by Claire Rudy Foster
That morning there was an email from Paul. Gemma clicked on it without thinking. Her coffee mug steamed at her elbow, too hot to drink. She forced her eyes to focus on the tiny electronic letters. Legal issues, he wrote. Looks like it’s back to jail, do not pass go. I’ll try to be out by summer break so we can meet again in the usual place. She had to read it twice, slowly. Then she slammed the laptop shut, as though extinguishing a flame.
Pouring her coffee into the travel thermos, she took care to rest the lips of the cups together. That way, even her shivering hands couldn’t spill—no messes, her kitchen spotless, not a beer can in sight, the garbage can empty and lined with a fresh plastic bag. A place where no roach dared to tread.
Don’t nobody know my troubles with God, she sang along with Moby on the radio. Traffic was light going into the city, but she tailgated the red Civic in front of her anyway. The maples and pines that shouldered together on both sides of the highway were close and dark, the ivy obscuring their trunks so they seemed like a dense wall of green. As Gemma’s Volvo rounded the final bend, and she saw the tunnel that opened to the city, the sky began to lighten in the west. A handful of leaves floated over the road for a moment, showing their yellow bellies.
“You won’t need those,” Allie told Gemma in the locker room. “She’s doped.”
Gemma hesitated, handcuffs halfway clipped to her belt. She had her taser, her pistol. Her mace, the can as slim and shiny as a tube of mascara. “Still dangerous,” she said. The wallet-sized photo of Paul, slipped under a magnet mirror on the inside of her locker. She’d cut it out of a bigger picture, and now she couldn’t remember who else had been there that night. The beginning of his legal issues, the night he’d set the first fire. Ninety months in jail, mitigated only by Gemma’s testimony, her eyewitness and sterling evidence that she’d been with him, that he’d been unwell. That the gasoline hadn’t been purchased at a truck stop outside of Portland, that he hadn’t painstakingly loaded the match heads into the tennis ball. None of it was true, she’d said to the jury. Paul had to serve six months, and then they let him go. The word of a police officer and a private-pay lawyer—the recipe for a reduced sentence. That was ten years ago, but Paul was still on paper. After all her efforts, he had proved himself unredeemable. Gemma fingered the handcuffs, felt the tiny pins in the chain.
“It might look better if we were unarmed, you know? Things are bad enough already,” Allie said.
“She’ll look less guilty.”
Allie shrugged, straightened her clip-on tie. “Everyone knew from the start.”
Gemma shook her head, fastened her handcuffs into their right place on her belt. “Now’s not the time.” She touched the hammer of her pistol, snapped the leather strap around the grip. She liked its weight, which reminded her of the way Paul’s hand used to rest on her hip, a little too heavy, a push in the wrong direction. Making dinner, she’d find herself in his bed, oblivious to the smell of scorching onions.
She caught Allie frowning, ignored it, headed towards the control desk. “Unless you’ve got clearance, you should probably arm up,” she called over her shoulder. And was gratified to hear Allie’s locker opening, the belt and gun and clinking keys sliding through the metal door.
The prisoner was not fat but had the pouchy, waterlogged face of someone who cried too much. A washed-up woman, Paul would have said, with his poet’s touch. Gemma tugged her earlobe, trying to rattle his voice out of her head. No distractions today. She nodded at the receptionist standing behind the control desk, who pressed a button by her knee to let Gemma through the security doors. The courthouse holding cells were brightly lit, fluorescent tubes giving light in pulses. The walls an industrial white, Walmart blue linoleum floors. They’d renovated upstairs, trying to make the lobby seem grand—Paul again—even judicious, but the place for prisoners was a different story. The single hallway, its row of unbreakable metal doors holding the guilty, the unsentenced, the frightened people in their orange prison suits. The accused.
