In the back of the closet was a built-in shelf. It was designed to hold shoes or linens or perhaps folded clothing. Over the years those items were slowly pushed from their spaces in favor of photos. Big bound albums and shoe boxes stuffed full of pictures filled every shelf. It took two weeks for him to slowly sort them and put them in order. There was a labeled box for every aspect of life, birthdays, weddings, camping trips, school plays, life, but only one picture really captured her essence, and it was the one he always carried. It was taken on a trip to the coast of Washington. The beach was abandoned except for the three of them, and even though it rained most of the time, it was a great getaway. They pitched a tent and built a fire ring and camped. The ocean had washed over gray granite for eons in that section of beach. Grinding sand had polished the rock smooth like a slab of marble, and in a few spots tidal pools had formed. The three of them walked down the beach that gray soggy morning, the wind blew her cinnamon hair loose from the rain slicker hood and it was wild all around her face. They tried to push it back in, but she giggled and fought their efforts and after a while they were laughing too. She ran out in front of them, her matching pink raincoat and boots flashing, a red plastic shovel in one hand and a bucket in the other. After a while something caught her attention. She stopped at a pool and squatted down until they caught up.
“What is that daddy?’ She pointed the shovel at a large white clam shell just under the surface. He squatted down next to her and looked at it.
“That’s a clam shell honey, do you want to touch it?”
“Is it okay for her to touch?” His wife said.
“Yeah, it’s been washed clean in the surf.” He reached down and pinched it between his thumb and index finger and showed it to her.
“Is it dead daddy?”
“Yes it’s dead, probably for a long time now.”
“Can I hold it?” He took her hand, pink from the cold, and turned it palm up and placed the shell into it.
“Whoa, it’s big.” She said, he turned to his wife. “Get a picture of her holding it.” He stood up and got out of the shot. His wife pointed and clicked. The picture captured her brown eyes glistening with excitement, her cheeks red from the cold, the wild hair and her two missing top teeth. That was the picture, that was the one. Seven months later she was gone.
The first year was the worst. Each day felt interminably long and every second of every minute was an unending maze of questions, each one like a fishhook tearing away bits of flesh. The worst were the what ifs. What if he’d been there early, what if they’d spent more time coaching her on situations, trust…the nature of people. What if they’d seen it coming, or at least prepared for the possibility that it could come, what if.
Fourteen months after Gillian’s disappearance he came home from work on a cold, windy Friday afternoon. There was a piece of yellow legal pad paper folded on the table, it was marked, Robert. He knew what it was going to say before he picked it up, but was stunned by the simplicity. “I’ve gone…I had to.” She’d signed it, “Marla.” He sat in the kitchen, the light of the short winter day disappearing rapidly.He looked out the window across the snowy yard at the big maple tree. A tire swing still hung there because he couldn’t bring himself to take it down. He sat there and stared out the window until it was too dark to see beyond the pane. Occasionally the headlights of a car crossed the room and he could hear the slosh of sloppy snow as it was impacted by tires. Down the hall in the living room the slow tick of a clock. He sat and he thought and he listened and he wondered. How long would it go on, the pain, the loss of everything he had ever cared about gone like a puff of breath on a cold morning.
He found himself waking in early blue light from a sleep he hadn’t felt coming. His teeth clacked together and goose bumps raised on his body in waves. Across the yard he looked at the rope swing and something clicked, like tumblers falling into place. He went to the pantry and grabbed a large white trash bag and started sorting through every item of food in the house, if it wasn’t nutritious it was thrown out.
The first day was disappointing. He walked around the block once and was ashamed at his lack of conditioning. He wasn’t exhausted, but even the quarter mile stroll had taxed him far more than it should have. Every day after that he walked further. Within two weeks he was circling the block four times and was less tired than he had been after walking the single loop that first day. The exercise felt good, invigorating, but the time spent thinking and wondering, and missing, tempered anything positive that came from it. At the start of the third week he added a few push-ups and sit ups. The exercises left him intensely sore initially, but each day he added one or two more. As spring arrived and the weather warmed he worked his way up to a mile and a half walk through the neighborhood, across the footbridge that spanned the freeway, and down to Riverside park. He walked under the canopy of massive oak trees that lined the avenues, their brand new leaves exploding. Once in the park he walked over the manicured grass to the far end of the duck pond in the middle of the big lawn and caught his breath for a moment before starting a ritual of stretches he’d found online. He spent 30 minutes stretching until he could feel his tendons and muscles ready to tear. When he first began he wasn’t able to touch his toes. With hours of practice and the loss of his belly he was soon easily touching his toes, and then his palm flat on the ground, and finally his nose to his knees.
