“My breath came in fast heaves and there were tears in my eyes as I spoke. “You can’t take back the past, Justin. And you can’t blame it on me.”
Through the sea of adrenaline and tears I heard a sound. Sirens.”
I never should have been in a courtroom. Not without him.
“If you could be a kid again, would you, Steph?” Justin was lying on his back, making “snow” angels in the comforter of the half-broken hotel bed. We were both high.
“Miss Rose? Are you paying attention?” the judge taps his microphone, and the heavy silence of the room is interrupted by the methodic click of nail on metal. I gulp, nodding quickly and brushing a lock of curly hair behind my ear. “Good,” he continues. “We’ll proceed, then.”
“That’s a weird question, Justin,” I said. I crawled off of the armchair I was perched on, making my way to Justin’s side. When I reached him I put my head on his shoulder, leaning against him until my nose touched his neck. His skin was smooth. Like silk.
I nod again, glance around the room. There’s the jury on the right – a collection of fifteen or so middle aged men and women clad in professional attire, attempting to look poised, though god knows they’d rather be anywhere else in the world right now. I make eye contact with a girl in a black dress, seated in the front row. She gives me a curt nod, then goes back to staring at her fingers and all the different ways they can intertwine. For a brief second I wish I was her — bored, detached, calm. Instead, I’m falling to pieces.
Beside me is my lawyer, a shadow of a man with a hooked nose and beady eyes — birdlike. He told me earlier to say my lines like we rehearsed them; without a tremor in my voice. Without letting on. I don’t know if I can do that.
“I would. Want to be a kid again, I mean,” Justin said, eyes trained on the ceiling.
“With or without your broken childhood?” I smiled slyly.
“Fuck off, Steph,” Justin said, rolling his eyes. His tone was sharp, though his words should have been playful. I winced. “It’s your turn.”
“You are here under accusation of the murder of Justin Moore on February twenty-ninth at roughly 3 A.M. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” I whisper, staring at my dirty sneakers, not daring to make eye contact.
“Yes,” I repeat, louder. “Yes, but I didn’t — ” the judge cuts me off with a wave of his hand.
“Not quite yet, Miss Rose.”
“It’s a stupid question,” I said, ignoring his demeanor and returning to our banter. The ceiling is supposed to be white, I thought, but it’s covered with years of water stains and other patches of color that I don’t want to know about. Now it’s closer to grey. Maybe one day it’ll be black.
“Why is it a stupid question?” Justin moved a few inches away from me as we lay there on our backs, the comforter wrinkling between us, forming little hills with roads and moats and castles.
“Because I already had my childhood and you already had yours,” I said. Justin rolled his eyes. It was always that way — Justin was eccentric. A dreamer. I had to reel him in, and then I was the bad one.
“I wish I didn’t. It screwed everything up.”
“Our first witness,” the prosecutor begins, motioning for someone to rise. A state-appointed lawyer, he’s not much better than mine. Behind me a small hispanic woman stands from her seat on the edge of a bench. She walks to the podium, swaying as if a gentle breeze would knock her over. I cast my eyes to the floor again, not wanting to look at her face.
“Miss Ramirez,” the prosecutor begins. “You were the housekeeper assigned to the hotel room under a pseudonym by Miss Rose.”
“Yes,” she says curtly, nodding quickly. “Noisy. Very loud.”
“Could you identify the source of the noise?” the prosecutor tilts his head, contemplating. I try to see into him — who is he, besides the only person, aside from me, that cares about Justin’s life? — until Miss Ramirez speaks again.
We went on like that, talking about our pasts for a while, reminiscing in the hazy glow that came with old memories and moments we had tried so hard to forget. I decided I wanted another hit, and got the coke from my bag. I felt a rush at the sight of that white powder, and my fingers shook as I pushed it into a line and snorted. I could feel Justin staring at me — he wanted more, too.
“You already had your share,” I said, turning my back to him and preparing another line. He didn’t like that.
“I paid for half that shit!”
I sighed. “You paid for a third. You already had a third. The rest is mine.”
