So, this is actually a story I started a few weeks ago after sipping a couple whiskey and cokes on my back step. It was a warm night and Hagan wanted to run and play – I wanted to get drunk. We both got what we wanted although I think Hagan definitely liked the next morning a lot better. This is my first shot at a #thirstythursday but I thought it might be interesting to see where I ended up creatively. The stories will depend on the type of drunk, I guess, and whiskey always turns me into a serious thinker. I ended up somewhere in the middle of “political corruption” and “suppressed sexual attraction.”
“Girl, stand up and give us your name.”
The man’s face was turned downward so deeply into a scowl I feared his wrinkles were stained on permanently. His voice was a booming gong in the empty crystal hall and edged with a hint of exhaustion. He, as well as the other eleven seated around him, wore all black and continued to stare down at me as I rose and paced to the podium. My heels danced tiny staccato notes across the emerald tile and the seams of my pencil skirt were crisp against my hips. I refused to look down when I reached the microphone, instead gazing openly at the dominant faces of the judgement Circle.
“My name is Jett Walker,” I stated, wrapping my hands together in a neat knot on top of the platform. I knew not to communicate any further; there were few rules when presented in front of the Circle but waiting to speak only when spoken to was the most vital.
“Walker,” the same man mused, rolling my last name across his tongue. He held himself with an air defiant of his age; his hair was salt and pepper around his temple and crows feet perched on his outer-eye line. He would’ve been handsome in a chiseled way if not for his equal tonal sharpness. His posture suddenly grew rigid and I watched him pull the cuffs of his dress shirt closer to his wrists. My gut gave a little flip, guessing the reason for such a reaction. “The daughter of Benjamin Walker?”
A frog lodged itself directly in the column of my throat at the mention of my deceased father. I nodded gently instead of answering knowing my voice would betray my attempt at bravery alone in the massive hall.
Hushed intakes of breath and murmurs caressed the Circle above me and the man instantly lifted a hand to silence them. A woman seated to his right gave me a subtle type of close-lipped smile, not the kind which reached her eyes but enough to show she acknowledged my discomfort. Her charcoal hair was pulled back into a harsh ponytail, accenting her arched brows but her skin was tanned with tiny galaxies of freckles along her cheekbones.
“Jett, is this the first time you’ve presented a judgement to the Circle? It needs to be stated for the record,” the woman said, her voice rich with upper class. Her black bodycon dress was structured with pieces of leather hugging her shoulders and across her chest; her collar bones dipped into pretty caves containing more freckles and I could see toned calves curving into stiletto pumps from beneath the table. Her presence commanded almost as much attention as the man at the head of the Circle.
“Yes ma’am, this is my first,” I said. My own voice rang out clear and I did the best to clear out most of my southern drawl, sharpening it instead into the clipped tonalities I’d heard from city girls. “I’ve testified as medical witness at previous trials but never presented my own case.”
“Please state your age for the record,” another woman continued, further to my left towards the end of the half-moon looking down at me. Her pen hovered above a fresh tablet of paper, curled inward with fingernails painted a muted pink. A silky, black sweater hung loose across her frame in an artistic way – simple and bohemian. Her eyes, however, held nothing but a look of bland disinterest in being present.
“No,” I stated, my knuckles turning white above my irritated grip. I knew these type of questions were just part of the process but I’d never enjoyed watching people suffer through them. Now on the receiving end, I despised her nosy questioning even more.
I understood they would want to know my relationship status foremost to warrant there wasn’t someone who could verify or disclaim information I presented. It was no secret, however, they also served as a front for making sure citizens were aware when they didn’t meet up to society’s code of norms.
“Pity,” the prying woman chided, jotting down her first note on the page before her. I couldn’t see what she wrote but could only assume it was negative in nature. She clucked her tongue in disapproval while tucking her ankles together under the table. I could sense she had taken more interest if only because she now had a reason to dislike me. I felt my teeth grit so heavily my jaw ached but I held firm in silence.
“Now, Florence. I’m sure Miss Walker doesn’t find her situation as pitiful one bit,” the first man murmured, his deep bass like a purr. His attention remained focused on my face as the woman on the left flushed a deep scarlet. “In fact, looking over your records, Jett, it seems you are quite the figure in Orion. Young, yet exceedingly bright surgeon. Funded a public library opening. Partnered with our very own company Rain and Farm to provide water and fresh food to the outer regions. Many more noted accomplishments and charities. You’ve quite the resume.”
His eyes met mine above the folder he was flipping through and for the first time since I walked in I caught a glimpse of the man behind the black suited scowl. His casual defense of my living situation was but a small comfort to the fact he had my whole life laid out before him on a report.
“Jett, why are you here today?”
It was the beautiful woman on the right who posed the question and I felt my shoulders simultaneously relax then stiffen back up returning to the main issue. My nerves sparked with fear and tingles of adrenaline shot across the backs of my hands and down my neck. I could feel twelve sets of eyes now firmly focused on my face as I cleared my throat.