Twenty-five years old, born and raised in Portland, a single white female living alone in a cheap suburb outside the city. Never had a boyfriend, and Gemma, who was not allowed to read the charts but had a quick eye and a terrible curiosity, saw that the girl’s hymen had been intact when the doctors examined her. She’d claimed a miscarriage, the baby only five weeks from being born. But the blood on the suspect’s clothes was not her own, nor did the dead infant’s DNA sample match hers. She’d been put in soft restraints, sedated. It was all in the chart. She’d screamed my baby help my baby over and over until the drugs took hold. The orderlies watched her through a security camera, and as Gemma unlocked the cell she imagined it, the woman on the bed, belly heaving, face streaked with scummy tears. The police had found the baby’s real mother—cold, stripped—hidden in a crawl space behind the suspect’s oven. Her abdomen was slashed open, uterus torn in two. The news played the story for weeks, showing every time the real mother’s picture, reiterating the details of the attack. How her nose had been broken and skull knotted by a metal baton, how the suspect had allegedly lured her into danger with the promise of baby clothes, a crib, a tiny bassinet. The real mother had been twenty-one, blond, gullible. Unmarried. And of course the baby had not survived without her.
Today was the sentencing, and the same news crews that had pumped up the grisly murder were already staking out their places in the courtroom and on the marble steps outside. They were asking the prosecutor for a statement, knowing he could be counted on to say certain things about protecting our most innocent. He’d stand behind the specially draped podium between the columns and declare a victory against evil. Nobody would contradict him—the suspect hadn’t bothered to plead insanity, wouldn’t consider it. I wanted my baby was her testimony, the only thing that made it past the courtroom doors. The clip of her sad, soft face, her voice pleading with the stony-faced jury. I just wanted my baby.
The same face greeted Gemma inside the cell. The woman sat on the edge of her cot (sheetless, metal, bolted to the wall and floor with 8-inch rivets). Her orange clothes bunched around her arms and waist, making her look like a doll whose stuffing had been taken out and then clumsily jammed back in. She was thinner than she had been at the beginning of the trial, but they’d let her wash her hair and the circles under her eyes, though dark, did not seem to age her. Gemma wondered if someone had given the woman makeup to cover her skin, or waterproof mascara for the hearing of the verdict. Though by now the woman must know what was going to happen to her, how everyone was crying for blood. It would be life in prison, possibly even transfer to one of the death penalty states for a retrial—the kind of place where no number of appeals could make a difference. The woman smoothed her ponytail, tucked a stray strand behind her ear. She looked at Gemma, her eyes mostly pupil.
“You’re here for me,” she said. The words were gulped back as though lodged in the woman’s throat. She didn’t cry, like some prisoners, or snarl. One man had thrown himself at Gemma, not anticipating her quickness with the mace and the butt of her pistol. He’d held his broken nose between his praying hands while receiving his sentence (rape and attempted strangulation of a twelve-year-old girl, ten years without parole). Gemma had watched him from her place by the exit door, secretly hoping he’d spring at her again.
She’d met Paul when she was twenty-two and halfway through her online degree in Criminal Justice. She only knew that she liked him, in spite of her passion for maintaining order. “You think you can change me?” Paul had asked her when she visited him in County after his first arrest (suspected drunk driving in a rural area, exceeding the speed limit, reckless endangerment).
She’d nodded, drummed her fingers on the greasy plastic table. “I see you,” she told him, and though he laughed, she wouldn’t let him make it into a joke. “I’ll change you because you can’t change yourself.”
“Between you and outpatient, I’m really fucked, aren’t I.” But he pressed her hand for a moment at the end of the visit, and his face was so beautiful and serious that she believed that she really did have the power to bring forth the goodness in him. The transformation, she thought, would come in time. In any case, he had eighteen months of group therapy, urine tests, and AA meetings to think about what she’d said.
“You’re young,” the woman croaked. She looked Gemma over, the dark blue uniform. The gun didn’t cause as much as a flicker on her drugged-out face. Space face, psych case, said Paul in Gemma’s head.
“Your verdict has been prepared,” Gemma recited. “Myself and one other female guard will escort you to the courtroom.” The woman clutched the edge of the cot, shook her head.
“Not today,” she said, but Gemma was ready for her and took a step closer, already unhooking the handcuffs.
“I don’t want them,” the woman said. “I want my lawyer.”
