TW: violence, substance abuse
“On your feet Emerson.”
I stand with hands above my head, legs spread-eagle. The door swings open, clanking into the wall.
The guard’s belt is slung with weapons— gun, taser. I shift my eyes away from the gun, away from his stare. I fix them on a point beyond his shoulder. He pats me down, cuffs my hands.
The walk to the courtroom is endless. The overhead lights reflect in the shining laminate floors, the hallways echo with the click of heels. My mouth is dry, hands sweaty, heart racing. The tang of adrenaline coats the back of my throat.
Prison hadn’t been the plan. Neither had the gun. Or the drugs. I’d attended enough Red Ribbon weeks to have “just say no to drugs” pounded into my head. I’d been good, too. A good student, a good athlete, a good daughter.
I played soccer in the fall and ran track in the spring. Worked as a lifeguard at the community pool in the summer months, saving up money for college. I had a sister I got along with and two happy parents.
Opening statements begin, my merits laid out to the jury . The picture they paint of me; young and naive, lured in with flattery. They call Troy abusive, manipulative. They detail his crimes, name his victims.
But I know— and they know— I’m guilty.
I met him at the pool. Brown hair, blue eyes, tall. He’d graduated high school with Cici, the girl on the stand to my left. It started with saving a life.
I’d been watching the kid for a while, something about the way he bobbed up and down had drawn my eye— and then it happened. He tired, went under. A sharp whistle pealed as I dove for him, life preserver in tow. I caught hold of the boy, flipped to my back. Troy leaned down to help us out of the pool. The kid’s mom was panicked, sunhat askew, giant glasses falling to the tip of her nose. She had on a yellow polka-dot swim cover and a pair of four-inch wedges. I backed away to let her scoop up her son. She cornered me at the end of my shift, thrust a $100 bill in my face.
“Please, take this. If something had happened to Charlie…” her face melted, a splotchy rash spreading over her neck.
It’s not necessary, it’s my job, I’m a lifeguard— I tried everything. Then she saw Troy.
“Here, you take it,” and she passed the bill into his palm.
“It makes her feel better,” he shrugged, lip pulling up in an uneven smile. My eyes were drawn to the freckle at the corner of his mouth.
“What should we spend it on?” He shouldered his bag.
“Spend what on?” Cici threw an arm around Troy’s shoulder, strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a high pony.
“You keep it,” I turned to go, hands searching for my car keys in the endless pit of my purse.
“It’s Kalee, right?” Cici moved in front of me, smile genuine. I smiled back.
“Yeah, hi. You’re Cici?”
“And this is Troy,” Cici tugged him along as we started toward the parking lot.
“Hey, I never thanked you for helping me with that kid.”
“What, saving a life? I guess so.”
He tucked the money in his back pocket.
“Come hang with us.” Cici’s face was bright, her step bouncy. My plans for the rest of the day— a Gilmore Girls marathon with Angela and a bowl of rocky road. I glanced at Troy.
“I’ll order pizza. You need a ride?”
I shook my head, “just give me the address.”
It’s another bologna sandwich for dinner. My teeth leave imprints in the rubbery cheese, Potato chip crumbs stick to the thick wool of my blanket. At home Mom, Dad and Angela are probably eating leftovers in front of the TV. Dad will eat an entire pint of ice cream, despite being lactose intolerant, and moan for the rest of the night. Angela will fall asleep on the couch and Mom will tuck a quilt around her. I will lay on my hard mattress with my scratchy blanket and stare at the white ceiling until the door creaks open at 4:30 am. And I will sit in court and listen, and try not to listen and wonder how I got to this place. How I let it go so far. How I never said “no.” How I never said anything at all.
“Nah Kalee’s good for it,” Troy pulled me into his side, “Tell him you’re good for it.”
“Yeah, I’m good for it.”
“She’s one of the honest types. Strait A’s and shit.” Troy gripped me so tight, it was painful. He didn’t like dealing with Marcus, didn’t trust him.
“I get paid tomorrow.” I tried to keep the tremor out of my voice. Troy’s grip relaxed infinitesimally. A nod and I realized what I’d done. Put myself up as collateral. For blow. For Troy’s blow.
“How do you get me into these situations?” I asked him when we were alone. Mom thought I was with Cici, which wasn’t a lie. Cici was here too.
Troy’s lips were warm, his hands steady, his eyes soft. He had an edge to his voice when he talked business, but with me his words were honey and I was stuck.
“You don’t mind helping with Marcus, do you?” He smoothed back my hair, kissed the spot beneath my ear.