Through every mile he walked, every pushup and sit up he did, he thought of her, and he thought of all that had been taken from him. The anger he’d harbored for so long…the hatred, turned into something else, something hard and resolved. Often he found himself talking to her, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud. He could still see her so clearly and it seemed almost impossible that she wouldn’t be waiting at home, her nose pressed against the living room window so she could run out and greet him when he got home from work, Marla smiling behind her. The house was motionless after she’d gone, even before Marla left. The life had gone from it, like a 3rd grade classroom at midnight, silent and still. He abided there because that was the only constant, even though it meant living in a continuous state of nostalgic mourning. Nothing was ever out of place or messy as it had been before Gillian had been taken. He couldn’t remember ever noticing the sound of his own footsteps in the house before, but after she was gone they echoed from every surface in the house. He ate in the kitchen at the little yellow table they had used as extra counter space instead of in the dining room. He sat and ate with the constant tick of the clock the only sound besides his own eating. Every night after dinner he walked until dark. He stopped at intervals and did push-ups, sit-ups or stretching. By mid May he had shed 27 lbs, and he was eighty percent of the way to doing the splits. He had four months until September 12th, and he had to be ready. He wore the same clean clothes and ate the same three meals in the same quantities every single day. There was no time for long decision making processes, same food, same clothing, day after day. Somewhere along the line he developed a mantra of sorts when he wanted to quit or the day felt so dark he didn’t want to get out of bed, “This is for you baby, daddy loves you.” Each time he was tempted to stop he repeated those words.
Work had become a necessary burden. There were constant invitations and requests of his time. Most of the invites were issued more from pity than anything else, that and morbid curiosity. He could almost read the questions they really wanted to ask in their eyes. “Why did Marla leave? Was the loss too much? Why have you lost so much weight? Is it the stress?” Whether the questions were real or imagined didn’t matter, he believed them to be the actual intention of every awkward invitation. They needed to know. He was cordial, “I’m not ready, I’m still mourning.” After a while he was sure they thought he was too troubled to be reached, maybe even suicidal. He was not, he had a plan.
Spring gave way to summer and as time passed he felt stronger and more flexible by the day. Slow walks around the block had turned into three mile runs. What started as a handful of push-ups and sit-ups had become 100 or more twice a day. His flexibility came the slowest, but even that had reached a point where he was only inches from accomplishing the splits. The hardest part was the wait. September 12th seemed decades away, but he tried to make every second count.
The afternoon before Independence day he walked downtown and crossed the courthouse lawn, passing by the white gazebo that doubled as a bandstand. Gillian used to love when local musicians gathered and played from the gazebo. He could still see her laughing and dancing in the grass, her face painted like a cat...she was a lover of life. At Main street he paused and waited for traffic to clear and then jogged across the street to Paris leather works. A bell jangled as he walked in and the rich smell of leather and shoe polish filled his nose. Racks of saddles, leather ropes, and well oiled boots hung down one side of the store, and decorated the shelves behind the counter. Inside the glass display cases were wallets and leather working tools in neat rows. Ralph Paris came out from behind a gray curtain that served as a door. He wore a clear green visor and had an awl in one hand. Robert had known him since he was a boy, and he had always looked exactly the same, old.
“Hey Rob. Good lord have you dropped weight, I barely recognized you.” He looked uncomfortable for a long moment. “What can I do for you?”
Robert understood the pause, he’d become accustomed to people not knowing what to say. Did they address what had happened? Did they mention it? Or, did they pretend like nothing was wrong, as if not mentioning it would make it as if it had never happened?
“I have a little bit of work for you Ralph.” He slipped a piece of paper from the rear pocket of his Levis and unfolded it before sliding it across the counter. The old man bent over and leaned on his elbows, arms crossed on the counter and studied the intricate drawings on the paper for a long time.
“So…” then he paused and rubbed his chin with a thumb and index finger.
“So this is like a wide wrap-around wrist band, almost like one that protects an archer's arm, but wider and all the way around and covers the heel of your hand a bit…am I seeing that right?”
Robert nodded, “Yeah, I want it to protect my wrist from weight lifting straps and I want them to fasten with velcro and leather laces. It has to be strong and it can’t come loose.”
