Actions Speak Louder than Words
I finally tore away the long strand of denim hanging from my jeans. I had been working on that sucker since the defendant began talking. Now, don’t go judging a guy (pun intended) for wearing jeans to court. These were my nice jeans, my jury-going jeans, with their bootcut legs and ornamental stitching on the posterior indicating my well-paid-for sophistication. Or so the fashion window promised.
I had grown bored near the end of the trial, if you couldn’t tell by my weird jean rant. A spectacular apology scene caught my interest a half hour ago, but it burnt out fast and went back to lawyerly talk just after.
I rose with the rest of the jury as they filed out of the box seats and into the jury room. Crime and all details to do with it was never my schtick. Thankfully, they gave me enough material for me to see my answer. Rick Walter was not guilty, plain as day or Greek yogurt or however that adage goes. Although Rick admitted from the beginning to the murder of his dirtbag son-in-law and had remained consistent with the details throughout, he enacted a painfully obvious farce, and the theatre had always been more interesting to me than crime.
Dirtbag Matthis Bark was married to Rick Walter’s daughter. Inside their first year of marriage, three domestic abuse reports had been filed against Matthis. Not by Rick’s daughter. By Rick.
Trust me, I would understand if Rick took care of the problem permanently. If anyone forced themselves onto my daughter, my Marna, in any way, the only thing they’d ever be able to force themselves onto again would be a hospital bed. I shuddered. Just the thought of Marna’s arms pinned and unable to chop her right hand down onto her left palm to sign ‘Stop’, fear tearing away her hard work of enunciating sounds she would never hear, so she wails out any kind of siren that could leave her throat. Yeah, I’d take care of that problem permanently. But with all the reason in Rick’s world to take care of Dirtbag Matthis, he simply had not done it.
The truth was as obvious as the empty, scented plugin unable to do its much-needed job, and I lamented it so. The hallway to the jury room, hell, the entire place smelled like business—not that kind of business—but rather the stale fog of fresh-linen spray and burnt coffee and pinstriped attire haunted by smoke.
The jury room smelled no better or worse. I sat down before anyone else got to the table and put my eyes down on the denim strand. I wove it around my fingers, remembering the tricky webs I used to practice as a boy. The things one remembers, I thought. The table stood high enough to keep my fidgeting out of sight from the other jurors, who began sitting around me. Most of them were talking amongst themselves anyhow. No one sat facing me.
Chops’ voice boomed above the rest, making him ninety percent of what I heard, and therefore, the same percent of what I wanted to tune out. He swung his arms in grand circles and oscillated his body as he went on about his methods of Irish breadmaking. I thought of him as Chops because of the unkempt muttonchops dominating his slender face like ivy. They had kept my eyes locked on their patchy red bristles when we spoke before the trial.
Naming people I never expected to see again was a fun game. The woman to my right huffed so much, it seemed as if she were trying to create her own atmosphere to float up into so no one could talk to her. Huffer, I thought. The man to my left stared goose-necked at his phone. Definitely Gooseneck.
A young man, no older than twenty-five, entered the room. He quickly looked away from the attention he’d drawn by being the last one to join the group and sat in the last empty seat. Last One In. That’ll do for him.
But attention on Last One In turned a moment later to the plain wicker basket in the middle of the table. Dashes of white and yellow filled in the gaps between woven layers, hinting at something inside, likely paper, though mints would be better. Everyone tapped their fingers and feet or stared longingly out the window at the sun. We all wanted to return to our gardening, our reading, our gaming. Almighty forbid, perhaps some of us wanted to return to work.
“Shall we vote then? See where we all stand? It’s a cut and dry answer for me and for probably most of you, but we all know the process we have to follow here.” It was a beautiful Latina woman speaking, her voice as sharp as her black blazer. She could go by no other name than Blazer, her real name be damned, whatever it was.
Everyone nodded to vote. I pocketed the denim strand. Gooseneck to the left of me eventually handed down the basket from which I plucked a folded sheet and a tiny golfing pencil before passing the basket on to Huffer. The folded sheet was designed by a second grader, had to be. I stared convinced. We had a checkbox for Guilty and below that a checkbox for Not Guilty. No bother. One round of votes and done. They’ll see through Rick’s show like cheap tulle at a Halloween bash, and I can go home to read.
I shaded in the Not Guilty checkbox and placed it back into the basket with the pencil on its return trip some minutes later. There were fewer pencils returned than papers.
Blazer pulled the filled basket close and started unfolding our votes. She smiled at the first one she read, making me smile confidently back. She set it faceup for everyone to see. I stretched to read it. Checkmark for Guilty. I felt my eyebrow arc as my smile died.