“I don’t mind,” my heart beat out staccato.
“I just need you to front me the money. I’ll pay it back,” his nose grazed my neck, words muffled in my skin.
“I know,” my eyelids fluttered closed.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
The courtroom is hot. Sweat drips down the back of my jumpsuit, pools in the pits of my knees. Most of what they say, I know. Troy's been in jail for dealing in the past. There’d been a domestic violence complaint when he’d lived with his dad. And a restraining order from his dad’s girlfriend.
They pull up a picture of Cici and I flinch. She’s so beautiful here: freckles on her cheeks, eyes clear and focused. This is the girl I met, the one who sang along to the radio at the top of her lungs. Who ordered mayonnaise with her fries and wanted to study journalism at some big school on the other side of the country. She was nothing like the girl that had been there that night. Her hair dull and greasy, skin sallow, purple bags beneath her eyes.
You know what I should have said to her? Other than the obvious “you’re ruining your life”? I should have said, “Cici you are a fabulous human being. You know what you’re good at? Singing. No, really. I know I tease you about it but your voice is amazing. And I think you’ll do great in journalism. I think you’ll do great in anything you set your mind to. You’re just one of those people. One of those bright, shining people that everyone can’t help but love. I know I love you.”
I can go back to my cell and write it down. I can write until my hands bleed or shout until my voice gives out. But she’ll never read it. Never hear it.
“The gun’s not loaded.”
“I’m not pulling a gun on Cici.”
“This isn’t for Cici, it’s for Marcus.”
“But if it isn’t loaded why—“
“It’s your money!”
My money. It wasn’t my money. It was Mom’s money. Thousands and thousands of dollars of it. And it wasn’t the money she'd took.
“Let's just go,” he tucked the gun into the pocket of my sweatshirt.
Marcus lived in one of the big apartment complexes where the building is shaped like a U and the sliding back doors open up to a shared space. This space was mostly dirt and mostly kids running around and people cutting hair on their patios and women cooking dinner over outside stoves. It was noisy and smelled like fried onions. That night it was silent and empty.
Troy banged on the door. Marcus unhooked the chain.
“Cici, it’s your boy,” he left it open, walked into the kitchen. A lamp spilled a puddle of yellow light over the matted carpet. The front room had a sofa pushed back against the wall and a cluttered coffee table. Piles of paper plates and empty pizza boxes, napkins and grocery bags. Troy took a step and almost tripped over a mangy orange-striped cat. It hissed, darted for the hallway.
“I think that’s Tigerlily,” I whispered in Troy’s ear. This place was dark. Dark and desperate.
“Cici’s cat. Tigerlily.”
“Right.” Troy followed the cat around the corner. I didn’t want to step past the threshold. I could feel it, the bad thing that was about to happen. The gun unnaturally heavy in my sweatshirt. Marcus leaned against the doorjamb in the kitchen, lit up a cigarette. I caught up with Troy.
“You used me,” Cici was inches from Troy’s face, her finger pressed into his chest. She’d gotten so skinny in the past few months, it was like she was playing dress up in her own clothes.
I looked around. Empty bottles, baggies of powder, a handful of blue pills, cigarette stubs. Had it escalated so quickly? Or had it been happening all along? Why hadn’t I asked her, begged her, to stop?
Troy was ripping up the room. Sliding the mattress from its frame, pulling out drawers, dumping out every purse and backpack and pocket. Cici jumped on his back, wild as an animal. The noise of it all was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I stepped back, bumped into the wall as Marcus walked through the doorway.
“I told you to get rid of this one,” he gestured toward Troy with a gun. Troy wasn’t looking at him, didn’t see the gun. He was in the closet, grabbing wads of Cici’s clothes, tossing them onto the off-kilter mattress. Cici was gouging Troy’s face with her nails. Marcus shot a hole in the ceiling. Plaster rained down in the center of the room. A chunk struck me in the cheek. I froze.
The trial’s dragging on. I start to hope for a sentence, any sentence, if it releases me from this limbo. I stare at the same crack in the floor day after day. Listen to my life laid out, dissected. My high school cross-country coach is brought in. My supervisor from the pool. My mother. I sit and I listen and try not to think of Troy at his own trial. Of Cici in her grave. I couldn’t attend the funeral. Not when I was locked away eating bologna sandwiches.
I’ll tell you how it ends. It ends with death It ends with me, complicit. I haven’t said a word during the trial. Why would I? I could have saved Marcus. Could have saved Cici. Maybe even Troy. I could have saved myself.
But I never said a word. Not a damn word. It changes nothing to speak up now.
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