Then the shouting began. I wouldn’t have called it screaming, but to Miss Ramirez, we were two crazy addicts fighting over a bag of shitty coke. To her, and to the world, we were worthless.
But to us we were the height of passion. We called ourselves Bonnie and Clyde. We had escaped our pasts — Justin’s drunken father, my cracked family — and ran away. We didn’t let each other look back.
I miss him. God, do I miss him. Tears froth at the corners of my eyes. It was never meant to be this way. I was never meant to be without him.
“And what did you do then, Miss Ramirez?” the prosecutor asks. I squint, trying to focus, but everything is swimming from the tears and the quick thump-thump-thump of my heart. I’ve been like this since that night — confused, like I’m half-drowning, half-flying, like the hardest thing in the world is to stay in the here and now.
“Knocked on the door. Then they went quiet, but I could hear them whispering. There were other noises, too. Like they were throwing things.”
“Someone just knocked on the door,” Justin stared at me with wide eyes. His whole body was quivering, vibrating up and down and up and down. I could feel my bones shaking beneath my skin, and my thoughts were speeding up, as if someone had slammed on the accelerator. Now I could hear it — a steady thrum against the wooden paneling of the door. “Jesus Christ, Steph, someone’s knocking on the door.”
I looked around the room. A bag of coke on the bed. A metal tray on the table with leftover white powder, surrounded by little mounds of mismatched pills. A stolen credit card by the lamp. A rusty knife on the dresser.
“What if it’s the police?” Justin ran his hands through his hair. He was pacing now, and I could almost see his heart beating outside of his chest. I ran over to him, grabbed his shaking hands. “I’m not going back to rehab, Steph, I’m not fucking going.”
“No. You’re not going. We stay together. Always,” I whispered, and I ran to the table, hastily picking up anything incriminating. Justin closed the blinds, out of paranoia or habit I wasn’t quite sure. He took the bag of coke from the bed and hastily snorted a line. I didn’t notice at the time. Two seconds later he dropped the bag in my hands and I shoved it into a backpack, zipped it up, and hid it behind the cracked leather of the armchair.
The knocking had stopped.
“What happened after that?” the prosecutor asks, clearing his throat.
Miss Ramirez blinks a few times, her eyebrows furrowing. “Well, I left.”
“That was your fucking fault!” Justin hissed at me, striding to my position behind the armchair. “You were reckless, shouting like that!”
His words were daggers in my back. It wasn’t usually this tumultuous; I could ignore his spitting insults if he tamed his paranoia to a manageable state of pain. Yes, we were a turbulent storm. But we always had each other to hold close when the eye drifted over us and brought a few seconds of peace.
Yet in this moment I wasn’t sure if he was on my side at all.
“Hey, Justin, calm down, sweetheart — ” I put a hand out, trying to hold his shoulder. He swatted it away, then turned his back on me. His body was vibrating, his entire being pulsing up and down, the way it always did after a hit.
I stood and narrowed my eyes. “Did you steal from my stash?”
Justin didn’t answer. He began to pace, his walk quick and uneven. “You always do this, Steph. You get us into all kinds of shit.”
“Did you steal from my stash?” I repeated, louder this time. Justin kept pacing. “Hey! Look at me!” Justin finally stopped, and when he turned his eyes were crimson, the color of sunsets and cherries and blood.
“Yeah, I had a hit, Steph. I had a fucking hit and now the goddamn police are gonna take us both away!” He motioned to the door, and in a second he was pacing again. “You and your fucking rules, your fucking shouting and nagging and bitching. You always do this!”
It was as if the breath was knocked right out of my chest. Everything was too much — his words that pierced my skin like knives, the knock on the door, his greed and cruelty and blame. I was always the pacifist. But this time I fought back.
“Oh yeah? You — you’re the screwup, Justin Moore. And you can’t talk to me like that.” I crossed my arms, attempting to look fierce, but I was shorter than him and smaller in every way. He was a pulsing collection of radioactive elements, a tornado that destroyed everything in its path. I was the waves of the sea, wise and cloudy and still. Only meant for a gentle storm.