“I believe, with both the firmest of emotional convictions and physical evidence I’ve collected, I know who killed your Phoenix solider.”
The silence was deafening as I stared hard into the authoritative woman’s eyes. Her olive-toned cheeks paled slightly but she held firm to my study as one brow shot into her forehead. Her voice seemed weakened from only seconds before when she asked:
“Do you mean Ash?”
The man turned to glance at her, the muscles in his neck stark in the white light above their table. I broke eye contact only long enough to look at him, noticing the way his eyes seemed to widen minutely. I reached down into the briefcase at my feet and pulled a small silver remote from the side pocket. It was no bigger than a quarter but held years of notes and voice memos, autopsy documents, collected interviews, and crime scene photographs. I took a deep drag of breath through my lungs and pushed forward.
“Yes, Asher Hall is the solider I’m referring to. If I can persuade you on any level, please grant me the time to present to you what I’ve gathered,” I implored, signaling the remote in my hand. The man’s eyes flicked quickly between the object and myself, all traces of the scowl gone and replaced with what I could only guess was curiosity. My throat scratched with fighting back emotions too soft to expose. “I am well aware this is the end of the line. If the Circle won’t help me, no one will.”
In a mirrored way from only minutes before, all eyes turned instead to the man. A small tick at the edge of his jaw was the only outward sign of strain he emitted. He leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms before addressing the Circle:
“As you all know, it must be unanimous. All in favor of seeing Dr. Walker’s data, raise your hand.”
My heart stopped the instant hands shot into the air. I counted quickly – one, two, five, eight, ten, eleven hands dotted the air beneath the glass chandelier and their heads.
My heart plummeted at the one hand remaining absolute on the table top.
He was a large man, even sitting I knew he was well over six foot tall and broad shouldered. Tattoos of flame licked up his biceps and into his neckline. A plain black tshirt clung to tense muscles with an emblem of a phoenix in flame above his right pectoral. His pitch-black hair was shaved close on the sides and ruffled into waves in a casual way across the top. My stomach sank at the familiar look of rebellion he had plastered across his face.
“I’m sorry, Jett,” he sighed, rubbing the spot between his eyebrows. When he looked up I saw him withdraw from the venom I knew must be in my eyes. “You know I can’t be a part of this.”
“Thad, please,” I started before cutting myself off. I felt my face flush with warmth, knowing my cheeks had to be as red as tomatoes under the skylight. My anger snapped like a whip against my chest at his dismissal. “No. I will not beg. If you cannot see the folly in your decision, I won’t waste my time.”
“Jett, I took an oath. I cannot and I will not break it for the sake of my own heart needing to know about Ash’s death. Surely you can understand,” he pleaded. I had memorized the lines of his face for years and I saw in the set of his eyes he had made a resolute decision. His voice was soft, the one he used when comforting a mother who had just lost a child or a domestic abuse victim. It only flamed the ire in my chest at being talked to like a spooked horse. “We need to just let this go. Don’t you understand?”
Slamming my hands down on the podium, my voice rose to a volume I rarely used in public:
“As we have discussed many times, I do not understand. What I do understand, though? You’re a coward Thaddeus Whitman. I have proof. I have undeniable truth right here in my hands about Ash,” I raged, raising the remote in my hand. Several faces in the Circle jerked with surprise yet none made a move to silence my ranting. “God, why can’t you just accept the fact there is corruption at the heart of the oath you gave? Why can’t you just let me try-“
“Enough, Jett! You have already risked enough even coming here today. Not another goddamn word.”
He had risen, a thundering cloud of black above me at a table of stilled silence. I could practically see his fury radiating off him like steam but I refused to cower. I had stood toe to toe with him on things which had mattered but never anything such as this.
Suddenly, I felt deflated and broken with the realization I wouldn’t make it a step further with the current audience. I had prepared for weeks and it was all for nothing. Salt to the wounds knowing it had been destroyed by someone I’d trusted.
“Thank you for your time,” I quietly murmured, nodding at the rest of the Circle. The man at the head of the table and nosy Florence both nodded back but the strong woman on the right refused to acknowledge me. Her ponytail swung heavily over her shoulder, shielding her face but I could see her hands spread out evenly on the table in front of her as if she was holding on for balance.
I slipped the remote back into the side pocket of the briefcase and walked slowly back across the hall. I breathed in-and-out, in-and-out one step at a time and head held high. The sea-green tile at the end of the hall reminded me of where the ocean water meets sand and I felt in that moment I was crossing a line I would never be able to jump back across.
“I have to tell you,” I said, turning around at the door. Some in the Circle had turned among themselves for quiet conversation. Thad was almost out the back exit when he stopped at the sound of my voice. “Ash was not a single, isolated event. There are more like him and if I’m correct there will continue to be more. I will not carry the weight of that knowledge on my shoulders alone. I will not lay awake at night or cry when I discover another burnt body.”
Thad’s eyes darkened and I caught him take one cautious step toward me before I exited the massive oak doors of the judgment hall and out into the sunlight.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou