The courtroom was oak-paneled, hushed. The walls above the paneling were painted a dull forest green, and the floor was a sad-looking flecked linoleum; I would have loved to pull it up and replace it with something to match the paneling and green paint. There were no windows, but heavy fluorescent lights overhead cast even, bright white light on the dozen or so people scattered inside. In here, it was impossible to tell what time of day it was.
When Asher and I rolled in, a handful of people turned to look at him in his chair, one or two openly staring; I could see him tense, his knees drawing up, and I gently pressed a hand into his shoulder.
One of the people, though, was Sylvia Ganon – the deputy district attorney who was leading Asher’s case. She was a firm-looking woman, middle-aged, with dark blonde hair; she started when she realized Asher was here, and hurriedly recomposed a stack of papers in front of her before sliding out of her seat to come and greet us. Asher and I exchanged an embarrassed look. Even if we were early enough that the court was still quiet (early enough that we’d even gotten here before Asher’s father; Asher said he had a habit of showing up ridiculously early for things), she still had to be busy, and we’d both hoped to arrive without notice.
She had barely gotten past “I didn’t expect to see you here today, Mr. Klein,” her thin dark brows raised quizzically, before a small, breathless man in a yellow tie hurried over to hover at the edge of our group. I was annoyed by his cringing posture even before he started talking. And then he said to Asher, without really making eye contact, “I’m sorry, sir, but were you planning on – sitting there?”
Asher blinked and looked down and around. We were close to the back of the room, where there were rows of fixed wooden benches clearly intended for members of the public, but far enough away from the entry doorway that Asher’s chair wouldn’t present an immediate obstacle to people coming and going. “Oh, um. Yes? Around here, if that’s okay, sir.”
“Oh!” said the man, startled, as if Asher had said something mildly offensive. “No, I’m sorry, I’m afraid that’s not okay. That would be obstructing an emergency exit route.”
How could someone manage to be so apologetic and such an asshole at the same time? The man glanced in my direction, saw my face, and cringed further, which I guess should have been gratifying; but what would have been really gratifying would have been throwing him down the aisle.
Asher gave a long exhale through his nose, looked back towards the entryway, and then up at me, his mouth and eyes tight. His look said, Please deal with this. His right hand was clenched against his chest, the knuckles showing painfully through the skin, and I could tell that every movement was still hurting his back.
Luckily for the man in the yellow tie, Ms. Ganon answered before I could. “That’s ridiculous,” she said, pushing back a loose strand of hair and looking past him in a way that suggested that she was already thinking about something else, “this aisle is obviously wide enough to accommodate… whatever it is you’re worried about. Anyway, Mr. Klein is the primary witness in one of today’s cases. Let him sit where he wants.”
“Oh, but –” the clerk began, raising his hands and widening his eyes to show the seriousness of the issue.
“Benedict,” said Ms. Ganon, still not looking at him, “do you not have anything better to do right now than undermine the ADA?”
Benedict closed his mouth, dropped his hands, and edged away from the group a few steps before turning on his heel and hurrying away, his shoulders up around his ears.
Asher and I exchanged a look. I forced myself to relax my hands, which I’d been clenching without realizing it. Ms. Ganon, meanwhile, was still staring off, clearly thinking, so it hadn’t just been an act – although it was also obvious that she was used to dealing with Benedict. A moment later, her gaze snapped to Asher. “So you decided to come,” she said, her tone much softer.
“Yes,” he said, obviously embarrassed, and was starting to say something apologetic, when she interrupted him in a kind way, “It’ll go faster than you expect. Don’t worry. And I can almost guarantee you they’ll take the plea bargain.”
“Almost?” Asher said. The fingers of his small hand spasmed.
“Well, you know I don’t like making promises.” She gave a small smile. “But from my perspective, it would be highly inadvisable for any one of them to decide to make a break for it, so to speak. Bachman especially, since he already has the record.” That was the guy who had run out of the alley first; he’d received a previous charge for disorderly conduct after getting onto a train drunk and belligerent and trying to pick a fight with a couple of college students.
“Right, right,” Asher said hastily, his eyes continuing to search her face for reassurance. I stood and listened quietly as she once again rattled off the details of the plea bargain that she’d worked out – I had the sense that she was going into a kind of professional autopilot, as much for her own benefit as for Asher’s – while Asher shifted uncomfortably in his chair, one corner of his mouth occasionally drawing back with pain.
A few minutes later, Asher’s father arrived, as Ms. Ganon was concluding with, “Anyway, we can at least be happy that the office agreed that the idea of bringing charges against Roy was ridiculous –”
“Oh, please!” Asher exclaimed – I was glad to see that indignation brought some color back into his face – and then looked up in surprise as his father stepped up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder in greeting. “Oh, Dad, hi –”
“Good morning,” Mr. Klein said, with an inquiring look. “What’s ridiculous?”
“Oh, we’re back on the idea that Roy went beyond ‘defense of another,’ the way that he went after those guys –” Now it was my own turn to shift uncomfortably, especially since, unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that I’d ended up in the uncertain territory at the edges of self-defense/defense of another – though I hadn’t admitted it to Asher.
“Oh, well now,” Mr. Klein said, in a way that suggested that the question was too ridiculous to even bear thinking about. It was comforting.
Ms. Ganon, meanwhile, had been drawn slightly to one side by a younger woman in a dark suit, and was listening intently as the woman murmured rapidly in her ear. A few moments later, she said a distracted good-bye to all of us as she allowed herself to be drawn away and back up the aisle toward the front of the room. The general energy level in the room was increasing; more legal-looking people were pacing in and out, or conferring in front of the judge’s seat.
“Good morning, Dad,” Asher said, more formally.
“You made it,” was all Mr. Klein said, with his usual fond smile. “Roy –” and he extended his hand for me to shake, as I nodded a greeting.
We moved to get seated so that we could finally clear out of the aisle (other than Asher; screw Benedict). Concealing my regret, I let Mr. Klein take the outermost seat so that he could sit next to Asher, and let my mind drift as they bent their heads together to talk quietly, Mr. Klein resting his hand lightly against the back of Asher’s upper arm. I twisted sideways a little so that I could lean an arm on the back of the bench and watch the courtroom fill up. Occasionally I tuned in to the sensation of my heart speeding up with a kind of expectant, eager anger. As much as it terrified Asher, paralyzed him, I wanted the confrontation that today would bring.
It was during one of those upswings of adrenaline that I saw the door open to admit William Riley: the last man of the four in the alleyway to leave his hands on Asher, the man whose wallet I had taken. I tensed, leaned forward. I remembered the sight of him awkwardly gripping Asher as he started to slide out of his chair – one hand pulling back at his shoulder, the other hooked under his armpit. I thought about how at least one of the four men must have thought to undo Asher’s seatbelt, laughed and held back his good arm when he panicked and protested; maybe it had been Riley. I felt the blood run hot inside me. Riley turned and saw me, and froze; I heard a rushing in my ears.
I saw another familiar face appear past Riley’s shoulder. Bachman: his look hardened when he saw me, even as Riley dropped his face and started to walk fast up the aisle.
I held Bachman’s gaze for another moment, pushing hard; he tilted his head back challengingly. I ground my knuckles into the back of the bench until the pain went from dull to sharp. Then I forced myself to take a deep breath, break the contact, and lean forward to touch Asher’s shoulder in warning. He started at the touch, glancing at me. He must have known what the look on my face meant because a look of purest panic came over him.
I felt a furious regret, then, that I had let him come – what was the point?
