The old guy sitting across from me had lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth. They all drooped down like they’d given up hope. He looked so tired. A few strands of gray hair flapped over his head, and I wondered if he thought they disguised his baldness.
“Plead guilty and show you’re sorry, Miss James,” he said, staring at the file folder in front of him. “They’re likely to go easy on you.”
“I didn’t do it,” I said, not expecting to be believed.
No one would take my side. Why would they? When has anyone? They all imagined that girls like me had no limits, no depth we wouldn’t sink to.
No one would take my side. Why would they? When has anyone? They all imagined that girls like me had no limits, no depth we wouldn’t sink to.
The old guy turned a couple of sheets in the file. He seemed to be searching for some better case that might be hiding. He wouldn’t find one. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter.
I thought about the time in third grade when Eliza Hayes stole milk money from the teacher’s desk. Eliza had Shirley Temple curls and wore velvet bows clipped in her shiny hair. I wore clothes from the boxes in the church basement, and my hair smelled like my mom’s cigarettes.
“Macy did it,” Eliza said, eyes wide, head nodding dramatically. “When you turned to write on the board.”
Everyone saw Eliza take the money, but when the teacher asked what happened, the class stayed quiet. Everyone always did.
I sat outside the principal’s office, crying, asking for my mom. It seemed like the end of the world, and I guess in some ways it was. But that day, I didn’t think my heart could hurt more. Of course they couldn’t reach my mother. So I just sat crying and waiting on the bench in the office, adults looking at me in that concerned, critical way they have.
“You know, it’s better if you just tell the truth,” the principal said.
My tear-wet hair hanging in my face, I looked up. I could feel the snot smeared across my cheek from where I’d wiped my nose with the back of my hand. I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say. I shook my head, silently pleading with him to understand.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I’m sure your mother isn’t going to be happy, if we can ever reach her.”
I remember leaning over, hugging myself, crying so hard.
I don’t think I ever expected things to go the way they should from that point on, and I certainly never asked for my mom again.
They caught Eliza the next week trying to take the milk money again. She walked out of the classroom and down the outside corridor to the office, those curls springing in time to her steps. No one apologized to me, and when I told my mother, she just said “Mm-hmm,” sucked on her cigarette, and clicked through TV channels.
The old guy’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Still, you could say you’re sorry. You’d probably get probation.”
He had those old-person eyes, faded blue in a sea of stagnant white crisscrossed with little blood vessels. They met mine, and I wondered what it felt like to be old and sitting across from some trashy girl who refused to follow the plan. He didn’t look mad or anything, just a day closer to dead.
“I can’t be sorry. Can I?”
He cocked his head the way dogs do when you’re hiding their ball behind your back.
“Of course, I wouldn’t want you to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” he said, eyes back on the paperwork in front of him.
“Of course not,” I said.
After a moment, he pulled a pack of Camels from his jacket pocket and shook one toward me.
I pointed to the No Smoking sign by the door.
After he gestured again, I slid a cigarette from the pack and waited. He produced an old-school Zippo and flicked it open. I liked him more.
I held the smoke in for a long time, allowing it to warm my insides. Then I let my mouth fall open and watched the smoke drift lazily toward the ugly tiled ceiling. I loved giving smoke the freedom to find its way. My mother had always been such an aggressive smoker, making tight little circles or shooting smoke into people’s faces.
The old guy produced a paper cup and centered it between us. He flicked his ashes into it then pushed a photo from the file toward me like on TV. I dug the dramatic flourish. I wouldn’t have thought he had that much in him. I glanced at the girl in the picture. Ginnie Mack smiled back at me, her short bob a perfect helmet on her small head. Ginnie was a year behind me at school, but she was way behind me in a lot of other ways. She attended special classes most of the day, and the job at the K&J Market was kind of a big deal for her. She took her duties very seriously.
He flicked his ashes into [the paper cup] then pushed a photo from the file toward me like on TV. I dug the dramatic flourish. I wouldn’t have thought he had that much in him.
I knew what was coming next. I would’ve been disappointed in the old guy if he hadn’t produced the second picture. It showed Ginnie with a bulging purple eye and bandages on one cheek and down the side of her neck. She blankly stared at the camera, like they’d told her to be still and she was doing her best to follow instructions. That was how she was. She always did her best.
I took a drag off the cigarette and looked at the old guy.
“You see what we’re up against,” he said.
“I didn’t do that,” I said.
“The video shows you jumping over the counter.” He shrugged, as if to show there wasn’t much more to talk about.
“I don’t have a knife. I don’t steal. I don’t believe there’s a picture of me doing this, because I didn’t.”
He sat back, but not like the TV detectives readying to play the winning hand. He was the guy who’d said his lines too many times, listened to too many excuses, and understood a long time ago that he would never be dealt the winning hand.
“The problem is the image isn’t good,” he said, taking a photo from his file and sliding it toward me. “You and a boy seem to be lunging toward this poor girl. That’s the picture the jury will see.”
He looked at me with those ghost eyes, and I could tell he felt something. His gaze lingered, like he wasn’t in a rush to be done with me. He hadn’t just dismissed me as a delinquent. I wanted to tell him I was sorry. I wanted him to know that I wouldn’t blame him when this all went to hell. I didn’t want to be the girl that made him slump lower in his chair.
He looked at me with those ghost eyes, and I could tell he felt something. His gaze lingered, like he wasn’t in a rush to be done with me. He hadn’t just dismissed me as a delinquent.
“I was trying to help her,” I said. “She must know who did it. Can’t she tell you? Ginnie wouldn’t lie, not ever.”
He looked down at the file.
I tried to take a hit off the cigarette, but it was out, and I sucked in the dead taste of a dirty filter.
“She hasn’t spoken yet. Evidently, she’s” — he paused like he was trying to remember how we describe people like Ginnie now — “traumatized.”
The old guy had come up with a good save. He looked like a fighter past his prime, but it was clear he still had heart.
“It would help if you’d name the boy,” he said. “You’re seventeen, there’re lots of ways this could go down, depending on the judge. You could be sent into the adult system.”
I looked straight into those old-man eyes. I needed him to understand there was no way I could rat out the person who hurt Ginnie. Over the years I had explored every response to getting blamed for things. Telling on the real culprit always brought the worst results.
“I don’t know his name,” I said flatly, no longer able to hold eye contact.
“No, I can’t imagine you do,” he said. He nodded, slid his cigarette pack toward me, and turned back to the file in front of him.
I knew how this went, not the jail part, but it was old news to get blamed. It didn’t even hurt inside the way it used to. Time, the accusations, the “misunderstandings” that were never really taken back. Once my mom smacked me in the face right in front of the neighbors because they accused me of stealing one of their bikes. Of course I hadn’t. Suddenly, I heard the key turn in the lock and the sound of my mother’s high heel slippers clicking away. The bike mysteriously appeared in their front yard the next day. Everyone knew I hadn’t brought it back. I was locked in my room to teach me a lesson. But no one apologized. I knew the oldest boy in the family hid the bike to mess with his little brother. He always did shit like that. But if I’d told, it would’ve gone much worse. I’d already learned that lesson.
I knew how this went, not the jail part, but it was old news to get blamed. It didn’t even hurt inside the way it used to.
I looked back at Ginnie’s bruised face staring into space. What Bobby did to her made my stomach ache and my eyes throb. Ginnie knew who did this. Everyone knew. He was the asshole star of our little wannabe town. Every time he shaved a second off his mile or came home with another trophy, the good citizens swelled with pride. He put us on the map, so they ignored everything else. But Ginnie didn’t understand the games the rest of us played. I just had to hang tight until she could talk.
Finally, the old guy closed the file, pushed it into a worn, brown briefcase, and stood.
“Keep the Camels,” he said. “See you tomorrow. Hopefully, we’ll go before the judge later in the day. That gives us more time to prepare.” He paused. “Think about your options.” He watched as the guard moved to usher me out of the little room. “Oh, when’s the best time to reach your mother?”
I smiled at him and followed the guard who probably wasn’t much older than me. Good luck trying to reach my mama.
They took me to meet the old guy just after lunch the next day. He wore the same brown jacket and sat in the same chair. He stared at the same file. And the DIY ashtray and Camels were already in the middle of the metal table.
He didn’t speak for a while as he flipped from this form to that one. We both held lit cigarettes, and I liked breathing in the air that was getting thicker each time one of us exhaled. It reminded me of our living room back when Uncle Paulie, my mom’s only good boyfriend, stayed at our house. They sat together on the brown sofa, watching old movies, talking and laughing, and filling the cake pan they used for an ashtray.
I spent afternoons doing homework at the kitchen table, looking out the window at a cat that stared back from an apartment across the alley. A fluffy white cat with one black ear. I imagined it was mine. I would let it sleep in bed with me. The cat would love me because I took such good care of it.
Uncle Paulie quit coming over after his money went missing from his wallet. My mom swore she didn’t take it. I was the only other person in the apartment. Thinking about the stealing since then, I’m pretty sure he knew I didn’t take the money. But on some level, what difference did it make? He left, and I never did get a cat.
“I’m guessing your memory hasn’t improved? You still can’t think of the boy’s name?”
I looked up. The old guy’s fading eyes begged me to give him something to work with. He wanted me to forget about the consequences and defend myself.
I shook my head.
“We’re having a hard time finding your mother,” he said. “Is there anyone else we can call? Your dad? A grandparent?”
I almost laughed, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“I don’t have much family,” I said. “At least no one I know how to get a hold of.”
He nodded in that way I was starting to appreciate, accepting my answer. He didn’t intend to push, prod, or bully.
I didn’t know if he believed me. Probably not. But it mattered that he let my answer stand.
“If they can’t reach your mother today, they’ll appoint a guardian to be with you in court. Technically, you’re still a minor.” He searched my face as if looking for validation of that fact. “Anyway, it buys us a little time.”
We went back through my story about a trillion more times. I was there alone, getting cigarettes and a soda. Yes, I knew Ginnie from school, and anyway, it’s a small town. No, she’s not my friend, but I don’t have any problem with her. No, I don’t know why anyone would have anything against her.
We went back through my story about a trillion more times.
“So the video shows you jumping toward the girl.” He waited as if he wanted that to sink in. “Why?”
He’d asked before. I said I didn’t know why, and truly, I didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to when it was all going down.
I remembered Bobby yelling, “Fuck you, bitch!”
Then Ginnie, looking at the cash register then up at Bobby. Her eyes wide and blank.
She didn’t say anything. She probably didn’t know what to say or do. No one was ever mean to her. No one talked to her like she was garbage. She was Ginnie, more like a child than a teenage girl. I think I saw the knife. And then I lunged. I don’t even know what I thought I was doing, maybe pushing her out of the way, maybe getting between them. It just happened.
“I wanted Ginnie to be okay. I don’t really know what I was doing,” I said, looking at the old guy through the curtain of smoke between us.
He found my eyes and held them. He didn’t race back into his file folder. He stayed with me, allowing time.
I wanted to give something back, to say something that would make it all clear. Something that would let him believe me, but like always, I didn’t have the words. Nothing meant anything. Words could be true or not. People believed, or they didn’t. And with girls like me, they didn’t.
Nothing meant anything. Words could be true or not. People believed, or they didn’t. And with girls like me, they didn’t.
“I think I was trying to push her out of the way,” I said.
“You could’ve been the one to get hurt,” he said.
“Better me than her,” I said. “I’m different from Ginnie.”
He turned his eyes back to the folder, took a wadded hanky from his pocket, dabbed at his nose, then shoved it back into his jacket. After that, he pulled out a pad of yellow, lined paper. Holding a cigarette in one hand, he made notes with the other.
The guard cracked the door open. On cue the old guy pushed his chair back, the sound of the metal legs grating against the floor. He stepped into the hallway for a couple of minutes. I could see him nodding.
When he came back, he said, “Your mother’s on the way.”
I took a long hit on my cigarette. I didn’t want to talk about my mother. I never, ever wanted to. I realized that I especially didn’t want to discuss her with the old guy. He was nice.
“She always shows up eventually,” I said.
He began to pack up his briefcase. He dusted ashes off his shirt and the table.
“She’ll be here soon. I’ll give you two a few minutes. Then we need to get ready to go before the judge.” He stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “Do what’s best for you, Miss James.” He dropped his head, as if he realized the impossibility of what he was asking.
I lit a cigarette off the butt I was just finishing. I inhaled deeply, loving the burn in my throat. My mother hadn’t given me much, but she taught me to smoke by having me light up for her when I was still little. At least I could thank her for that.
My mother hadn’t given me much, but she taught me to smoke by having me light up for her when I was still little.
I heard her shrill laughter before the door opened. I imagined the guard smiling and nodding, as my mother rambled on, always believing she was the sunshine in every stranger’s day.
The door swung in, and she clickety-clacked into the room. She looked around and then at me, the look of judgment I knew so well.
I held her gaze.
“Oh, Macy!” she said in that scandalized tone she used when other adults were around. “What have you done? And to that poor, unfortunate girl.” She appeared to be thinking. “What’s her name?”
“Ginnie, Mama. Ginnie.”
“Well, what on earth could she have done to you?” She slumped down dramatically in the old guy’s chair.
“She didn’t do anything to me, Mama. And I didn’t…”
“I know, Macy!” she interrupted. “You didn’t do anything.” She glared at me and grabbed the pack of cigarettes off the table. She shook one out and then flicked her press-on fingernails in my direction, gesturing for me to hand over my cigarette. She took it and lit hers. She sucked in hard and then blew smoke at me. “You never seem to do anything, but you seem to be in trouble all the time.”
She flicked ashes on the floor. “What about that Mr. Barlow?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Mr. Barlow. Mr. Barlow!” She stared at me. “Come on, Macy! Get with it. That attorney guy.” She flipped her hand toward the door, as if that explained everything. “Don’t tell me he hasn’t been working with you. Maybe we can sue or something!”
“Oh,” I said. “Mr. Barlow’s great. He’s a nice man.”
“Nice?” she hissed. “We don’t need nice! We need someone to get you out of this mess you’ve created.”
“I know! You didn’t do anything!” She stood and went to the door and yelled into the hallway. “Excuse me! We’re ready! Can someone find our attorney?”
I stared at my cigarette and realized my hands were shaking. I didn’t want the old guy to come in. I wanted the guard to say she couldn’t find him. He must have left the building. It wasn’t like him, but what could they do? We’d have to go see the judge on our own.
But I heard muffled voices, and then he came through the door. He nodded to my mother and motioned for her to have a seat.
“So let’s get right to it, Mr. Barlow.” My mother opened her mouth in a tight O and huffed out little rings of smoke. She was at her best when she felt she was being admired. Evidently, she didn’t get what she was looking for because she shot the rest of the smoke at him.
“Ms. James, I’ve advised Macy that if she tells who the boy in the picture is, it could change everything. Right now, they only have your daughter. Given the severity of what happened,” he paused, looking at me.
My mother jumped up and stood over me. “You tell them whatever they ask, Macy! This isn’t even funny!”
She stood at barely five feet and was what she called small boned, and since she never ate anything but boiled eggs and canned peaches, she stayed rail thin. But her personality filled every cubic inch of any space she occupied. As my mother leaned into me, finger jabbing the air near my face, I pulled back in my chair as far as I could go. I felt myself shrinking, becoming smaller and less.
As my mother leaned into me, finger jabbing the air near my face, I pulled back in my chair as far as I could go. I felt myself shrinking, becoming smaller and less.
“Ms. James,” the old guy interrupted. “I don’t have any sense that Macy finds any of this amusing. She’s in a tough situation.”
Oh my God, I thought. Oh my God, he’s gonna get it now.