Blazer smiled at five more Guilty votes all in a row. When she read the next vote, which I had to guess was mine considering the newly apparent odds, her smile died and went to the same smile hell as mine had. She set my Not Guilty opposite the Guiltys, alone in its decision and looking quite sad. Blazer finished opening the votes. The mountain of ten loomed imperious over the lone foothill.
“What’s up with that?” I asked. I used a careful tone, but upon breaking the room’s silence, I realized my words could have been sung and still their ears would have heard a song about barbs and teeth.
“Yeah!” other people said. I realized I sounded like a Guilty voter rooting out the joker from the deck—me. Should I admit to hanging the jury? I could play it off, see where it goes. But what would be the point? In the end, my insight will be needed.
“Did anyone listen to Rick Walter?” I asked. “I would think you all heard him, but did you listen?”
“I listened to him admit to killing Matthis,” Huffer beside me answered.
“I listened to Rick explain in way too much detail how he bashed Matthis’ head in with a rock,” mumbled Last One In.
“I listened to the man, and I would’ve done the same! A boy’s hands on my daughter means my hands on that boy’s grave,” said Chops. So many remained silent, either timidly or irritably so.
“No. No. No. That’s hearing,” I said.
“Stop splittin’ hairs,” Chops replied.
“Most people don’t admit to a murder they didn’t commit, especially nowadays. Everyone’s out for themselves,” an old lady said. She’s Betty now, because all white-haired ladies made me think of Betty White.
“No one is arguing that Matthis was a piece of shit, and no one feels sorry for what happened to him, yes?” I asked pointedly.
“Hell yes!” Chops called out. He gave the air a small, victorious punch. Everyone else nodded in agreement, even Betty, who seemed personally accosted by my use of ‘shit’.
“This includes Rick,” I continued. “Rick spoke the entire trial in his too-much detail without a modicum of remorse or emotion spared for his son-in-law. Not unheard of, I suppose. But there at the end when he let go of that sincere, throbbing apology, he wasn’t apologizing or crying for Matthis. Why would he?” Most the jurors shrugged. The rest waited.
“Rick’s feet and torso were turned towards his ten o’clock, which is bizarre. That pivoted him away from the judge. The trial at hand should have had all of his body language direct and center. But it didn’t. His answers were stilted, and he altogether seemed resigned. During Rick’s apology, I followed his eyes to a crying teenaged boy in the stands, who sat at Rick’s ten o’clock. There were others crying and tearing up in the stands, but that boy … he had heavy words in his mouth that Rick shook his head against. It was slight, but it was there. Rick practiced scanning his eyes across the room, but there was only one place they kept going back to.”
“Hmm.” Blazer cocked a sideways smirk.
“That boy,” I said. “I don’t know who he is to Rick or how he could be involved, but he’s exactly that – involved. I believe this is just the peephole into their circus, and Rick’s not the ringleader.”
Betty had her hand soft on her cheek, looking like Shirley Temple in thought. Chops’ face reddened as he stared down at the table, fixed in his own thoughts. I saw a lot of arguments boiling up amongst the other jurors, but I looked to Blazer, for her reaction intrigued me most.
Blazer leaned forward, palms on the table. She gave me the side nod and the mouth quirk that meant touché. “I suggest we call our families and brew up some coffee,” she said.
Blazer and I held a glance, groans and mumbling and chairs scraping the floor in the background. I smiled at her. Not a knowing smile or an I-told-you-so smile. I gave her a genuine ‘Thank You’, and, fortunately (or unfortunately) for Rick Walter, I could tell she read my smile exactly right.
Love with a Child’s Heart
Love as you once did, with your whole, unbiased, full-to-exploding heart. Look as you once did, with eyes that seek only the soul.
We grow up being scolded on what not to eat, to wear, to say. The promised land of adulthood freedom awaits, and there you can eat, wear, and say what you like when you like. Then one day you’re an adult who has wandered to the bar-locked end of expected privilege. You’re heavy with exhaustion and disappointment. Sunken eyes look on you from the next cage over. They demand in their lidded stare that you eat to be thin, wear plain and forgettable clothing, say not what is on your mind but parrot your color-coded politician.
Blacken your childhood wonder. Resist joy at running in the rain. Laugh only at age-appropriate jokes. The troubling part is few people are ever told these worldly expectations. We are led by example because nails must be hammered into place.
But who says? Where is this invisible shackle leading from? Is it from fear of humiliation amongst our peers? From fear of being judged by faces that don’t smile real smiles?
