“All charges against Mr. Rasmussen are dismissed,” Judge Maureen Early says from her perch up on the bench, hard and still as a statue.
With a bang of the gavel, Steven is free, and he can finally put this whole ugly business behind him. So much fuss and bother over a silly little traffic accident.
“So that’s it?” a man calls out from the back of the courtroom. “Some drunk rich guy kills my wife and he gets away with it? You can’t even take away his driver’s license?”
“I am very sorry for your loss, Mr. Flores,” Judge Early says, her expression softening for a moment into something like compassion. “The justice system has failed you today. There is nothing more we can do for you.”
Steven does not look back. He does not ever want to see Hector Flores. He just wants the man to go away and leave him alone. He feels bad for the woman and her family, of course, but he did nothing wrong; the judge has just ruled him innocent. The whole thing was a regrettable, tragic accident.
“Please rise, Mr. Rasmussen,” the judge says after a moment. Steven stands.
Celia, his attorney, has warned him about this, about the tongue lashing he is about to receive. “There’s something … unsettling about the way she speaks to you,” Celia told him just this morning. “Don’t let her get inside your head.”
Celia displays a kind of wary respect toward this particular judge that Steven does not understand. Celia is the Rhodes in Wilson Rhodes & Green, and prosecutors across the city live in fear of her tight blonde bun and her icy blue stare. Steven thrusts the warning aside. He is a Rasmussen, with all the money and power of that name behind him, and he is innocent. He has nothing to fear from this lowly trial judge.
“The charges against you have been dismissed, Mr. Rasmussen,” the judge says. “The evidence supporting those charges has been found to be inadmissible.” With an accusatory glance at the prosecutor, she adds, “… or mysteriously disappeared.”
Steven smiles inside, careful not to let it show. Celia and Martin, his father’s fixer, are very good at their jobs.
“Legally, you cannot be held responsible for Maribel Flores’s death,” the judge continues, “However, that does not make you innocent. Do you understand?”
Right at that moment, the courtroom lights dim and flicker back to life, and the computer on the clerk’s desk emits a loud beep.
“Just a brownout people,” says the judge’s grizzled bailiff. “Happens all the time in this old building. Nothing to worry about.”
When the courtroom settles, Judge Early repeats her question. “Do you understand, Mr. Rasmussen?”
“Yes, your honor, I understand,” Steven replies, in the modest, guarded, respectful tone he has practiced over and over with Celia’s associate. Look up and make eye contact. Don’t waver, don’t flinch, and don’t ever give anything away.
Though the judge is at least ten feet away, Steven can see her green eyes clearly, as if her face were just inches from his own. He feels those piercing green eyes boring into him, drilling through his eye sockets and into his brain. Steven’s stomach tightens. He is beginning to understand Celia’s warning.
“No, Steven,” the judge says, all expression drained from her face and her voice, “I don’t think you do.”
Judge Early reaches under the bench, pulls out a small snub-nosed handgun, points it at Steven, and empties the clip.
The gunshots do not ring out in the courtroom with dignified booms the way Steven expects; they fill the air with short, sharp staccato pops that turn the world inside out. Time becomes a slippery, liquid thing, entirely beyond Steven’s ability to grasp. He stands frozen, unmoving, absent from his own body. He retains the senses of sight and hearing, but they are muted and distant, like watching an old, broken television.
When the shooting ends, Steven bursts back into himself, and he is acutely, painfully present. His ears are stuffed with cotton, his heart threatens to break through his ribs, and his vision dances with black spots, but there is no pain, no loss of sensation. He seems to be alive and unharmed, though he cannot imagine how that could be. He gasps, stands frozen in shock, and finally jerks to life as his body remembers how to move.
While he pats himself down to make sure he hasn’t been hit, he gradually becomes aware of the screams and cries behind him, as if somebody were turning up the volume on a particularly awful TV drama.