His eyes were no longer serene, no longer the hue of my ocean. He was blue fire, razor blades, torn skin. “Fucking bitch,” he said. “Fucking good-for-nothing bitch.”
“Thank you,” the prosecutor says. “That will be all.” Miss Ramirez nods and goes back to her seat.
“Anything else, Mr. Simmons?” the judge asks, idly cracking his knuckles.
“Yes, sir. I would like to call upon the accused herself; Miss Rose, would you please rise?”
Suddenly everything is too bright. The lights drill into my skull, making my knees weak. I’m lightheaded, but not the good lightheaded, and I want to run. Run away, never look back, never turn to a pillar of salt or rot in a tomblike cell. But Justin isn’t here to help me.
I stand and walk to the podium. Everything is shaking – my body, my vision, the world around me. I hear Justin whispering in my ear, something about being a kid again and not wanting to go back to that past, but wanting a new one. He was always saying things like that.
“Let us restate what happened before the police arrived on the night of the 29th, shall we?” the prosecutor says, circling me like a hawk circling its half-dead prey. I nod. “You and Justin were arguing, were you not?”
“And why was that?” the prosecutor smiles, clearly pleased with his work.
“I don’t remember.” I don’t remember, I repeat to myself. If I say it enough maybe it’ll be true.
“I’m the bitch?” I asked in disbelief. I took a step toward Justin. “I’m the bitch? At least that’s better than being the product of a whore and a drunk! What does that make you?”
Justin turned away from me and began pacing the room, cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck. I could see the vein popping beneath his skin, matching his tensed muscles as every inch of him burst to the extreme.
My heart was a hammer pounding against my ribcage — so loud I was sure Justin could hear its nervous tremor. But his words were a knife held against the raw skin of my neck, pushing deeper and deeper until my windpipe was split and crimson rain leaked onto my shoes.
He’d gone too far.
“What does that make you?” I asked again. “That’s right. An unloved bastard, no better than your piece-of-shit father.”
Justin’s eyes were that of a rabid animal as he lunged for my throat.
“You don’t remember?” the prosecutor asks again, straightening his tie. A bead of sweat began to percolate on his temple. “Was that because you were high, Miss Rose? On cocaine?”
His fingers found my skin and we crashed to the floor. My head hit the hardwood with a loud thud and my breath escaped my body in a quick exhale. Justin was on top of me, legs wrapped around my torso, nails clawing at my throat as I struggled for a gulp of oxygen. Every limb felt cold and numb and detached. My vision started to fade, but Justin’s bloodshot eyes were piercing the strengthening darkness and they were feral and rampaging and hurt.
The lights drill into my skull. Say something, Stephanie. Speak.
“You were using illegal drugs that night?” the prosecutor smiles.
“We both were,” and now I’m getting lightheaded and I find it hard to breath. My lawyer drops his head in defeat.
I gasped for breath, but Justin’s fingers were tightening around my windpipe. My arms were stretched out to my sides and I looked like Justin making snow angels in the comforter. I looked like I was a real angel. I looked like I was about to die.
Some instinct kicked my arms into motion and I flung them beneath Justin’s chest. Using every ounce of strength I had left, I pushed Justin up and to the side. His head smacked the ground and I scrambled to my feet, chest heaving and blood sighing as fresh air seeped into my lungs.
“So you testify that you were both using cocaine,” the prosecutor says. I nod. “And you were arguing. At some point during the night, Justin was killed. Could you tell us what happened, Miss Rose?”
My face was sticky from sweat and tears. My entire body shook.
Justin held his head in both hands as he lay on the ground, rocking back and forth. And suddenly he looked like a child, a confused and broken child. But then I remembered his sharp words and fingers like daggers against my neck, and he’s Justin again, with spiked hair and dirty skin and a crooked mouth with a razor for a tongue.
Behind me was the dresser. I backed up against it, the tail of my spine touching uneven wood. My hand grazed the surface and hit something odd; a smooth handle followed by cold metal. The rusty knife.