Creativity does not expire. Self-expression does not have an age limit. Wear that sun-yellow shirt out in the rain. Grab the hand of your stubborn best friend and kick up the puddles. Find that unconditional love we spread as children and make an epidemic out of it. Away from the umbrage of adult delusions lies our answers, our true freedom.
My heart sank with each blaring flaw my eyes widened upon in the mirror. I sucked in my stubborn pouch, righted my posture, pulled my hair up and immediately threw it back down. An elderly woman came out of one of the bathroom stalls. I jumped back to washing my hands and kept my eyes down from her judgement and my own.
Remember the positive thinking. We are each beautiful in our different ways, and those very differences are effortlessly and intrinsically beautiful unto themselves. Happy and healthy is the goal—not faux, magazine perfection. My self-worth is separate from my outward appearance. I am worthy of life’s wonderful things without gracing Vogue.
The door swung open as I dried my hands. A tall, thin woman entered, hair as long as her legs—the ideal that I so vehemently tried to convince myself doesn’t exist outside the airbrush radius of Hollywood. No. It just didn’t exist for me. That’s okay. Hatred plumed in my chest, for the swell of her breasts and for the modest slope of mine. She smiled her straight, bleached teeth at me. Great, stunning and polite. Bitch.
I gave her a tight-lipped semblance of a smile. Breathe. She’s beautiful in her way, and I’m beautiful in mine. It must be nice to own that type of beauty, though. The kind that stops traffic. The kind that assures you that passersby are gawking at your Grecian-statue face and not at a potential misfortune hanging out of your nose. Stop—confidence is chosen. It can be mine. It is mine. I’m stronger than this. I am—that bitch has the purse I wanted.
“Eski.” My disciples knew what that name meant, or they thought they did. The candles pulled their flames down low. Even they sensed the presence creeping overhead. Everyone hiked their shoulders up except me.
I heard the screaming sweep from one end of the room to the other, the torment of a thousand souls howling from one central vessel. White, phantasmal faces materialized from a dark corner. They swam and twisted around one another, eternally confined to meander across the shape of a tall woman. Eski had no eyes, for she saw through her collection of faces.
My disciples turned towards the incessant screaming. Their eyes widened beneath their hoods, pricks of amber reflection caught in fight or flight. Eski’s thirst lingered so heavy on the air, my disciples began eyeing each other hungrily. One of them ran out from the crowd and bolted for the door. The defector’s hood flew back, showing me a blonde ponytail. Dammit, I liked that one, not that it mattered in the end.
Eski’s form broke out into teems of unbound souls—Fragments, I called them. My disciple halted mere feet from the door. Souls had grouped at her feet, restraining them as the wailing faces spread up her legs. Their cries grew louder the higher they climbed. The girl shrieked, trying to kick her way free.
“Screeeeeam,” Eski whispered. The shifting mass of souls ate its way up to my disciple’s neck, her moans barely audible over the resonant cacophony. They swarmed over the rest of her, suddenly cutting off her sound.
My disciples swayed in shock and inexplicable hunger. I once lived through that emotional cocktail before I was spared. Eski hummed as she fed. One final yell rang in my ears before the girl’s blood sprayed out from between the souls throbbing like leeches. The humming stopped. Every Fragment turned towards my remaining disciples. At once, they flew to the main offering. I looked over at the girl’s husk lying on the floor. I never could get used to that.
Screeching echoed off the stone walls as the rest of them were bled dry. The Fragments threw the withered skins in a pile and melded back into Eski’s female form. I fixed my eyes on the outline of her face. I had accepted my heinous role in this, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed seeing my disciples that way.
“Will this be enough until next month?” I asked flatly.
“More,” whispered Eski.
“Gathering people and getting them to trust me takes time,” I explained patiently.
“I chose you as my servant because you had the most to lose, remember? Their blood is your rent. You give. I take. You stop. I take.” Goosebumps prickled down my arms. I balled my hands, protecting my wedding ring. “More, slave,” Eski repeated. Her body of souls had grown, as had the bloodlust in their eyes. She backed into the darkness, but the screaming didn’t leave my ears until long after the faces had faded.
Only Heroes Get Names
Aliana finally raised her head, for her only audience at that moment was the trees. She closed her eyes and tilted her face into a sunbeam, allowing her hair to fall away from the black eye. At least it wasn’t both eyes again. That would be harder to hide, from sight and questions alike.
“I’m going to tell you my secret today,” she told the tree as she sat down on a gnarled root. Aliana marveled at its flat, fan-like canopy, as she always did on these visits. It seemed more like one textured fabric than it did a million leaves. It instilled in her the sense that she wasn’t the only one harboring secrets, that this place had always been meant for secrets to be kept, like a garden that nurtured your brokenness in return for your trust.
