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- The stories, even if they are in first person, are not necessarily my experiences, so keep that in mind when you vote.
- And now…
I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Now I’m probably going to die.
“They’re almost ready for you,” Mandy says.
She’s the D.A.’s assistant. Her attempt at an encouraging smile doesn’t fool me one bit. The truth is in her eyes. They’re bland eyes, really; like they’ve never seen anything more exciting than water boiling on the stove. And in their calm, bored way, they show she thinks I’m good as dead too.
I want to say something, but all I manage is a nod and a lift lip just as phony as hers. She goes back into the courtroom, and I twist and re-twist my fingers so hard they hurt.
I ought to get up and leave; just go straight out the door, backtrack the bus route I took to get here, stuff a bag with clothes and my most important belongings—college degree, songbook, Bible, and my Matchbox Twenty CD collection—and hightail it out of the city. I would do it too, if I didn’t feel like something else was clamping me to this plastic chair, something besides the escort assigned to usher me from the reception area to the witness stand.
I didn’t think to bring a sweater. So even though it’s pushing a hundred outside, I’m starting to tremble underneath my sleeveless blouse. My toes are freezing too. Kim, my best friend since second grade, shows her head of curls just as I’m about to give in to an onslaught of teeth chattering. Praise God she thought to bring coffee.
“You look awful,” she says. She drops her work satchel and pulls her chair close to mine. Her makeup is as fresh as if she’d just applied it, and her perfume punches away the smell of hot mochas.
I grab the cup she offers and hug it to my chest before taking a sip. “I feel worse,” I say. “I’m just ready for this to be over.”
“Having second thoughts again?”
“Uh-huh.” I look away, and for a moment I’m irritated. Her faith is stronger than mine, and even though I know it’s all in my head, I sometimes feel like she mounts a spiritual high horse when I’m in the trenches.
I’m not in the mood for any more verses or prayers or pep-talks about doing the right thing. She seems to notice, because she sits there quietly. For some reason, after several minutes, this annoys me too.
Mandy returns with my escort. “You ready?”
I’m still cold. I take a swallow of the hot coffee to warm my insides, and it scalds my tongue. I give it back to Kim and she squeezes my arm.
“Be brave,” she says, “God will help you, and I’m right behind you.”
I can only nod. My head aches. I realize my hair is tied too tight. Now that I notice it, my scalp where the pin holds my bun is screaming for relief. I guess it’s a good thing, because the distraction helps me walk the length of the courtroom without thinking too hard about the fear of seeing him.
Our eyes meet for a second as I slink past, and in that moment I see the same threat an anonymous caller gave two nights ago. Talk and I’m dead.
So much for holding it together. I’m shaking so hard I can barely suck a straight breath, and my knees don’t feel stable anymore. All of a sudden I feel like crying.
The swear-in comes and goes, and the district attorney seems to magically appear right in front of me. He could use a haircut and a new suit. His empathy seems real, but not so much that it slows his agenda. He dives right into questioning me.
“Rene, tell us how you know the defendant.”
“He’s my neighbor,” I say.
“Can you be more specific as to the proximity and the type of building?”
“We live in a triplex. That’s, um, like a duplex but with another place on top. Javi lives on top. I live on the bottom right.”
“And who lives on the bottom left?” He asks the questions as casually as if we’re talking over lunch. So far they’re easy, and I’m starting to calm a little.
“Right now it’s empty,” I say.
“And how long have you and the defendant, Javi, been neighbors?”
“He’s been there since I moved in, so about two years.”
The way he says it and pauses reminds me of court cases I’ve seen on TV. It also gives me time to take in the twenty-something faces peppered about the small room.
“Two years is a long time,” he says. “Do you know Javi beyond just being neighbors?”
The question makes me look at Javi against my will, and my mouth goes dry. Even now, sitting there on trial for murder and with the threat of my life in his green eyes, he’s one of the most attractive men I’ve ever seen.
He’s Cuban, but I know that only because he told me the origin of his accent. Anyone else would think he’s just light-skinned like me. We’ve only talked in passing, and despite his notorious drug reputation he’s always been nice to me, but that doesn’t qualify as knowing each other. I manage to pull out of his stare and answer the question.
“Let’s talk about the night of August 27th. Tell the court what you told the reporting officer.”
I look down at my hands and clear my throat.
“It was about six or so. I’d just come home from work and was going in when Javi and three others passed me on their way to his place.”
“Can you tell the court if this young man, Marcus, was one of the others?”
He holds a picture up to the jury then places it in front of me, and the tears I wanted to cry earlier wet my eyes again. The boy in the picture wears a baseball uniform and looks happy, like a seventeen-year-old should look. My mind erases the printed image and brings up the frightened kid I saw on his last day of life. I want to throw up.
“Yes,” I say. “He was.”
“What happened after you saw them?”
“They went their way and I went mine.”
“About an hour or so later I was fixing something to eat and they turned on music upstairs.”
“Did you hear anything else?”
“Some banging around…and talking…like somebody was angry. I couldn’t tell what they were saying though, the music was too loud.”
“Everything but the music stopped.” My hands develop a cold sweat as I rub the chipped paint from my nails. The D.A. walks back to his table and leans against it. I wish he’d stayed in front of me. Now I feel exposed.
“When did the music finally stop?” he asks.
“Maybe ten, fifteen minutes later.”
He’s silent, like he wants me to keep going. When I don’t, he waits for me to look at him, then speaks to me in a soft voice. “Tell us what happened next, Rene.”
I’m accustomed to hiding behind humor, and I want to say something light—like it’s just like me to start cooking something without making sure I have all the ingredients—before I explain what happened when I walked out on my way to the grocery store. But humor would be inappropriate. Because some of the people are crying so soft it sounds like kittens mewing.
And I’m afraid.
If I tell everything I saw and heard from the shadow of my doorway–memories to both haunt me and put Javi away for the rest of his life—I could be killed. And I don’t want to die.
It’s not too late to quit, since nothing I’ve said so far is enough for a conviction. And I’m convincing myself I’m not strong enough to do this when a verse pops in my head.
I, even I, am He who comforts you.
I look up expecting to see somebody speaking the words, and I find Kim sitting by herself near the back. Seeing her face reminds me that she was the one who quoted the verse to me last night.
Who are you, that you should be afraid of a man…and you forget the Lord your Maker?
The words come back so clearly they stun me, and Kim nods as if she knows I’m hearing them. She smiles, and I decide I will tell her later that her purple lipstick is not flattering.
“Rene?” The district attorney needs an answer.
I’m still scared out of my mind, but something else bothers me more than this. I have forgotten my Maker, haven’t I?
I let the verse play around in my head a few more times. When it settles deep enough to stop my heart from pounding, I look away from Kim, past the district attorney, and rest my gaze on Javi.
Then, I testify.