fiction 2019 / spring 2019 / volume 49

Screwed by Turns—Maya Alexandri

“Oh Lord, Miles, what happened?  What happened?” Vicky clasped her son’s shoulders as she knelt to be level with him.  Maroon-angry flesh ballooned from his left eye socket. The white of that eye bloomed carmine off the stem of a broken blood vessel.  

Miles’ expression was contorted.  He made the face of keening, but without sound.  Tears ran along his nose and flushed lips, mingling with mucus and drool.  His little nostrils flared; he gulped air. Tiny blue veins filigreed his mottled cheeks.

“Miles?  What happened?  Tell me.” He had interrupted her in the work room—she did not think to call it her “office.”  The six year-old had stumbled into the open doorway as she sat at her computer, gazing at two large screens, evaluating the layout of a flyer promoting a new extended-release caplet.  She tried not to work on the weekends; but he had taken a nap. She had thought it was safe to work.

“Please, Miles, answer me—what happened?  Say something,” she coaxed the boy. She must get him a cold compress.  Ice? Was ice too cold? Was a washcloth soaked in cold water better? She must hug him.  She must make his pain stop. Where was his pain? Was it just in his eye? Children’s Tylenol?  How did this happen? She did not want him to become addicted to pain killers. What if he had a skull fracture?  She must take him to the emergency room.

Simultaneous with her cerebral efforts at charge-taking, her fear drilled up the center of her abdomen into the space behind her sternum.  Now a heaving heart palpitation opened a trap door beneath her thoughts. Her throat narrowed. Her hands gripped like pincers around her son’s shoulders.  If she took him to the emergency room, the staff would take—she would be asked what happened.

“Miles, what happened?”  She was shaking him.

“Da—” the boy stuttered.  “Da—, Da—”

“What happened?”

“Da—”

“What are you saying?”  

“Da—Da—”

“Out with it!”

“Daddy did it.”     

Vicky stopped breathing.  She was not consciously holding her breath; she had no awareness that she was holding her breath.  A vertiginous sensation shot through her, as if she was hurtling into depth. Her field of vision telescoped to an insignificant disc: she watched it shrink.  

Then Vicky started breathing again.  Her detachment receded. Her field of vision reopened.

“Miles.”  Her voice was steady.  She took a deep breath.  Her concern for her son spread across her face like a bruise.  “Daddy is dead.”

 

Vicky had killed him by accident.  She had been fleeing—her first time fleeing—he had found her birth control pills, she had known it was fly or die—and she had made it to the car, turned it on, put in it reverse, and floored the gas pedal.  She was looking behind her as the old vehicle belched backwards. She saw him in the rear view mirror. He had materialized behind the sedan, his arms outstretched as if unfurling a net in which to catch her.  

She doubted he was trying to kill himself.  Her husband, Miles’ father, Quint Peterson, was not suicidal.  It was her first time fleeing; his first time pursuing. In his haste, he had miscalculated.  He had thought she would stop—thought she could stop. Underestimated his own speed. Overestimated her reflexes.  

She felt the revolting crunch of him under the wheels.  She braked violently. The skid light flashed on the dashboard as the wheels hydroplaned on his liquefying flesh.

The prosecutor was not sympathetic.  Reversing out of a driveway while accelerating to 60 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone was, in the prosecutor’s view, reckless negligence.  She did not think that Vicky’s criminality was outweighed by the contributory folly of Quint jumping into the car’s path, or by other extenuating circumstances.  

But Mallidy was a small municipality with limited law enforcement resources—it had one prosecutor, one judge, and two defense attorneys.  And Vicky did not have to hire either one of them. The police declined to arrest her, the insurance investigators determined the death to be accidental, and the judge expressed the opinion that the child’s best interests were served by having his mother around to care for him.  

So she killed Quint by accident.

 

Her world was in bondage to the fact that Quint was a great father.  That reality was the barbed wire that fenced Vicky into her marriage.  Quint taught Miles to read when he was just turning four; usually fixed Miles his apple slices, carrot sticks and peanut butter for his afternoon snack; enrolled Miles in Little League and judo; took him on walks through the fields and stoked the boy’s fascination with snakes, opossums, raccoons, and hawks; organized Miles’ visits to the fire station and rides on the trucks; arranged Miles’ play dates; supervised his birthday parties.  