“He — he attacked me,” I start, my voice barely more than a whisper. Say the lines. Nothing more than reading from a script. “It was self-defense.”
But the prosecutor looks at me and a faint smile creeps onto his lips. He sees through my cracks, sees through my broken facade and shaking skin. Though he’s barely adequate at his job and has more nervous tics than I, he sees me, and I know I am finished.
Justin slowly got on his knees, then one foot was on the ground and the other was beneath him and he stood. He turned to face me, hands balled into fists. There was a trickle of blood slowly swimming down the side of his head, the same color as his eyes.
“Get away from me,” I croaked, my throat scorched. “Don’t you dare come any closer.”
Justin licked his lips, and a slow laugh emanated from the back of his throat — more choking than giggling. He took a step closer and I felt my fingers tighten around the hilt of the blade. “Or you’ll do what, Steph?” his voice was lilting up and down, robbed of all stability. “You’ll do what, huh? You can’t do anything.”
Now my hand was firmly around the handle. Justin crept closer.
“You know what, Justin?” I said, every word a struggle to get out. “You’re sick. You’re sick and miserable and hopeless,” Justin rolled his neck, preparing to lurch at me again. I gripped the knife harder. “You say I’m the bitch. I’m at fault, right?” he was four feet away, utterly wild in his manner, limping as blood percolated on his neck. He licked his lips again. My heart pounded. “You blame it all on me, don’t you?”
Justin had become another being. He was not the man I fell for, the boy I met when we were reckless and alive. He was not the soul who gave me my first hit or the child who told me about his father. He was not loving, because he was not capable of being loved.
Or maybe he was who he had always been. Maybe he was just Justin, wild and feral and childlike in his wishes. Maybe he had always been broken. Maybe I found him that way, and he tore at the seams bit by bit until tonight when he finally snapped.
“How can that be? The blade marks show he wasn’t charging at you, Miss Rose. You charged at him.”
“You can’t take back the past, Justin!” I was screaming now. I didn’t care if anyone heard. Justin clamped a hand to his ear at the sound of my shriek. “You can’t change a goddamn thing!”
“Shut the hell up, you fucking cunt!” Justin shouted, the veins on his neck popping. “Just shut up! Shut up! Shut your fucking mouth for once in your life!” Justin’s finger was pointing at my chest, his eyes scarlet and crazed.
“Perhaps the fight provoked you, Miss Rose. Perhaps you were sick of hearing what Justin Moore had to say. So you killed him,” the prosecutor smiles again. My gaze drops to my feet and I squeeze my eyes shut. Darkness overwhelms my vision but I’m brought no sense of calm. Justin’s words echo in my head, growing louder and louder with each passing moment.
Justin let his hand fall to his side, and his hair was a bird’s nest, his skin a mix of blood and tears. His eyes locked on mine and we were silent for a moment. It could have ended like that. He could have stopped talking and I could have loosened my grip on the knife and we could have gone our separate ways, both trying to forget and daring to remember. But it didn’t.
“Do you maintain your statement, Miss Rose? ‘Self-defense?’”
And then Justin opened his mouth and his tongue was a razor again. “At least I have a reason for being this way, Stephanie Rose,” his voice was low and broken, like the edges of cracked glass. “I had a drunk father and a slut for a mother who killed herself as soon as she could. But you? You’re just a girl who likes darkness,” he knew his words were slitting my skin, and he smiled. “You’re just a failure who destroyed whatever was left of me to make you feel better about your pathetic little self,” he turned away from me then, and though I couldn’t see his face I knew he was satisfied.
I wasn’t going to let him be satisfied.
In one swift motion, the knife broken through the back of his skull and found the center of his brain. He let out a soft groan and fell to the floor, head smacking wood as a pool of red surrounded him. It was over as soon as it began.
My breath came in fast heaves and there were tears in my eyes as I spoke. “You can’t take back the past, Justin. And you can’t blame it on me.”
Through the sea of adrenaline and tears I heard a sound. Sirens.
“Yes,” I whisper, tears now cascading down my cheeks. “Self-defense.”