When he turns around, his guts clench so violently he nearly vomits. His wife Lucy has lurched sideways in her seat, and her upper body is a mess of blood.
“Lucy!” he screams, flinging himself over the railing, desperate to hold onto whatever shred of life is left her shattered body.
He clings to her until the paramedics arrive and tear him off. He pleads with the paramedics to save her, and then again with the hospital staff, but he knows she is gone.
The hours after Lucy dies smear together in his memory, congealing into a singular state of waiting, sitting on plastic chairs inside spaces of institutional gray. At some point Meredith, his personal assistant, arrives with a clean suit, pushes him into a shower, and takes away his bloody clothes.
He latches onto a few details, like the Long Island-shaped grease stain on the cheap striped tie worn by the police detective who questions him, or the cold, burnt coffee he is offered, like drinking an ashtray, but he remembers nothing else.
When he finally returns home, alone, to his Park Avenue apartment, he pulls a bottle of Chivas from the liquor cabinet and takes a good long draw. He walks to the bedroom and collapses into bed fully clothed, still clutching the bottle.
Steven wakes the next morning with a mild hangover. He stretches.
“Hey babe,” he says to Lucy. “What do you want to do today? We could go for a drive…”
When Lucy doesn’t answer, he rolls over. She always wakes before he does and lies in bed reading, waiting for him. Her smile is the best possible way to start the day.
When he sees the half-empty bottle of Chivas lying where Lucy is supposed to be, he remembers. Lucy’s dead.
He bolts from the bed to the toilet and throws up whatever Meredith fed him last night. His stomach churns at the sight of vomit sloshing around the bowl. He flushes the toilet so he won’t be sick again.
He stands, rinses his mouth, and brushes his teeth, and the full truth of what has happened washes over him. He feels faint and clutches the towel bar to steady himself as he sits down on the edge of the bathtub.
The memories assault him as fragments, isolated bits of sensory information in no logical order. He hears a hundred different voices saying “I’m sorry” in a hundred different ways; he smells gun smoke and the coppery tang of blood; he sees the otherworldly calm in Judge Early’s face as she pulls the trigger, not once but seven times. And at the center of everything, crowding the other memories to the margins, he sees his lovely Lucy slumped over, her head and chest a crimson ruin.
Steven does not weep. He has cause enough, and no one to see him, but the tears will not come. Dry sobs erupt from somewhere deep in his gut, making his chest ache. He slides down the side of the tub and sits on the cold marble of the bathroom floor, for how long he does not know. After the tremors cease, Steven feels profoundly empty, as if he has vomited up all the parts of himself that Lucy touched in their two years together. All of the parts of himself that were good.
He has a vague notion that normal people seek out friends or family after a tragedy like this, but he does not leave the apartment or speak to anyone for days, save for a few short calls with Meredith and the odd food delivery.
The accident laid bare a truth he had never really acknowledged – he had a great many acquaintances, admirers, and hangers-on, but no real friends at all. Everyone always wanted to extract a piece of him, usually a piece with a dollar sign attached, and toss the rest away. The only one who ever wanted all of him was Lucy, but Lucy’s dead.
So instead of human companionship, Steven fills his days with an abundance of nothing and his nights with an abundance of Scotch.
Lucy’s funeral is on Thursday afternoon. Steven gives the eulogy, written by the family communications director, to a packed cathedral. Public speaking is his one talent, his only responsibility as VP of Public Bullshit at his father’s company, but he draws no comfort from this speech. It is about Lucy, but it’s not for her; it’s for the public and the media. For Lucy herself, Steven must content himself with a hand on her (closed) casket and a whispered goodbye.
Afterward, he falls apart. No matter where he goes or what he does, a voice in his mind is constantly screaming, Lucy’s dead, Lucy’s dead, Lucy’s dead.