Ralph bent over and turned the paper with a pudgy finger.
“So it’s for support, not so much the way it looks, right?” You say you’re going to use them for protection from lifting straps? How do you use lifting straps? It might give me a better idea as I design them.”
Robert backed up and put his arms at his side with his palms facing Ralph.
“See, I can wrap wrist straps around the barbell at the gym, then wrap them around the wristbands to protect my wrists and to help my grip. I’ve really gotten into fitness.”
“I can see that you’re getting healthy…hmm, why not just use straps around your bare wrists directly to the bar, wouldn’t that be easier? The way I see this it’s gonna be a pain in the ass to first velcro the wristbands on and lace them, then attach something to the bar and then wrap them around these wristbands. I mean, I ain’t trying to talk myself out of business, but that’s a shit ton of rigamarole.”
Robert nodded in agreement, “I’ve broken both of my hands over the years though, so if I can just use my wrists to lift for the most part, it takes stress off of them. I’ve tried classic wrist straps alone and they don’t work. Think you can make these?”
Ralph sighed and raised his eyebrow. “I’ll see what I can come up with. Brass snaps would be better.” Robert shook his head no. “I got my ears pierced as a teenager and I’m allergic to any type of metal that touches my skin now. Velcro and laces will be fine. Is this something you can do?”
Ralph shook his head, “Yeah…yeah I can do it. Be a couple weeks, that work for you?”
Robert told him it would and paid for them. It felt good to have it done.
For the longest time after Gillian disappeared the nightmares made sleep something to dread. Every night was a retelling of that terrible day, but distorted like looking through a melted glass into a horror movie. Soon after Gillian was gone, he and Marla stopped sleeping in the same room, and shortly after that they stopped communicating. Their relationship felt like a dinner party of three people in which one person knew the other two and was the common bond, but the other two didn’t know each other at all. When Gillian disappeared they felt like strangers, the glue was gone.
It was the same nightmare every time, but with distorted aspects, Robert would wake up sobbing and out of breath, and no matter what time it was he got up. A lack of sleep was better than enduring another second of that nightmare. He always went to the kitchen and put a kettle on the stove and then paced the house stopping for a beat at each window and looking into the darkness outside before slowly ambling to the next window and repeating the process. He tried not to think of that day, but inevitably it crept in. The details had blurred into a mass of whirring images like an arthouse film. He watched from outside his body, above from a God-like perspective. The images cut together with only a modicum of order. His car from above, the walk to the front door of the school, excitement, the last day of school, laughter, lockers being emptied. The first question, where is she? Smiling teacher calling out, “Gillian,” chaos of students excited for summer, “GILLIAN…Let me check the restroom…” Upon her return the first stabbing edge of concern in the teacher's eyes lighting a torch of fear in his chest, sudden lack of oxygen. Running across the playground, Gillian…GILLIAN, his own voice and its desperation tearing at his fiber. Realization that she was gone. Fighting to maintain composure as the principal arrived and fought off his own panic, but his fear was palpable. The scene played longer and in minute detail than the nightmare, and he wondered if it would have been better.
He stood at the workbench in the garage with a bare fluorescent light buzzing overhead. There were a dozen different types of plastic line in front of him, all strong and thick and 24 inches in length. He tried knots first, bending the ends around and tying a loop into each end of the plastic, then he stood on the middle of the line and slipped his hands into the loops until they were around his wrists. Then he pulled upward with great force, but each time the knots slipped and cut into his wrists and he had to let up. He thought about crimping the line together, but it would take a metal crimp to be strong enough. After much experimentation he used a wood burning kit to melt and fuse the loose end of the line back into itself creating a handle on each end. He tested his work and it held tight. After accounting for what was lost in length on each end of the line he was left with a 15 inch section of line with a strong, fused, loop handle on each end. He pinched the loops out flat until they were narrow. Perfect.
Occasionally he gathered his camping gear, and drove the 4 hours out to the coast. He always camped in the same spot they had all those years before. The fire ring was still there, and the beach was almost always empty. He would make a roaring fire and listen to the sound of the waves rolling in and out rhythmically and smell the salt and seaweed in the air. He wished with everything in his being he could transport back to that day, the day of the photo. If he could do that, and somehow have knowledge of future events, he’d snatch Gillian up and hold her fiercely and he’d sob and repeat how much he loved her and she’d have no idea where the emotion came from…and neither would Marla. Certainly they’d be confused and wouldn’t understand the sudden emotion, and he wouldn’t care. He’d be holding her, his universe, his everything, his reason for being. Sometimes as he played that fantasy out he would stare out at the beach in the blue moonlight and he would imagine he could see her little footsteps in the sand. What if he could follow those footsteps until that last day, like a bloodhound. Maybe he could have caught up with her just in time to change everything.