Just as Riley drew level with him, Asher’s eyes flicked towards the aisle, and his whole body went into spasm, first flinging him back against his chair as his legs suddenly thrust out against his footplates, and then pulling him inward on himself as everything contracted again. I could hear him gasp. Around the courtroom, heads turned to look. I wished I could physically force them away again. Mr. Klein was leaning protectively around him and holding his white-knuckled left hand, saying something softly into his ear. Asher hunched, breathing hard, as his legs continued jerking under him, his back twisting awkwardly to one side. At least Riley kept his face averted as he hurried by; at least Bachman only seemed to want to look at me, until finally a man, their lawyer, came to collect them, stowed them away in seats at the front of the room. Where were the other two?
A middle-aged woman with the same hollow cheekbones and sandy hair as Riley had followed them into the courtroom. A sister? I saw her give Asher a furtive glance before hurriedly sliding into a bench on the other side of the aisle, several rows forward. I couldn’t read her facial expression, but her shoulders were hunched, defensive.
I saw all of this in flashes, everything seeming so fast, so flashbulb-vivid, that it was as if I saw each motion flick by twice. This happened to me sometimes when I was fighting: my brain felt physically hot, overstimulated and yet craving more. I saw Ms. Ganon looking back, her dark brows pinched together; I saw all the people continuing to stare at Asher. I looked at the backs of two of the men who had attacked Asher – there was no other word for it, even if he hadn’t been hurt – and watched as they shifted their shoulders, leaned to consult with the lawyer, raised a hand to scratch an ear, seemed to stiffly restrain themselves from looking back at us. Every motion of theirs, no matter how slight, seemed magnified in my vision.
Asher was finally raising himself, pushing up against his armrest. I felt strangely far away from him. I leaned my elbows forward onto my knees, stared down as I rubbed the knuckles of my left hand into my open right hand over and over. I had to calm down; ours wouldn’t even be the first case to be called today.
I forced myself to breathe deeply. With regret, I felt the heat of anger seep away, leaving me feeling smaller, duller.
When I looked up again, there were two more men sitting alongside Riley and Bachman.
They’re just men, I told myself. There was no meaning in the sight of them, the four of them; for now, I had to believe that.
To my right, Mr. Klein was sitting very upright, his mouth set, his hand still on Asher’s armrest. From the aisle, Asher glanced at me, still pale, with one knee lifted unnaturally high, but he managed a wry look – something along the lines of, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” I managed to smile back at him; I wished we weren’t so far away from each other.
We waited. Time seemed to telescope in and out. None of the three of us bothered to make conversation at this point. Finally the judge arrived, a surprisingly small woman with short-cropped, grey-brown hair, pointed features, and glasses. We rose as instructed when she was announced (except for Asher, I thought uncomfortably, wondering what it was like to be left out of these rituals), sat when she sat. Despite her size, she had a commanding look, glancing around the courtroom sharply as she arranged herself. As she called the court to order in a crisp, carrying voice, I found myself thinking that Asher probably liked her.
A clerk asked Ms. Ganon to approach the podium and identify herself for the record, initiate the hearing for the first case of the day. I leaned back against the bench until I managed to find an angle that let me watch Asher without too much effort, crossed my arms, and got ready to wait again.
There was one case before ours: a disheveled, defiant-looking young woman, fierce-eyed, who was charged with breaking and entering. We watched as she pleaded not guilty, shooting another fierce look back over her shoulder at the rest of the courtroom, as if daring someone to tell her otherwise; I half-listened as the judge proceeded to rattle through bail arrangements and court dates. My gaze was being drawn again and again to the heads of the four men sitting at the front of the courtroom.
The young woman disappeared, escorted out. My imagination got so heated again that by the time that Bachman was actually called to the podium – flanked by both Ms. Ganon and his own lawyer – I almost missed it. My pulse thudded as my attention snapped to him; I imagined that I could see a tremor of nervous tension run up and down his arms, which he held stiffly behind his back, one hand tightly gripping the other, fisted hand. Could I see the tendons flexing in his wrists? I could hardly hear what was going on – until I heard, “I plead guilty.”