At night, after he has fallen into a bottle of Scotch, the voices give way to dreams of murdered women, of lifeless eyes and warmthless bodies and so, so much blood. Steven wakes up screaming, and he knows one specific thing with a clarity that animates his whole being – Maureen Early killed Lucy and Maureen Early must be punished. She must spend the rest of her miserable life in prison; she must never again see the sun. Maureen Early is the worst kind of murderer. Only when justice is done will he find peace.
In the chaotic hours after the shooting, Judge Early was arrested, charged, and released without bail. After she killed Lucy. Steven was furious when he heard – no bail for a goddamn murderer?
He does not expect an entirely fair trial – every judge in Manhattan is a colleague and friend of Judge Early, and every one of them has probably had violent fantasies about the filth they see in their courtroom every day, even if they don’t act on them. But Maureen Early shot Lucy in front of fifty witnesses or more. She can’t possibly escape justice, can she?
The week before the trial, Judge Early goes on prime time television to give an interview. Though Steven would rather be doing anything else in the world, he is compelled to watch. He sits down on the couch at two minutes to the hour with a glass of ice and a full bottle of Scotch.
After twelve minutes of standard network news, the scene changes to a comfortable sitting room with dark wood paneling, plush burgundy carpet, and two straight-backed chairs.
In one chair sits an older newswoman, whom Steven recognizes but cannot name. Katie Something-or-other, he thinks. She wears an exquisitely tailored suit in muted mint green and a white cotton blouse with a starched collar and cuffs. Perfectly calibrated to look authoritative yet approachable, tough yet compassionate, feminine yet professional.
In the other chair sits Judge Early, the murderer. She is in her usual court attire, minus the robe – nondescript wool skirt, frilly-collared white blouse, grandmotherly knit jacket, and a huge, floppy white bow at her neck. Celia once joked that the judge got her fashion sense from Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Steven had no idea who that was.
Katie begins with the judge’s background – University of Virginia, Harvard Law, social justice advocate, clerk for Justice Souter, blah blah blah. Steven wants to scream. Maureen Early is a murderer, and Katie Whoever is treating her like a Supreme Court nominee. Steven downs a Scotch.
Next, Katie brings up the Alternative Justice program Judge Early ran in her early years on the bench, a touchy-feely fiasco that let rapists and murderers out early if they said they were really sorry. Steven’s father and his political donor friends made sure the Governor put a stop to it, and good riddance. Steven downs another Scotch.
A commercial comes on for some utilitarian product Steven will never have occasion in his privileged life to use. He hits the mute button and pours another Scotch.
After the break, Katie re-introduces Judge Early, politely declining to call her a murderer, and she finally gets to the topic everyone has been waiting for.
“I’d like to talk about Lucy Rasmussen.”
“All right,” Judge Early replies. Her voice is a low rumble, like the engine of a seventies Chrysler. Even after weeks in her courtroom, Steven is still surprised to hear such a noise emerging from Judge Early’s small, bird-like frame.
“Lucy’s husband Steven Rasmussen was on trial for vehicular homicide.”
“Among other charges,” the judge replies at her most schoolmarmish. “Steven Rasmussen killed Maribel Flores. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind but his own that he is morally and ethically responsible for her death.”
Steven grumbles to himself. What the hell is her problem?
“Yet you ruled the evidence against him inadmissible and dismissed the charges,” Katie says.
“I did. The law in the case was clear. I had no choice in the matter.”
“You must have been frustrated.”
Katie pauses to let the tension build. This is the moment the audience has been waiting for. “So you passed your own judgement on Steven Rasmussen. You put yourself above the law.”
“I did,” the judge replies, her face a mask of stone. Steven expects to see some emotion, but there is nothing. Bile crawls up his throat.
Even the normally unflappable Katie Newswoman is taken aback at Judge Early’s response, her eyes widening in surprise. Murderers do not normally admit to their crimes on national TV. “Isn’t that a little harsh coming from an alternative justice advocate?”
“Not at all, Katie,” the judge replies, and then she looks directly into the camera. Steven has the strangest feeling that she has somehow escaped from the television and is sitting in her straight-backed chair right there in his living room.