Marcel’s was a high end clothing store, it was the type of place that loomed high above the general public’s price range. It was where upper echelon gentlemen and ladies of a different stratosphere shopped for tailored clothing and detailed personal attention. When Robert walked in he was given a look that was just short of asking, are you sure this is where you belong? A hint of sandalwood tinged the air and the store was quiet except for the sound of trousers swishing as staff hustled around. A young man asked Robert if there was anything he could help him with. He seemed surprised when Robert told him that he was interested in a tailored suit, almost as if he was expecting him to say he was there to repair a broken light fixture.
The young man led him to an overstuffed leather chair and told him it would be a few moments. He sat and watched the hushed staff measure and pin and adjust lapels with tape measures over their necks and pins held between tight lips. The most exclusive store he’d ever purchased clothing from was JC Penny’s, so it was fascinating to see how some people chose their clothing. After a few minutes the greeter took him back and left him with an older gentleman dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled.
“How can I assist you today?” he said. Robert took out his phone and showed the man some pictures of a plain gray 3 piece suit he’d saved from Marcel’s website.
“I want this suit, but I’d like all 3 pieces lined with thin wool. I’d also like a white dress shirt with a higher neck, one that comes right to the bottom of my chin.”
The man continued to stare at the photos, but he tilted his head to one side and reached up and tugged on an ear lobe.
“That suit is manufactured from a polyester and spandex blend, it’s made for flexibility, not warmth, but if it’s worn with a jacket it would be perfectly warm.” He looked up at Robert, “These types of alterations aren’t typically done, and would be prohibitively expensive… and we would need payment up front…”
“But you can do the alterations? I mean they are possible?”
“Well, yes…but to maintain any kind of mobility the suit would have to be made at least two sizes larger.” He paused for a moment, “It won’t look good.”
“But you can do the alterations for me if I pay up front?”
“Yes, yes we can, but it’s going to be three or four weeks because we can’t do that type of work in-store.”
“Could you give me an exact date?”
The man gave a quiet sigh and motioned for Robert to follow him. He went behind a worn service desk and pecked at a computer with one hand, and drummed the fingers of his other hand on the desk.
“The earliest I could possibly get it to you would be August 26th, that would be a Monday.” He looked up at Robert. “Will that work for you?”
“Yes, that’s fine, thank you.”
The man worked on a calculator for a few minutes and wrote a figure on an old fashioned receipt book. He tore a copy off and handed it to Robert. “Are you sure you want a suit this bad?” Robert looked at the price and took out his billfold. He counted out a stack of crisp new hundred dollar bills so the man could see, then he banged them on one edge and scooted them together like a deck of cards and handed them to him. “Yes…”
At night, while he lay waiting for sleep to come, he played a thousand different scenarios. Where he would sit, how he would act and appear. Surely the media would be on hand for such a high profile trial. What would their questions be? Would they ask anything that hadn’t already been posed to him a thousand times? Would Marla be there? Since she left he hadn’t heard a word from her. He’d reached out with calls, text messages, emails, but there was never a response. He felt utterly alone, only she really knew the depths of pain that he was feeling, only she could understand. Everyone else was guessing, trying to be empathetic, but they had no idea the level of sheer agony. In the beginning Marla had been his partner, and they had carried the burden together, but she shut down more and more seemingly by the hour, she even seemed to shrink physically. He imagined her as a houseplant that required light to survive being locked away in a dark cellar, Gillian was that light. Of course even though she didn’t say it, and she told him over and over that it wasn’t his fault, he knew that she blamed him somehow. He understood, because he also blamed himself. Around and around the questions and scenarios danced, like a cat chasing a mouse around a chair.
He never allowed himself to think of…him as a person, or even having a personality or soul. When it was necessary to think of him, he thought of him without facial features, utterly devoid of personality or rights, and rarely did he allow himself to use his name. When his name popped up in trial coverage or in legal correspondence, he looked at it simply as letters strung together, Darrel William Harding, meant no more to him than any three words in any sentence. They had no significance in identifying him as a human. He was simply an evil entity that had stolen everything good and right in his life when he’d taken Gillian. When he did enter Robert’s mind he used him as a kind of faceless motivation, and then he’d say it, “I love you baby, daddy is doing this for you.”
