Two cars wait beneath the bright lights and barbed wire of Lowell Correctional Institution.
In a black Ford 500, Mary Harris watches the clock creep closer to 1 a.m.
"It's like giving birth all over again," Mary says. "I'm like, 'When's the baby coming?' "
Mary has waited years for the moment when her oldest daughter would walk free. Nichole, 38, was sentenced to five years for possession and trafficking of drugs and car theft. She still blames it on her former husband, who is also the not-around father of the girl Nichole gave birth to just weeks before she went away.
Responsibility for caring for this child fell to another family member, as often happens when women are incarcerated. In this case it was Mary, 60, who already had custody of Nichole's older son.
"I figure when Nichole gets home, I'll be able to take care of myself," Mary says, hope evident in her voice.
Each day, an average of 10 women are released from prison in Florida, and many of them, like Nichole, return to children with whom they have had only limited contact. They are awkward, sometimes tense reunions. This is one of them.
Nichole's first taste of freedom is the Pilot Travel Center 4 miles from the prison in Ocala.
Overwhelmed by the choices, she settles on something familiar — S'mores Pop-Tarts and Mountain Dew. She pays with a $20 bill. It's the first time she has touched money in years.
As the two huddle in the 38-degree weather wearing matching oversized red sweat shirts and smoking cigarettes, Mary explains the setup at home. There are two bedrooms: one for Mary and her husband, and one for Nichole's two children — Kyle, 14, and Nevaeh, 5. A cork partition splits it in two. Nichole will share Nevaeh's bed.
"She doesn't take up much room," Mary says. "Oh, wait till you see the room. Do you like small spaces?"
"Listen, I lived out of a metal box for three-and-a-half years," Nichole replies. "A metal box."
"Well, this is one grade up."
In the car, Mary tries to engage Nichole with talk about home and the kids and the neighborhood. Nichole replies with stories of prison and the other inmates. She cried when she left, she said. They were like family.
Over and over, Mary's talk of the kids is met with silence, one-word answers or prison stories.
"Kyle was going to wait up all night," Mary tells her.
"Some people in there don't learn," Nichole replies. "They come right back."
Mary tries again.
"I hope you learned a lot of hair things in there so you can do your daughter's hair," Mary says.
"I'd be at work right now," Nichole says.
Later: "You have to be strong with those kids," Mary says. "And have patience with your daughter."
"It's going to feel weird not taking a shower with 80 women," Nichole says.
"You know," Mary says, after a bout of silence, "you took away the golden years of my life."
Nichole doesn't answer.
It's after 3 a.m. when they walk into the house. Nichole says she feels lost. She doesn't know what she's doing, she says. The house looks different, she says.
Nevaeh sleeps soundly in Mary's bed, where she often dozes off. Nichole peeks in on Kyle before going out to smoke another cigarette.
She says she's nervous about her time with Nevaeh, partially because their contact consisted almost entirely of video conversations and a handful of prison visits. But also because she wonders how the drugs she was on during her pregnancy have affected Nevaeh.
"That baby's messed up because of that," Nichole says as she smokes on the front porch. "I know she is."
"Mama's home, Mama's home!" Nevaeh yells when she wakes to see Nichole wrapped in the pink and purple comforter of her bed.
Nichole doesn't move, appearing to still be asleep — a 5-foot-8-inch woman in a child's Hello Kitty twin bed.
After several attempts to wake her, Nevaeh retreats to the living room with her coloring books. Later, Nichole admits she was only pretending to sleep.
Mid morning, Nichole clutches a cup of coffee.
"Do you want to play?" Nevaeh asks her mom repeatedly.
"No," Nichole says, going outside with Mary to smoke.
Nevaeh buzzes around anxiously. Mary chides her repeatedly, reminding her to say "excuse me" or to put on warmer clothes.
"Go get your hair brush and hair tie," Mary tells Nevaeh.
After Nevaeh runs inside, Mary takes a drag of her cigarette and turns to Nichole.
"Take over anytime," she says. "I'm just shooting orders because I'm used to it. How long do you need? A half hour? An hour?"
"I just got out," Nichole says. "I'm trying."
"Fine," Nichole says, after Nevaeh asks to play for the dozenth time.
Nevaeh pulls her into the playhouse. She plays in the kitchen and gives her mom a broom to sweep away the sand. Nichole doesn't mind. Chores and cleaning filled her days at Lowell.
"I'm going to go to the store," Kyle says, just minutes after the two started playing.
"Maybe I'll come with," Nichole says.
"Can I come?" Nevaeh asks.
"No, you stay here with Nana," Nichole tells her.
Nevaeh is hurt, but Nichole is more comfortable with Kyle. He was 9 when she went to jail. She knows his personality.
But because of prior charges, Nichole lost custody of Kyle years ago. Even if she manages to move out on her own, Kyle would stay with Mary. Nevaeh would move in with Nichole.
In the afternoon, after much debate over what movie to watch — Nevaeh wanted to watch Barbie, but Nichole refused to watch a kids' movie — the family squeezes onto the couch to watch Grown Ups.
Nevaeh rolls on the ground during the opening credits.
"Can't you sit through anything?" Nichole asks.
"No," she says with a smile.
"At least you're honest."
Nevaeh gets up and slides along the wall, already bored.
"Nevaeh, we're watching a movie," Nichole says, eyes not leaving the screen. "Either watch with us or play in your room."
Nevaeh retreats to her room, where she remains almost the entirety of the movie, playing with Strawberry Shortcake and watching Dora the Explorer on her small bedroom television.
Late afternoon and the movie's over. Nevaeh plays with a friend next door. Nichole is drained.
She rests on the couch, trying to get some energy. She was awake for 24 hours before her mom picked her up, and she barely slept last night.
"I'm exhausted," Nichole says. "That child will drive me crazy."
Nichole worries what their relationship will be like. And she worries about getting a job. And taking care of her family. She worries a lot.
"I need to get on some kind of caffeine kick," she says. "I'll be fine once I get out of this."
Right now, her routine is all backward. She worked in the kitchen in prison, waking up at 2 a.m. and coming back and sleeping by noon.
"I know that I seem like I don't care, like I'm a blob," Nichole says. "I'm not. I'm confused. I'm lost."
All was well as she ate dinner. And as she was playing with Kyle. And as she brushed her teeth.
But then it was time to choose where to sleep: with her Nana, who had raised her, or the mom she doesn't remember living in the same home with.
"She wants it like it's always been," Mary tells Nichole, who is sitting on Nevaeh's bed. "Is that okay? For tonight?"
"It's okay," Nichole replies, her voice even-toned.
Nevaeh stands frozen, torn.
"I know it's a big decision," Mary says.
Without saying anything, Nevaeh walks into Mary's room.
"She doesn't want to hurt your feelings," Mary says, her voice softer.
"It's okay, but she better clean up these toys," Nichole says.
Nevaeh comes back and starts putting away her cooking set.
"You don't need to cry to get what you want," Nichole says. "You just say to me what you want."
Nevaeh nods and starts to leave the room.
"Do I get a kiss tonight?" Nichole asks.
Nevaeh gives her a quick kiss and returns to Mary's room for their nightly ritual. Curled in a blanket, Nevaeh asks questions as Mary rubs her stomach and head.
One room over, Nichole sits alone on her daughter's bed, eyes fixed straight ahead.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.