“I still love him,” she confessed. She let the tears go. All she could ever do was hold them in. She learned the hard way that when she cried in front of him, she was crying gasoline onto his fire. The leaves rustled in their strange, united way, as though each one connected to the next.
“I don’t know if it’s love, fear, loathing. It’s a cage, and my emotion takes on whatever scrap he feeds me that day. He says he’s sorry in a way that makes me feel sorry for him.” Aliana shook her head and placed a hand on the tree trunk. A quiver rolled under her palm. Her hands must have been shaking worse than she realized.
“I have fantasies of him dying.” Aliana hung her head. “It makes me wonder if I’m the monster, if I deserve to be in that cage. But I could never…” The sunbeams slowly moved down her arms. She snapped out of her head and looked up at the sinking sun. “I have to get back.” Aliana jumped to her feet. “Thank you,” she said, and rushed off.
She raced barefoot over rocks and roots. It used to hurt, but after sneaking away so many times, it built up a resistance just like any other part of her. He thought that would keep her in the house, taking her shoes. He’d have to take away a lot more than shoes, but she didn’t want him to know that.
When their village came back into sight, Aliana slowed to a swift gait and combed her bangs down. She had mastered the art of walking quickly enough to get back to him without walking so quickly that it put wind in her hair. Her eyes darted around the busy street. She didn’t notice the smiles she got or the concerned gestures. She noticed whether she would run into him now or at home. She knew she wasn’t fooling everyone, but she didn’t care about everyone. Just him.
She glanced around outside their front door before hiking up her skirt and stepping into the bucket of rain water to wash her feet. Rainy days were her favorite, because rainy days meant a visit to Fayn Forest. He never questioned the pail sitting outside or the water she let sit in it. She always snuck off the day after the rain, so as not to get her dress or anything else wet. He would question that.
Aliana stepped carefully from bucket to mat, mindful not to drip in between. She slipped through the door and onto the rug just inside. Grabbing the cloth she had set out, she dried her feet and blotted at the rug. They kept their hamper in the bedroom, a straight shot from the front door that she nailed first try with the cloth. Stew bubbled over the fireplace. She filled his bowl—he liked it room temperature when he got home—and straightened herself up in the mirror. The front door opened. Aliana put on a static smile.
“Welcome home,” she said. She ran her eyes over his place setting to make sure she hadn’t forgotten something. He looked over it as well and sat down. Aliana relaxed her shoulders. He crouched over the table to eat, but he stopped. She realized then his stew hadn’t cooled.
“Sorry, I’ll—” she said, reaching for his bowl.
“What the hell,” he said, pointing at the rug. Aliana timidly craned to see. Her chest pounded into her ears though she couldn’t spot the error. The water had been wiped up, the mat straightened, the floorboards dry. “The rag that was sitting out before, what’d you do with it?” he asked. Aliana blanked. She usually gave herself more of a cushion between her arrival time and his. She had stayed too long at the tree, had gotten too caught up in her thoughts to mind such details. Although, he never before questioned as menial a thing as a rag. Was he on to her?
“I had to wash my feet,” she explained.
“Why’s that,” he asked, rising from his chair.
“I stepped in some soot and didn’t want to make a mess.” Aliana cowered into a corner.
“I think you left the house again. Didn’t my message stick with you the last time?”
“Please!” she screamed as he raised his hand.
“I told you never to yell.” She saw his hand close into a fist and swing. The strike split her lip, staggering her into the corner. Aliana slid her back down the wall and cradled her mouth. A knock rent the silence. The man’s eyes widened. He pointed for Aliana to go into the bedroom. She sluggishly got to her feet, but the door opened before she could get out of sight. Hollard, the local smith, stood in the doorway, eclipsing the outside view.
“What’s the yelling about?” Hollard asked. Aliana frantically brushed her bangs into her face.
“This klutzy woman of mine. Don’t know what to do with her,” the man defended. He leaned in to put his arm around Aliana, but she dipped away from him.
“You’ve done plenty, it seems. I looked at my wife crazy when she told me to follow you home, but she has a good nose for shit in velvet bags. Aliana, come over here to me,” said Hollard. She glanced between them, frozen. “It’s okay,” Hollard coaxed. Aliana walked clear around the hands she knew would snatch her from safety, following the widest path furniture would allow, and went over to Hollard.
She glanced over at the thing she said she loved. He stood there, red-faced and huffing, his shoulders squared on her, barely able to contain his tantrum. She saw him then as a virus made flesh, a miserable, parasitic waste that had to feed on all that was good in someone else in order to have a small idea of what happiness truly felt like. He stood there, haggard and sullen and guilty. Hollard put his arm around her, turning her away from the man’s glare. She only registered the pounding footsteps when they were right behind her.
