entrance.
The Department of Corrections takes back most of the money made through work release, but he saved what he earned to buy his niece and nephew a Wii this past Christmas, and he used some of it to help his mother pay the electric bills.
His co-workers brought him fudge and made him cake on his last shift as a work-release restaurant man. When he walked in, the kitchen crew and waiters all wanted to say bye and shake his hand and give him hugs.
"Hey, man! I wish you the best of luck!"
"Man it's been a pleasure."
"We're not going to be able to replace you," said his boss in the office near the rear of the kitchen. "Irreplaceable. I'm not overstating."
In the car, on the road back to Hernando, he said that a few things surprised him about prison:
That the guys watch soap operas.
That the guys aren't all bad guys. That most of them are "really decent people."
And that he did as well as he did.
"Prison's made me more outgoing," he said. "It's easier for me now to talk to different people. People I wouldn't normally have talked to."
• • •
Past the tourist-trap knickknack shops shaped like wizards, mermaids and fruit, past Born Again Auto in Groveland and the sign for the Lions Club shotgun shoot, past the wild flowers in Ridge Manor and the wild turkeys south of Brooksville: home.
He wants to go kayaking with his niece and nephew, and to amusement parks, and to museums, and he wants to fix up the yard behind his mother's house. He needs to get a job, hopefully soon, maybe working with animals, or maybe computers. He's thinking about going back to school.
First, though, his first afternoon free again and back with his family:
He put his pet parrot, Fiji, on his left shoulder, and the bird cooed her approval. He started sweeping up around the cats' litter box, and then went into the back yard. Most of the plants were dead from the winter, unexpected and long, but now done.
He walked around the garden, picking at the brittle brown roots and stalks, gauging the damage.
What's gone for good.
What can be gotten back.
Where to start that process.
News researchers Caryn Baird and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.