The days turned into weeks and he felt himself getting leaner, harder, more flexible by the day. The walking had turned into paced runs. The calisthenics were exchanged for weights which he lifted in the garage. At night as he mindlessly gazed at television he sat in a spradle, stretching to the point of sheer pain and holding that position, steeled against giving in to the pain. In another life the shape he was in would have been something to be proud of. Time seemed stretched, distorted, elongated. Each hour felt like a lifetime and he remembered the weeks leading up to Christmas when he was young. He would be so excited for Christmas morning that it felt like forever in arriving. The tree and decorations and shining red and green presents were almost more than he could take. Every day when he ate the little chocolate piece from the Advent calendar it was almost like a stick from a sharp pin reminding him that there were still 16 days left, 14, 9… The wait for the trial and the release that would come with it felt like it would never arrive.
August 26th arrived and Robert was awake early drinking coffee on the porch with his cellphone on his knee. He sat on the same white wicker loveseat that he, Marla, and Gillian had sat on hundreds of times. The paint on the armrests was worn away, and exposed the light rattan underneath, polished shiny from human touch. He imagined Gillian leaned over the arm on her tiptoes as Marla read to her from a book. He hated himself for taking those moments for granted. Why hadn’t he understood how precious every second was? The mundane day to day interactions, her just being there doing nothing. He would cut his own leg off for one more hug, one more three minute session of watching her walk slowly around the yard with a mason jar trying to catch butterflies from dandelions. Monday was a work day, but he’d taken it off. He wanted to get the suit he’d purchased immediately when Marcel’s called. So he sat in the morning quiet and sipped coffee and surveyed his yard. The dandelions were tall and the once yellow flowers had turned into white afros. The tree swing hung motionless and for the first time grass had sprouted and filled in the dark rut where Gillian had drug her feet to stop. He looked away at his phone, he willed it to ring, and then he made a bargain that if he hadn’t received a call by 11:00 he’d call them. He tried to empty his mind and erase the sense of anxiety that had gone from a gnawing nuisance a month before, to a constant parasitic drain of his thought life. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing at all, emptiness, but the void was constantly filled with Gillian and Marla. He took the photo out and laid it on top of the phone. The first hundred times or so that he had looked at it he was immediately brought to tears. In a way it had been easier then, because crying brought some relief. Now the tears had abandoned him and there was no release, just dry pain, like a baked stone cracking inside him.
The phone rang at 10:23 and he drove to Marcel’s. It was packaged in a silky black protective cover that the man unzipped and flipped the sides open on and took the suit, tailored white shirt and a black tie out. Robert approved of everything, including the tie which he hadn’t personally chosen. The man told Robert that if he needed any minor alterations, they were free. Robert thanked him and left. He drove to Paris’s shop and picked up the leather wrist wraps he’d had made. They’d been done for over a week, but Robert wanted to get everything all on the same day. He drove home and laid everything out on his bed and then took a hot shower and shaved before putting everything on. He looked up an instructional video that showed how to make a tie knot, and after a half dozen tries finally got one that was acceptable. The straps were stiffer than he’d anticipated and he had a hard time buttoning the cuffs of the shirt over them, but eventually he was able to accomplish the feat. When the entire outfit was assembled he stood in front of the long mirror on the back of the bedroom door and looked at himself. The man at Marcel’s was right, the suit didn’t look good, partially because it looked a bit bunched in spots, and partially because he’d lost even more weight since being fitted for it. He walked into the living room and spent a few moments stretching before lowering himself into the splits. There was almost no resistance from the suit. He took the piece of plastic he’d fabricated and slid it into the belt loops before putting the belt over the top.The belt covered the cord perfectly and nothing looked odd or out of place. He looked in the mirror and noticed nothing. Good, he thought. Then he undressed and put everything but the wrist straps away. He oiled them and bent and worked them this way and that for two hours as he sat on the porch. Finally they were soft and pliable and he was happy. He put them away and ate the exact same dinner he’d eaten for months. When he was finished he washed his dishes and cleaned up, and by that time it was dark and starting to cool. He tied on his running shoes and went out the door for his evening run. Normally he followed the same path every night, but on this night he didn’t, and he didn’t run either. He walked slowly like