“Steven Rasmussen refuses to admit any responsibility for the death of Maribel Flores. Until he does, there can be no rehabilitation, no clemency, no mercy. In order for a sin to be forgiven, it must first be confessed.”
It was an accident! Steven tells himself.
“And what about Lucy Rasmussen?” Katie asks. “She wasn’t guilty of anything. Why did she have to die?”
“What happened to Lucy Rasmussen was necessary, and I regret that,” the judge says, “but I did not kill her.”
“What the fuck!” Steven cries, bounding to his feet. How can she sit there all prim and proper and deny it? Lucy is dead, and Maureen Early killed her. There is nothing in the world more certain than that.
A fit of white-hot rage strikes Steven, and he flings the TV remote at the wall. Its black plastic shell cracks along the seam and its electronic innards rain noisily down onto the hardwood floor.
Somewhere offscreen, Katie is asking about what really happened, but neither Steven nor Judge Early pay her any mind. Instead, Judge Early speaks into and through the camera, to an audience of one.
“You know what happened, Steven, to Lucy and to Maribel. You know the truth. To see it, you need only open your eyes.”
That is enough for Steven. He clutches for the remote but finds his hand empty, so he dashes to the wall to pull the plug. The set makes a satisfying little pop as it dies. Steven returns to the couch and, hands trembling, pours himself another Scotch.
The trial begins at ten on Monday morning, and Steven and Meredith are the first people in the gallery. Steven has a strong sense of déjà vu entering the courtroom. It is the same one where his trial was held, the same one where Maureen Early shot Lucy to death. The attorneys and the defendant (the murderer) are already present and seated. A navy suit and a blonde ponytail fill the prosecutor’s chair – Cynthia Robbins, the same woman who prosecuted Steven. He can only hope she fares better this time.
In the defendant’s seat, Steven recognizes the limp medium-brown mop that is Judge Early’s hair, along with her retirement home-chic attire. Next to her sits her blonde attorney, in a sleek gray suit that is closer to Steven’s price range than Cynthia’s, let alone the judge’s. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun at the base of her skull. Steven recognizes the bun as soon as he sees it.
Celia Fucking Rhodes! Just a few inches to the left and Judge Early would have killed Celia instead of Lucy, yet now Celia is defending her. How can she represent such a monster? Steven had thought her better than that.
The scene is complete when the bailiff calls for everyone to rise. Judge Maryanne Eaton could be Judge Early’s long lost cousin – same small, inelegant frame, same limp, lifeless hair, same floppy white bow. Different voice, a dull alto that seems more appropriate to her stature.
As the trial begins, Steven notices faces in the gallery that shouldn’t be there, couldn’t possibly be. His college girlfriend Nancy, looking exactly as she did the day he last saw her, fifteen years ago. His kindergarten playmate Astrid, still a child. His grandmother, dead these seven years. Steven begins to worry that he is losing his mind.
The strangest figure in the gallery, and the most persistent, is a young Hispanic man, maybe mid-twenties, dressed all in black. He sits two rows behind Judge Early, and he is deathly still. Steven feels like he should recognize this man, like he has met him before, but his memory fails him. On the third day, the man is joined by a young woman, also Hispanic, dressed all in white. Again, Steven knows he knows her, but he does not know how or why.
Steven tries to follow the proceedings, but he can’t focus. There is so much procedure, so much legal administrativa, and the things the lawyers and the judge say don’t make any sense. Even the voices are strange – the attorneys’ Ivy League accents wander into Chinatown or Spanish Harlem, and Judge Eaton’s dull alto shifts down into Judge Early’s rumbling Chrysler.
The fifth afternoon, Steven thinks he hears something about the gun, which has apparently disappeared. Judge Eaton scolds ADA Robbins over the police’s unconscionable, possibly criminal negligence in the matter, but she can’t admit evidence that nobody can find.