The man tackled Aliana into Hollard’s arms, pinned between her attacker and her savior. Hollard hugged her to his chest and swiveled out of the doorway, kicking at the man’s outreached hands. Hollard managed set her down in the street before coming under the next attack. Aliana watched paralyzed.
“Go!” Hollard yelled at Aliana. In the distraction, her monster connected a blow to Hollard’s jaw. Aliana met the enraged gaze of the beast. Pity swelled up her heavy heart. Hollard returned the blow, breaking the spell Aliana had started falling under once again.
She bolted down the street, hair streaming behind her, face out and bawling carelessly. She dodged the hands reaching out to help. She ignored the queries and the faces and the rumors flying. The sun had finally set, but she knew the way. Aliana scrambled gracelessly through the forest. She stopped suddenly, rapt by a faint blue light cutting the darkness up ahead, and she went to it. It led her to the tree she sought, the one that knew her secret.
A large, radiant flower had bloomed where she had last sat upon the root. She stooped down for a closer look. It had one petal wrapped tight around a long stamen. It reminded her of a calla lily painting she had once seen. Aliana thought she saw the petal stir, but she hadn’t felt the breeze that would explain it. The stamen twitched, and all at once, the petal opened into two small wings. A tiny dragon’s face unfurled from the center as the stamen swung out and wagged—a tail!
Branches snapped behind her. Something tramped through the brush. A silhouette formed on the edge of the dragon’s light. Aliana squinted. As the form came closer, her eyes welled up. It wasn’t Hollard.
“What…” he said, clutching his ribs and staring at the dragon.
“Hollard…” Aliana said.
“That hero didn’t get it as bad as you will. He’ll live through my beating.” The man limped closer. Aliana ran behind the tree trunk. The dragon flew up and screeched at the man. “You have an overgrown butterfly protecting you now?” he taunted. The dragon chittered, and in that moment, the ground pulsated. Aliana felt a deep churning of the earth. Four massive roots pulled free from the soil. The canopy split in two. A long neck unearthed, and two golden eyes opened, making dusk of the night with their brilliance. Aliana gaped. She placed a hand on the dragon’s bark-like tail and smiled.
Without warning, the smaller dragon swarmed the man’s face, clawing into his left eye and bottom lip. Blood sprayed off its sweeping claws. The man screamed and swung at the dragon. Aliana saw its blue glow flicker as one of the hits connected, and another, until its tiny body fell limp to chewed-up dirt.
The tree dragon shrieked, bringing the man to his knees. Aliana ran over to the light, heedless of the man feet away. She cupped the dragon to her ear. Raspy breaths were better than none. She gently placed it on top of a nearby rock and, before she could register what to do next, she had the man’s throat in her hand. Blood trickled down her fingers from the ruts carved into his face. The veins popped in his forehead, the ones that always said he was pissed and about to do something about it. He started to stand, but a sound from the tree dragon stopped him. Aliana squeezed.
“I wasn’t okay with your abuse being centered on me, but I am especially not okay with it taking anyone else down. Whatever way it needs to happen, this ends now,” she said.
“At last you grow a spine, or at least borrow one from something bigger than me,” he said.
“Sometimes you need help waking up from a nightmare. Big scary dragon or not, I would have wound up with your throat in my hand over one thing or another, because either way I played this, it would come down to kill or be killed.”
The man spit in Aliana’s face and yanked her to the ground. He bared his weight on her, pinned her wrists down. As the dragon surged forward to help, Aliana bent her knee up into the man’s ribs. The dragon paused. Howling in pain, he let go of her hands to nurse his side. Aliana punched his windpipe as hard as she could. The man flew backwards onto the ground, seizing his throat. The dragon shot Aliana a questioning look. Smirking, she gave a nod.
The dragon snatched the man up in its talons and plopped him into the pit it had risen from. Placing all four feet around his laboring body, the dragon began sinking back into the ground. The soil autonomously filled in the basin, meeting the dragon halfway in burying its legs. The man thrashed to keep his face above the ground. This time, Aliana felt relief over pity. The dragon dug its feet further in, fully eclipsing the man from sound and sight. The soil stilled.
The dragon used its long neck to visit Aliana while staying rooted in its bed. Aliana leaned her cheek on its forehead, finding the scales felt nothing like the bark it resembled. She shifted her gaze towards the smaller dragon and asked, “Will it be okay?” At the question, they heard a squeak from the strengthening blue light.
“Now, I just need to know your names.”