he’d done in the beginning. He walked from the halo of light cast by one street lamp to the next, his shadow elongating first one way, then the other. He walked past the park and onto the bike path, and then followed that until it reached the eastern edge of town. Carefully he scaled a barbed wire fence and walked out into an open field. He stood there and looked up at the stars, so white and stark in the black sky. The air smelled of fresh earth and the faintest hint of wood smoke. A million crickets and peeper frogs called from everywhere all at once and he wondered for a moment if there was a specific mate they were calling to, or to whoever was closest. Then he thought of her, and he could almost feel her little hand in his, it always fit perfectly, like it had been created that way at the dawn of time and then had to wait for millennia until he was there to hold it. He stood there looking up for a long time and when he was ready to go he spoke into the darkness, The wait is almost over…
The morning of September 12th dawned clear and crisp. There was no wind, and an early frost had changed the leaves into brilliant shades of gold, amber, and bright red. Robert was up before the sun had even begun to turn the horizon from black to purple. He drove across town and walked, shivering, down the broken sidewalk and turned into the bakery, bells on the door jangled as he made his entrance. He hadn’t been into the little shop since everything had happened, and he didn’t recognize the young man behind the counter. He ordered one donut, with pink frosting and multi-colored sprinkles, and then drove home. He sat at the little table and looked out the window at the tire swing, shrouded by the gray pre-dawn light. He tore little bite size pieces off the donut and ate them just as Gillian would have. He stared at the tire swing and thought about how amazing it would be if he could push her on it just one more time, her. When he was done eating he looked at his watch, 30 minutes until the barber shop opened, he put his shoes on and headed out the door. He walked along slowly, taking in the sad call of Mourning doves and the chatter of squirrels, it was clear and clean and a lingering chill hung in the air leftover from the night. It was a Tuesday, and Robert thought that it was a strange day for a big trial to start, it should have been a Monday, or maybe even a Friday.
He sat in the chair and listened to the barber babble on about how ridiculous it was that there was even a trial, “At first he admitted it, shoulda took him out back of the courthouse right then and put one in the back of his head. Shoulda never given him a chance to recant” the barber made his hand into the likeness of a gun and clicked his tongue, making a ‘pop’ sound. Robert ignored him except for an occasional nod. He focused on a jar of blue liquid with a couple of combs in it and tried to blot everything else out. When he was done he paid the barber and was just opening the door.
“I hope you get some justice Robert, I really do.” He stopped and turned back to the barber.
“How do you measure justice? There can’t be any justice, the damage is already done, justice would be for me to leave here and go home to my daughter.” He stared at the barber for a long time and could feel the man becoming uncomfortable. Finally he spoke again, “The only justice is in fairness, nothing else matters, not the legal system, not hatred, not revenge, not in what someone does or doesn’t deserve…fairness…” The barber stood like a statue, a twenty dollar bill in one hand and the haircutting cape draped over his other arm, Robert left him standing there and walked home.
He laid everything out on his bed. The suit, the shirt and tie, the wristwraps, and the length of plastic cord with loops on each end. He took a wet paper towel and cleaned a pair of tennis shoes that he’d worn just enough to break in, then he sat them on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. He ran a bath so hot he could barely tolerate it and slowly lowered himself in. After it cooled he scrubbed every inch of his body, then he shampooed the loose hair off from the haircut before meticulously shaving his face. He drained the tub and turned the shower on cold and rinsed thoroughly. After he got out he brushed and flossed his teeth and cleaned and trimmed his fingernails. He took a towel and wiped the fog from the bathroom mirror and combed his hair before applying deodorant and a fine mist of cologne, then he got dressed. When everything was done he looked in the long mirror on the back of the bedroom door and assessed himself. He was thin, too thin for his bone structure, and much tanner than he’d ever been from all the outdoor exercise he’d done. For the first time he felt the tickle of butterflies and he closed his eyes and said one word, Gillian.
He sat at the little table in the kitchen and sipped coffee while replaying every good memory he could think of with Gillian. Somewhere in the midst of his reminiscing he felt a little stab of guilt, like a tiny sliver poking him. He didn’t know why Marla wasn’t more present in his memories. There was no conscious effort to exclude her, because he had loved her, but she wasn’t helpless, she wasn’t taken, and she would go on, for whatever that was worth.