“The police lost a Ferrari, Miss Robins,” Judge Eaton says. “It just up and disappeared. Can you explain to me how that happened?”
There is more, about abdominal bleeding and skid marks and security cameras and street lights, but Steven cannot make sense of any of it. Celia challenges all of it on various legal grounds, and Judge Eaton excludes every single item.
Finally, witness after witness testifies about the chaos in the courtroom, the gunshots, the wounded woman bleeding to death in the gallery, but Celia forces every single one of them to admit that they never actually saw Judge Early firing the shots that killed Lucy, that they never even saw Judge Early holding the gun.
“But I fucking saw her!” Steven screams at Cynthia after court that evening. “I can testify!”
“How much did you have to drink last night?” Cynthia asks. “How much do you usually drink? Are you drunk now?”
“I wasn’t drunk then!” Steven cries.
“Doesn’t matter, Steven,” Cynthia replies. “I can’t put you on the stand. Celia will tear you apart.”
Steven goes home and drinks himself stupid.
Steven wakes up on Monday with the worst hangover of his life. His head feels two sizes too big and his mouth tastes like used hospital gauze. A heavy-duty pain pill helps, but he still feels awful when Meredith arrives with his driver to take him to court. They sit in the back row and Steven keeps his sunglasses on. He dozes off and then wakes with a start as Judge Eaton seats herself.
“All charges against Judge Early are dismissed,” Judge Eaton says with a bang of her gavel.
“What?” Steven cries, bounding to his feet. “Some crazy judge shoots my wife in front of fifty people and she gets away with it? There’s nothing anybody can do?”
Judge Early, standing at the defense table, turns to face him, and a black robe condenses from the air to envelop her. Steven blinks and shakes his head to clear his eyes, but the robe remains.
And then, one by one, every single person in the courtroom stands, strides up to the bench, and takes a place in a semicircle facing Steven. As they do so, each one becomes another Judge Early, black-robed and unforgiving.
The last two to join the circle are the man-in-black and the woman-in-white. They stand in the center, and they remain themselves.
Everything else fades away – the bench, the tables, the chairs, even the windows and doors – until the room is an empty wooden box, containing only Steven, the woman-in-white, the man-in-black, and a host of glaring Judge Earlys.
Steven has worried throughout the trial that he is losing his mind. Now he knows for sure.
“But you killed Lucy!” he yells at the assembled Judges. “I saw you kill her!”
“No, Steven,” says the man-in-black. “The only killer in this room is you.” He steps forward and grabs Steven’s wrist, and his grip is hot iron rather than flesh over bone.
At once Steven finds himself back in the disappeared courtroom. Instead of the gallery, he is seated at the bench, wrapped in a black robe, with a gun in his hand. He watches in horror as his finger squeezes the trigger, acting entirely on its own.
Pop pop pop pop pop pop pop. The shots are louder than Steven remembers. Then he sees a woman in the gallery slumped over in her seat, crimson blooms erupting in her chest and face. Lucy.
“No!” Steven cries. “This is all wrong! I didn’t shoot Lucy! I don’t understand.”
“Look again,” he hears the man say, in a voice that could freeze the ocean. “Look closer.”
Again Steven is on the bench, firing the gun. Again the seven loud pops. Again the dying woman in the gallery, but this time she is not Lucy. This time she is the woman-in-white.
“I didn’t shoot anyone!” Steven cries. “What’s happening to me?”
The man’s hand clamps down tighter, and Steven relives the shooting again and again, until he is a babbling, incoherent mess. Sometimes it is Lucy he is shooting, sometimes his grandmother or his mother or his father, sometimes even himself, but somehow, behind them all, it is always the woman-in-white.
The man-in-black lets go of his wrist and steps back a pace, and Steven is once again in the featureless wooden box, facing an inquisition of Earlys.
The woman-in-white steps forward and holds her hand out to Steven. He takes it and she smiles, lighting her face up like an angel.