Had I heard right? I instantly looked to Asher and Mr. Klein, and saw Asher closing his eyes and tilting his head back as Mr. Klein leaned to put an arm around his shoulders. Was it relief or anguish? I was bewildered, until I heard the judge go on, “All right. In that case, I’m going to move us on to a longer process where we’ll confirm that ‘guilty’ is the plea that you really want to enter. Will the Deputy Clerk please place Mr. Bachman under oath?”
Suddenly things seemed to snap back into their normal frame. I resisted the urge to shake my head. Asher – how was he? He was leaning to give me another weak smile; again I returned it, although I couldn’t imagine what my face looked like.
From there, the judge unspooled an infuriatingly long series of seemingly obvious questions. Have you discussed this case completely with your attorney? Is this in fact your own decision to plead guilty? Do you understand the constitutional rights you have given up? Bachman managed to make all of his “yes” answers sound like disagreement. I wanted to stand up and shout: what is the point of all of this? You should have just taken him away when he said guilty.
It went on. There was a moment I managed to find some amusement in imagining Asher scolding me for not respecting legal process; but then I realized for the first time what it meant that, if we were lucky, we would have to watch this three more times. If Asher didn’t melt down by the end of it, I might.
Conscious of Mr. Klein sitting very alert and upright at my side, conscious of Asher’s silent suffering as his body reacted with increasing frequency to the exchange before us, I managed to stay coherent for the rest of that long, long morning, excruciatingly suspended between boredom and fury. Bachman was released on bail; the next man took his place at the podium, and then the next, and then the next. There were moments when I admired Ms. Ganon’s solidity: the whole time, she looked as cool and focused, as unmoved as she had when we’d begun. I wanted to get up and pace around; as the questions went on, I imagined driving my fists into a punching bag over and over again.
I imagined another version of the day, one where Asher and I had just stayed in bed the whole time. I’d wrap my arms around him.
“Well,” said the judge finally. “Thank you all. We’ll adjourn proceedings for lunch now.”
I rocked back, startled. Four guilty pleas. We had been released. It had been over three hours since we’d begun.
Mr. Klein was already moving to stand, which made me realize that Asher had turned his wheelchair and was even further ahead, almost out of the courtroom. Amazingly, the man holding the door for him as he left was Benedict, the ass; he looked away as I strode by him, startled both to see him and to realize that I was needing to hurry to catch up with Asher. I moved off without a word, made it out the front lobby in time to see Asher rolling off the end of the wheelchair ramp to the parking lot. I jogged down the steps, pulling ahead of Mr. Klein, and came down to see Asher just sitting there at the edge of the lot, his face turned up to the late-autumn sunlight, his eyes closed. His contracted hand was pressed tightly against his chest, and his back was so crooked that he was leaning over the side of his right armrest, but he was taking in the sun and drawing deep breaths – shaky, but slow. I could see his chest shuddering as he exhaled. His eyelashes looked very dark against his cheeks. Mr. Klein and I gave each other a look, slowed, and stood back from him.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm, not Mr. Klein’s; I shrugged it off with instant annoyance. “Excuse me,” said a woman’s voice, almost in a whisper. I looked back; it was the sandy-haired woman, the one who looked like Riley. Her hand was still upraised, and she looked up at me with an anxious expression. I folded my arms and looked back at her. Finally it was Mr. Klein who had to say, “Can we help you, ma’am?”
“I’m – I’m just –“ she began. She tried again, darting a look in Asher’s direction: “Is he the one who – you know? They did…?”
This time we both just looked at her.
“I just wanted to say – I’m sorry,” she said, fumbling, her eyes darting. “I’m – William Riley, I’m his sister, and we’ve always had… well, I’ve had to look out for him a lot, but just, we never imagined –”
“That’s very kind,” Mr. Klein said after another moment. His face was hard to read, but the woman ducked her head with something like gratitude, and turned to hurry away toward the parking lot. Mr. Klein and I gave each other another look, before turning back to Asher.
He opened his eyes. “Can you take me home?” he said, to both of us. The wind dragged leaves across the pavement, lifted the hair on his forehead.
“Gladly,” said Mr. Klein.
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