At 1:00 he got up and went into the living room and stretched for 15 minutes fully dressed, then he went in and put the plastic cord between his belt and his pants.He made sure the flattened loops were covered by the belt. When the clock hit 1:30 he began walking to the courthouse.
The sun was brilliant and warm when he was in it, but the shade of every tree seemed to cast cold with it. When he got within a block of the courthouse he slowed and stood behind a large mailbox. They were there, a dozen news outlets had their reporters lined up like blackbirds on a power line. He knew they didn’t really care, it was just another story to get an extra rating point or two, bad news sold. Gillian was worth more than that. He looked at his phone, 30 minutes until it started. The block went quickly and each step brought a deeper sense of anxiety and a churning stomach. They didn’t recognize him at first because of the weight loss and darker complexion, and he thought for a moment that he’d lucked out, but a young woman called out to him just as he’d passed her. “Robert, do you have a comment, anything you want to say?” He shook his head, “No comment.” His voice felt like someone else’s, almost like he’d heard it on TV. The rest of the reporters descended and he put his head down and moved through them like he was trying to get to the stage at a rock concert. They battered him with questions, was he angry? Did he want the death penalty? Where was Marla? To each question he stayed calm and answered, “no comment.” The minute he entered the climate controlled building a hush fell and an entirely different sense of anxiety seized him. He walked toward the weird free standing empty doorway that the metal detector formed and the officer manning it asked him to empty his pockets and anything metal he had on his person into a gray plastic bin. He carried only his wallet, phone and a small pack of kleenex, so he put them into the bin and stepped through the metal detector. Even though he knew he carried nothing metal, he half expected it to sound, but it didn’t. Once through the detector they had him step to the side and asked if he would submit to a search. His face flushed and he felt like he was in a falling elevator. He stepped onto a black rubber mat and an officer wearing a brown uniform and light blue latex gloves knelt and felt his ankles and then worked his way up until he was at his waist. He hooked his fingers inside Robert’s waistband and felt all the way around before moving away and up his torso. A massive sense of relief washed over Robert.
“Sorry about the extra security, but this is a high profile case and we can’t be too careful.”
Robert slid his wallet and kleenex back into his pockets and grabbed his phone. “I understand, thank you.” He started walking toward the courtroom when the officer said, “Wait a minute.” Blood pounded in Robert’s neck, he turned. “I see you have your phone. Remember, absolutely no photos or videos are to be taken…” Robert lifted the phone, “I got it, no problem.”
The courtroom was large and painted tan with deep brown wainscoting around the bottom. There was a sense of austere order and calm. Every eye in the room caught him and then turned away, as if by doing so they didn’t have to acknowledge the horror of his life. He scanned the crowd for Marla, she wasn’t there and he wasn’t surprised. He walked down the center corridor and took an aisle seat on the right, two rows back and behind the prosecution . He put his hands on his knees and he stared at a spot on the floor. He exhibited no emotion, and in his mind he kept repeating the phrase, small and inconsequential, almost as if he were willing himself into nothingness. His posture was slump shouldered, sad, defeated…but he wasn’t.
Someone came in and gave a mini lecture on do’s and don’ts. No photos, no videos, no outbursts, no cursing etc etc etc. Robert feigned listening, but his mind was focused on something else.. He sat and he waited, no one tried to talk to him or console him. He wondered if they thought what had happened to his daughter could somehow be catching, better to act as if he didn’t exist. What could they say that would matter anyway?