The scene changes again, and the woman in white is younger, in a pale blue quinceañera dress with a voluminous chiffon skirt, just like a Disney princess, surrounded by family and friends. Then she is in a green cap and gown, clutching a diploma; then blue jeans and a red Christmas sweater, at the movies with a younger man-in-black; then in another cap and gown, black this time; then in a wedding dress, standing next to the man-in-black at the altar; then in scrubs, wheeling an accident victim into the ER, or comforting a screaming child, or pulling back life from death’s outstretched hand.
Finally he sees her in a casket, in front of the same altar where she was married. Maribel Flores. How could he not know?
She lets go of his hand and steps back, no longer smiling.
“I’m sorry,” Steven says to her, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. “I am so, so sorry about the accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident, Steven,” the assembled Earlys say, and the woman-in-white and the man-in-black – Maribel and Hector – step forward together. Hector firmly grabs his wrist and Maribel gently takes his hand.
Once again, the courtroom vanishes, and Steven is in two places at once. In one he is a disembodied observer at a country inn in Connecticut. He recognizes the place immediately – he had dinner there the night of the accident. The night Maribel died.
In the other – a hospital ER – he is fully present, but his body is not his own. He feels small and soft, padded with fat in places that shouldn’t be. He is clad in loose, light cotton, almost like pajamas, with a heavy braid hanging down his neck.
Somewhere inside, Steven realizes that he is inhabiting a woman’s body, Maribel’s body. Who else could it be? Normally, such emasculation would be horrifying, almost unthinkable, but at that moment, it’s not even the third worst thing happening to him.
He is conscious of ten or more pairs of male eyes around him, doctors, patients, security guards. Conscious that at least one pair is taking a good long look, raking up and down his (her?) body the way Steven’s eyes used to do before he met Lucy. The way they still do, if he is honest with himself. Steven is used to being looked at, envied, swooned over, but always from behind the armor of his thousand dollar suit and his billion dollar trust fund. Now he feels exposed, threatened even, and the light cotton scrubs offer no protection.
“Night, Mari,” says the woman in front of him, startling him out of his thoughts. “You be careful going home.”
“Relax, Dolores,” Maribel-Steven says, laughing. “Nobody gets mugged in the Park anymore. It’s safer than crossing the street.”
“Ay, mi,” Dolores replies. “You know I still worry.”
“I’ll be fine,” Maribel-Steven says. “Goodnight, Dolores.”
She (he?) turns toward the ER door and walks out into the night.
At the country inn, Steven sees himself coming out of the restroom. He is conscious of the way he leans against the doorframe, the flush in his cheeks, the hazy, unfocused eyes. That is not how he remembers the night.
“Let me call you a car, Steven,” he hears a woman saying. Rosemary, the wife of an old college buddy.
“I’m fine,” Steven replies, and the Rasmussen charm comes on like a lightbulb. He stands up straight, he smiles, and his eyes are as sharp as a winter night’s sky. The flush in his cheeks remains, though, and his breath still smells of Scotch.
“All right, then,” Rosemary says, smiling. “Just be careful, okay? I don’t want to read about you getting into some horrible accident.”
“I’ll be careful,” Steven replies, leaning in to kiss Rosemary on the cheek. “Scout’s honor.”
Steven says the rest of his goodbyes and walks out the front door. His midnight blue Ferrari is waiting. He tips the valet a twenty, climbs in, and fumbles for the key in his pocket before realizing the engine is already on. Pulling out of the drive, he rolls down the driver’s side window to get some air and turns out onto the two-lane road. Observer-Steven gets a queasy feeling in his nonexistent stomach as he watches himself weave all over the road before regaining his focus and finding the lane. That is not how he remembers the night, not at all.
Maribel-Steven is walking into the Park, enjoying the cool spring air. It takes a little longer to get home, but it’s one less bus, and walking outside is better than being crammed into a metal box with late night strangers.