But Gemma had heard it before. “This is standard procedure,” she said. “Please rise and put your hands behind your back.”
She’d used them on Paul, as a game, clipped him to the enamel rail of her headboard. Neither of them was a stranger to handcuffs—Gemma having just finished her final security and firearms training, and Paul waiting for a summons from an Idaho court for charges of possession. Is this supposed to be exciting? he’d asked, but came in her mouth anyway. The chain links pitted the white paint on the enamel, like the marks that teeth make in a slice of frosted cake.
The accused (or suspect or prisoner or alleged murderer) shuffled her feet on the floor, an obstinate child. Gemma suspected that they’d given her morphine, maybe some heavy-duty benzos. Something to slow her judgment. It was safer for everyone this way.
“You’re no cop,” the woman slurred. She leaned forward as though to stand. A bead of saliva dropped between her feet, then a second one near the toe of Gemma’s boot. “Worthless. Not even a mother.”
“Are you refusing to cooperate?” Gemma asked. “I’ll count to three.”
“I want my lawyer,” the woman said, but Gemma, not wanting to risk being spat on, seized the woman’s wrist and pinned her face-down on the mattress, her knee in the middle of the woman’s back. It would only take a light tug to dislocate at least one shoulder, wrench loose the tendons around the shoulder blades. And, Gemma thought in the instant before she slid on the shining bracelets, would anyone complain? This woman had done the unspeakable—yet she got a fair trial. She got to stand in front of the jury with her hair neat and her dignity intact. Gemma tightened her fingers over the woman’s clammy fists. How easy it would be to snap the ulna, leave a surreptitious spattering of bruises on the prisoner’s back. You deserved it, Gemma could say. As though it was her choice to make, who was guilty or not.
“Your lawyer is in the courtroom,” Gemma said. She changed her grip, hauled the woman to her feet by her upper arm. That might leave a mark. The woman’s flesh was so soft, muscle-less, that it felt like bread dough that you could squeeze and squeeze between your two fists. “Everyone’s waiting on you.”
“But it’s not real, is it?” The woman asked. “Your badge, all of this.”
“It’s real, bitch,” Gemma whispered under her breath. The prisoner, goaded by Gemma’s fingers, lurched towards the door. At the end of the hallway, the double doors, and beyond that an elevator which—for security reasons—would only go one floor at a time, with Gemma’s key inserted in a special panel by the emergency button. She had a spotless record, Gemma did. Never assaulted by a prisoner, never unprepared. Never lost the upper hand. From the first moment in the cell, she commanded the accused. Her lead officer asked if she had experience with dogs, or training animals. Paul’s wolfish grin appeared in her mind, but she shook her head and said nothing. Nobody had to know about him, they’d decided that together. Except for the testimony in the arson case, there were no links between them. Even when he needed a train ticket, or a new pair of pants, she used cash and not her credit card. No traces, she told him, and in answer he brushed his fingers down her neck, leaving behind little trails of fire.
At the entry to the courtroom, Gemma put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and looked her over. They could both hear the photographers warming up their shutters, the awful hum of a room full of people paying attention. Gemma straightened the woman’s shirt and neatened her hair.
“You did a terrible thing,” she said. “Don’t know if you know that.”
The woman stared at Gemma’s badge, her nametag. “This isn’t right,” she said, and before Gemma could argue, added, “You shouldn’t be doing this—this line of work.”
The woman frowned. “You like the pain too much. One day, you’ll run out of people to hurt. There won’t be anyone left but you.”
And then Allie was there, taking the woman’s other elbow, and they went into the buzzing room together, the cameras absorbing their faces, magnifying the three women—two in blue, the angels of justice, and the shuddering creature between them, the guilty one, how could she have done such a thing? It was the end of a nightmare, the prosecution said, and Gemma closed her eyes and felt the woman shivering, her body fighting the weight of the sedative and the accusations and the longing, the terrible longing, for the one she wanted so badly—the baby, she loved him, she would hold him so close that the world could never, ever hurt him. And he would grow in her like a monster, a blackened seed stretching its roots into the darkest soil inside her.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a novel.
Image credit: marc cornelis on Flickr