And like a snake that had been coiled, waiting for the prey to make a move, my mother snapped her head around and tip-tapped in her patent leather heels toward the old guy.
“I know my daughter, Mr. Barlow,” she snapped. “She’s always in a tough situation, as you call it. She’s a tough situation magnet.” My mother looked over at me, lips thin, eyes narrowed.
I felt trapped. The back of the metal chair pressing hard into my spine. I didn’t want to look at the old guy. I didn’t want to see him beaten down any further.
“She was born into trouble,” my mother continued, building steam.
“Sit down, Ms. James,” the old guy said, voice low and somehow threatening.
I straightened in my chair, shocked, looking at my mother, every muscle in my body tense.
“I beg your…” my mother began.
“I said sit down, Ms. James,” his voice was still low, his eyes meeting hers, unblinking.
She stared for a moment as if running through her options.
He locked eyes with her.
She grabbed the empty chair, pulled it as far from me as she could get it, and threw herself into it. She glared from the old guy to me and then back.
His blue eyes had turned to ice.
She looked down at her skirt and picked at lint I couldn’t see.
“As I said, Ms. James, Macy’s in a tough spot. If she names the boy, she’ll pay a price for doing so. There will certainly be payback, whether she’s believed or not. And if she doesn’t name him, they’re likely to go hard on her because they need to punish someone.” He paused, still looking at my mother. “What would you have her do, Ms. James? What advice would you give your daughter?”
I stared at him. He didn’t look so tired anymore. He was tall and square shouldered like soldiers in old movies. He glanced at me quickly, like he could read my mind.
“It’s your job to advise my daughter,” my mother said, but the venom was gone.
“I’ve done so. The choice is now hers. She has to live with her decision. I will defend her no matter what she decides, and I will fight for her.” He paused, forcing my mother to look up. “I expect you to sit behind us and look supportive. I expect you to remain silent unless you are asked to speak. And if you speak, I know that you’ll support Macy.”
My mother’s lips parted to respond but no sound escaped her gaping mouth.
“Ms. James, it takes a lot to stick up for someone who’s weak. Your daughter did that. In a better world, she’d be valued for her courage. But she doesn’t live in a better world.”
“In a better world, she’d be valued for her courage. But she doesn’t live in a better world.”
I felt myself staring, blinking hard, my eyes and nose burning. I looked at my mother. She had gone back to picking at her skirt.
The old guy caught my eye and made a slight nod.
“Ready, Macy?” he asked.
I couldn’t speak. For a moment, I couldn’t move. I felt trapped inside myself, like a lizard before it breaks out of its old skin. Holding the edge of the table, I stood. The old guy reached out and touched my elbow.
I looked into his face, and he nodded again, silent, supportive.
I tried to hold on to his eyes. I couldn’t bear it if he looked away.
“It was Bobby Carruthers,” I said, chills running down my arms and legs.
“Macy!” my mother said, hand on her chest like she might faint.
The old guy shot her a look, and she closed her mouth.
“Everyone says he’s doing steroids, Mr. Barlow.”
He smiled when I said his name. My cheeks throbbed and my heart pounded.
“He’s getting into fights. He’s screaming at teachers. I don’t know what happened that night, but he called Ginnie a bitch, and then I saw the knife. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I just jumped.” I stopped. My chest heaved. Little flicks of light swam around my head. I thought I would faint.
I felt Mr. Barlow’s hand supporting my arm, firm and steady. I took a deep breath, let go of the table, and pulled myself up straighter.
“I got you, Macy,” Mr. Barlow said. “Let’s go do this.”
We walked down the gray hallway together, his hand on my elbow. I heard my mother clickety-clacking, but the sound seemed to be coming from somewhere far behind us.
Kait Leonard is infatuated with the quirky side of ordinary characters. She writes stories about people making their own way through this crazy, sometimes dangerous, world. She placed third in a Flash Fiction Magazine contest. Her stories also appear in Six Sentences, Every Day Fiction, and The Moving Force Journal. She is working on her MFA at Antioch University and shares her Los Angeles home with five parrots and her American bulldog, Seeger.