People came and went, moving stacks of paper from one place to another and speaking directly into each other's ears as if they were telling some deep and grave secret. After what felt like hours of busy work they settled into their proper places and a bailiff came in and stood in front of the bench. Robert felt like he was on an episode of Perry Mason. A group of three men sat at the defense table leafing through papers and occasionally nodding to one another. A metal door with a glass window embedded with mesh opened and a security officer walked out. He held the door with his foot and held his arm with the other. He came out and didn’t look up. He had a fresh haircut and wore a baggy blue suit. His feet and hands were shackled with shiny handcuffs and they clinked as he moved. He shuffled toward the defense table and Robert was stunned at everything he wasn’t. Somehow the faceless, shapeless boogey man that had lived in his mind was nothing. Small, balding, frail…weak. He sat, two lawyers on his left, one to his right, and a security staff member on each end of the table. “All rise…” Robert stood, but his head was spinning and his stomach felt strange and empty. He could see the bailiff’s mouth moving but couldn’t make out what he was saying. The judge came in wearing a flat black robe from a door behind the bench and sat. The judge gave yet another stern warning about what wouldn’t be tolerated, and reiterated what had already been said on several occasions. Everyone sat, and the prosecution began speaking, but Robert wasn’t listening. He watched from the corner of his eye the man who had destroyed so much. He sat with his skinny shoulders hunched and his head bowed, the baggy suit pressing up and making his shoulders look poofy. If a human were drawn to look like a vulture, he was that artwork. The security guards stood with their arms behind their backs, one hand grasping the wrist of the other arm. The judge was listening, but angled away from the prosecutor with his left ear pressed towards his voice, almost as if he was hard of hearing so he had to really concentrate. Media wasn’t allowed to film or record, but they were perched here and there jotting notes. The room was quiet other than the prosecutor’s voice. Robert watched him and tried not to let any emotion exist, no anger, or despair, or anything. Cold, smooth focus. How many steps? The little fence that separated the galley from the court was shorter than he thought even though he’d been over its height 100 times. He took the kleenex from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes and half stood before blowing his nose. He settled back and someone from behind laid a reassuring hand on his back and gave him a couple support pats. He didn’t look but nodded his head as if he were silently thanking them for their support. The prosecution laid out their case and Robert continued to focus rather than listen. Three more times he dabbed at his dry eyes and stood to blow his nose, no one looked the last time. He leaned to one side and pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and took the picture out and looked at it. The grin, the wild hair. He smiled back and kissed it before putting it into his suit jacket pocket. He began to listen as the prosecution started to wind down their opening argument. He reached inside his jacket sleeves and unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt, then he leaned forward in a show of emotion so that his suit jacket created a sort of curtain on each side of him. He reached back to his belt and hooked his finger inside the loop of the plastic line he’d fabricated and snaked it out like pulling a worm gingerly from its hole so as not to break it. Once it was all the way out he worked blindly to get the loops over the leather wrist straps. Then he waited, the only thing in the world on his mind was the 20 feet he had to cover.
If the inner workings of an expensive wristwatch could be filmed in extreme slow motion so that each movement could be observed clearly and perfectly, that’s how the next few moments unwound. The prosecutor turned from the jury box, and approached his chair, each step seemingly a 10 second movement. He said something and sat back into his chair, the sound of him coming to rest clear and echoing. Robert turned his head and saw the defense lawyer closest to him stand, the security guard to the lawyer’s right slid a step further away to make room for the lawyer to come around the end of the table. The lawyer started walking toward the jury, each of his steps caught in a time warp like watching a sloth move. Robert rose at the same time, almost unnoticed because of the nose blowing routine, and then he exploded to his left. The first nine or ten steps nobody had time to react, and then the hurdle over the partition, months of stretching fully engaged. He still sat hunched, unaware that hell was behind him. Robert saw the look of shock and fear on the security guard’s face at the far end of the table, that guard was the first to grasp what was happening. Robert’s hands shot out, the line tight and glimmering between his wrists. It was only after the line was being pulled back that he understood what was happening. Robert pulled it tight and heard him make a strange sound like he was coughing over a mouthful of marbles, but it was too late to stop the action. The line sunk deep into his neck. There was no time to get his fingers in, there was no time to fight back…there was no time left. Robert fell back, pulling him, the chair, and a billow of papers at the same time. He could feel him fighting, his legs wild under the table, his hands clawing for the cord that was already too deep into his flesh to find. Robert strained back, his head tucked against the back of his neck. There were words being shouted, blows being rained, but his body acted as a shield, protecting Robert from most of them. Robert watched the security guard take a yellow taser out and shoot it into his leg, and he felt it strike, but the wool lining stopped it. The bailiff suddenly appeared behind the security guard and slapped his side as if to say, move. Robert could feel him suddenly get weaker and then stop moving altogether, he knew he was gone. He cranked back with all his might and felt warmth spread down his hands. The bailiff had his weapon drawn and Robert could see the horror in the man’s eyes. He put the weapon right above Robert’s right shoulder, but angled down and into his lungs and heart. Their eyes met and the universe stopped. Robert thought of a warm summer rain, a sharp peal of laughter, a dropped snow cone, a shared bag of m&ms at a movie theater, a raggedy baby blanket, small footprints in early morning snow, a tiny plastic unicorn, a pink rain coat…a tire swing, and then it was over.