TW: Domestic/sexual violence
One-hundred seventeen degrees. Record-breaking heat – visible, too, in the sweat on people’s foreheads and the waves radiating off the street. Maya tried to count the heat waves as she sat on the front steps of the courthouse, shielding her eyes from the sun. Seven. Eight. Nine.
“Manzana, meha?” Maya heard soft footsteps behind her and turned to see her mother standing on the step above, holding out a Ziploc full of browned apple slices. The plastic was foggy from the heat. It had been hot even inside the courthouse, like a sauna almost, but for stress instead of relief. Maya had seen the jury fanning themselves with the papers they’d been given at the beginning of the session.
She shook her head and straightened her back. Maya’s stomach was in knots—there was no way she could hold down a snack right now. A worn black Converse tapped impatiently on the step below. What’s the point in dressing up for an event you know will ruin your life?
“Aye, dios mío.” Maya’s mother sat carefully next to her daughter, groaning at the pain in her arthritic back. She, held a flat hand over her eyes against the sun. Her flowery perfume was even more potent in the heat. “Sólo podemos rezar.” We can only pray.
Maya squinted at the golden crucifix hanging from her mother’s neck, then sighed. Over the past months, she’d prayed to every god she’d ever heard of. She’d come staggering home from the library with too many books tucked under her arms, weighed down by literature about Roman, Greek, Mayan, and Native American deities. She’d asked them questions, prayed for help. What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Why anyone? She’d lit dollar-store votive candles, hung beads above her bed. If the justice system couldn’t help her, maybe someone beyond could.
But sitting here, only a couple hundred feet away from her rapist (her rapist, a word that had taken her so long to accept), she could feel in her gut that the outcome would not be good. It didn’t matter how many characters she’d prayed to. Cases like these never turned out in the victim’s favor.
An alarm sounded from the left pocket of Maya’s skinny jeans. She’d set it at the beginning of the jury’s pre-set one-hour deliberation period, just after being waved out of the room by her lawyer, who had spent the entirety of the defendant’s closing argument shopping for Versace heels on her phone. At first Maya had planned on spending the whole period hiding out in the bathroom to avoid people’s stares, but after counting two-hundred and eighty-two tiles on the floor, she had gotten bored and gone outside. At least she could watch the cars roll by out there.
But the alarm was the unfortunate, yet inevitable, signal that there were five minutes left before the deliberation period would be officially declared over. It was a warning of what was to come. And this far into the process, there was no avoiding it.
® ® ®
“How does the jury find the defendant?”
The fat judge at the front of the room wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with the back of a chubby hand. Moments before the jury had filed back into their seats, whispering amongst themselves, revived—nearly high off the prospect of handing two people their fates. They no longer fanned themselves with sheets of paper. The excitement was keeping them alive.
Maya chewed at her pinky nail, her legs crossed, ankle swinging. She could hear her mother fidgeting on the bench behind her. Their—her—attorney had set her phone down to stand and wait for the jury’s final response, but the screen still glared up at Maya from its place on the table, and Maya could see that the lawyer had switched from Versace’s website to Prada’s at some point during the deliberation. Maya hadn’t paid the woman’s fees herself, but she was certain the bill hadn’t been high enough to pay for designer shoes.
And there he was, standing in all his despicable glory. Maya would have rather had Satan himself cackling only a few feet away from her. But Chris Slater, with his gelled blonde hair and neatly-knotted wool tie, stood next to his expensive not-so-public defender, looking like a 1950’s style Good Boy. His back was straight, his arms still at his sides. Maya refused to let herself look at his hands. She could still see them pulling at her dress, tearing the shimmering fabric. She swallowed hard, suppressing a knot of fury.
A young businesswoman sitting at the corner of the jury box rose from her seat. She held an important slip of paper in her hand; it reminded Maya of the time she’d watched her favorite actress present an Oscar on TV. Maybe it was the woman’s smile. Oh, God, she was smiling.
“We find the defendant not guilty, your honor.”
“SHIT!” Maya cursed. She’d bitten down too hard on her pinky. Blood oozed from the slit in her skin. Violated. Maya shook her head, excusing the jury’s worried looks. Maybe if she’d done that earlier, they’d have felt sorry for her.
Maya glanced back at the defendant in question. Professionally-whitened teeth set in a wolf’s grin. He was relieved. She was disgusted.
“That’ll be it, Miss Rodriguez,” her attorney said, already starting to pack up her paperwork into an expensive-looking handbag. Just like that, it was over. Chris Slater was over there shaking his lawyer’s hand, his other arm around his girlfriend’s waist. Mr. Slater is an honor’s student, an outstanding athlete, and a loyal partner to Miss Sondra Lee. He would never hurt a fly. Maybe bugs were off-limits, but girls had apparently been fair game.
Maya didn’t bother to shake her attorney’s hand or offer a good-bye. Head spinning with rage, she stood from her seat and stormed out of the courtroom, hardly paying attention to the pitter-patter of footsteps close behind as her mother nervously followed her out. “Maya! Meha!” She couldn’t stop until she reached her mother’s car, parked at the curb because the meter had been cheaper than the lot.
Maya threw herself into the passenger seat and tucked herself into her knees. Her body wanted to cry, but all that could come out were dry, coughing sobs. She heard her mother climb into the driver’s seat, heard the key slide into the ignition without turning to light the engine. Heels tapped the courthouse steps outside as the jury exited the building, chatting amongst themselves. Maya pushed her face harder into her legs, trying to the best of her ability to stay hidden.
“Lo siento.” I’m sorry. As if it were her mother’s fault. As if she had been capable of preventing any of this, or forcing a better outcome. As if she were responsible at all. “Dios –”
“Excuse me, Maya?” Someone was knocking on the passenger window of the car, just above Maya’s head. She looked up. Her stomach lurched in her abdomen when she saw who it was. Immediately her dark eyes shot straight forward, her glare nearly cracking the windshield.
“Would you mind rolling down your window?”
“I just want to say that I hope there are no hard feelings between us after all of this. I know that you think of me in a negative light, but I—”
Maya reached over the center console to turn her mother’s car key in its ignition.
Chris Slater— honorable, outstanding, loyal Chris Slater—went missing just over a month later.