A ways into the Park, she sees a bicyclist hit a rock in the path, tip over the guard rail, and fall right onto ninety seventh street. She dashes over to help him.
The midnight blue Ferrari screeches onto the ninety sixth street exit from the Henry Hudson Parkway at the last second, going much too fast. It slows down a bit on the city streets but speeds up again as it enters the Park.
“Sir, are you all right?” Maribel-Steven asks.
“I think I hurt my knee,” the middle-aged Chinese bicyclist replies, clutching at his left leg.
“Let’s get you out of the road, and then I can take a look,” Maribel-Steven says. “I’m a nurse.”
The man nods, and Maribel bends down to help him up.
“Just put your arm around my shoulder, and don’t put any weight on that leg,” she says.
“That won’t be a problem,” he replies, grimacing and pushing off with his free hand. Together they struggle upright.
Maribel-Steven hears a loud engine revving, turns her head, and sees headlights coming at her, much too fast. She shoves the man over the guard rail and out of the street, and then everything goes black.
In the darkness, disembodied Steven feels the three sickening impacts of machinery on flesh in excruciating slow motion. Front bumper, front wheel, back wheel. After that, brakes screeching, tires smoking, the Ferrari slamming into a light pole, then nothing.
Back in the empty wood box of the courtroom, the chorus of Judge Earlys is chanting to him, voices overlapping.
… you were drunk …
… you were speeding …
… you weren’t watching the road …
… you should have seen her …
… you should have stopped …
… you killed her …
… you killed her …
… you killed her …
And Steven finally realizes what he has done. He killed Maribel Flores. It was his fault. He didn’t mean to – it was an accident – but it was his fault. He should never have gotten behind the wheel that night.
“Stop!” he cries. “Please stop. I’m sorry. I killed her, and I’m sorry. I’ll do anything you want if you can just bring her back.”
“Maribel is dead, Steven,” says one Judge Early, Steven can’t tell which. “Nobody can bring her back.”
“Oh, god,” Steven cries, and he falls, weeping, to his knees.
The woman-in-white steps forward from the circle and puts a hand under his chin.
“I forgive you, Steven,” she says. “I forgive you.”
As Steven looks up, she is already fading. The warmth of her touch lingers on his face after she is gone.
The rest of the room is fading as well, all the Judge Earlys receding into the middle distance and merging into a single glaring Judge Early. She gives him one last look and she is gone as well.
Only the man-in-black remains, unmoving, his eyes fixed on Steven. They remain suspended together, Steven and Hector, in time out of time. Finally, when all is darkness, he speaks.
“I don’t forgive you.”
The lights in the courtroom dim and flicker back to life, and the computer on the court clerk’s desk emits a loud beep.
“Just a brownout, people,” the bailiff says. “Happens all the time in this old building. Nothing to worry about.”
Steven realizes with a jolt that he is back in the real world. Celia is sitting next to him, Judge Early on the bench, and Cynthia across the aisle at the prosecutor’s table. He spins around in his chair and sees Meredith behind him, and right next to her he sees Lucy, his lovely Lucy. His heart bursts open. Lucy is alive!
None of those awful things he remembers ever happened. None of it was real.
Across the aisle, though, Hector Flores sits alone in the back row with his head in his hands, no longer dressed all in black. A knot forms in Steven’s stomach. Hector’s grief is real. Maribel’s death was real.
The knot in his stomach becomes a gaping wound. He killed Maribel Flores. He took her from her husband, from her family, from all those who loved her. He took her life. It was no accident; he was responsible. He will live with that knowledge until death lifts his burden away.
Celia elbows him in the ribs, and he realizes the judge is addressing him. He stands.
“Do you understand, Mr. Rasmussen?” the judge asks.
He meets the judge’s gaze, this time completely unguarded. He sees in her piercing green eyes that she knows everything, that she has reached inside him and shown him the truth. The rest is up to him.
“Yes, your honor, I understand.”