Miles did not notice that Quint was unreliable, morose, depressed, or prone to being psychologically vacant; Miles did not see the pills Quint took.  Miles worshipped Quint.

Quint really was a fantastic father.  He never hit Miles.

And he had a good excuse for hitting her.

Vicky had married an outgoing, strong man with his own thriving contractor business and an active social life.  Quint had been well respected in the community. He was a volunteer fire fighter, and the high school baseball coach.  The reliable drinking buddy. Every smoker’s best friend. The number of people Quint had befriended because they had asked for a light was beyond counting.  Quint had light for everyone. The lighter had a lineage—Quint had inherited it from the fire chief who had mentored him when Quint was a teenager; it was a dull brass mid-century piece, engraved with the words, “Controlled Hell.”  Quint—and every smoker who enjoyed a cigarette thanks to that lighter—chuckled over the phrase.

Vicky had been slow to respond to his interest in her because it had seemed so improbable: Vicky was not like him.  

At twenty, Vicky Timons had completed an online associate’s degree in graphic design.  Working independently suited her. She was close to her parents. She had failed to develop her social contacts beyond the barest minimum.  She preferred not to leave home.

After her parents died in a car accident, she had inherited the house and isolated herself in it.  She only met Quint because she had agreed to do volunteer graphic design work for the fire department, which needed fund-raising leaflets.  Vicky had been encouraged to take Quint’s courtship seriously because “opposites attract.”

When Vicky was five months pregnant, Quint fell off the roof of a house he was remodeling and broke his spine.  He considered himself lucky not to be paralyzed. But physical therapy, muscle relaxants, surgery, and a year later left him incapable of working and addicted to opioid painkillers.  Quint’s business atrophied; his contractor’s license expired; his business loans went unpaid. Quint had not bothered to buy health insurance for himself, and the health insurance Vicky had through her employment with the pharmaceutical company did not cover addiction recovery services.

 

The headstone bore his name, Quint Peterson, and his dates.  Vicky had not been able to think of any words that could serve as an epitaph.  Designing the headstone had felt like a duty, and she had tried—a wife who kills her husband accidentally is still a loving wife, a penitent wife, an innocent wife not proven guilty it was an accident—but all the words that surfaced were like carcasses, bloated and decayed: Addict.  Wife beater. Another word, too terrible for her to countenance.

She had settled for an austere headstone design.  She could say it was an aesthetic choice and her choice to make; Quint had left no instructions.  (He had not left even a will, never mind life insurance.)

Miles had wanted the headstone to feature a picture of a fire truck with Daddy and Miles riding on it.  Vicky had responded that Miles could bring his toy fire truck to the gravesite and leave it there with the flowers.

After the headstone unveiling, Vicky had not especially intended to return to Quint’s gravesite.  Not that she had anticipated leaving the gravesite unvisited—she would have come back if Miles had expressed interest.  Barring a sacrifice for her son, she allowed that she would have to see Quint’s grave again, if only because of social pressure—gossip in small towns is poisonous, Mallidy was a small town, and a wife who killed her husband and never paid respects at his grave was vulnerable.  She would have to protect herself, but she had been content to let circumstances dictate her return without making much effort to plan.

Now that the tyranny of circumstances had arisen, Vicky regretted her approach.  While nursing Miles’ black eye, Vicky had had the opportunity to reflect on her error: Miles’ eye injury left no question that the gravesite visit was both necessary and overdue.  Miles could still give no account for his wound. After Vicky’s proclamation of Daddy’s death, Miles had refused to name him again as the aggressor, but no other causal agent had emerged.  

Absent a plausible explanation for the injury, Vicky could not bring Miles to the emergency room.  The nurses were obligated to ask questions and make reports. As Vicky could not answer their questions, she was sure to be the subject of their reports—the prospect was bleak, demoralizing, and toweringly unfair.  Contemplating it, Vicky found herself pitched to the brink of a mental precipice from which she had a view of an engulfing despair.

Her first reaction had been surprise.  She had not expected to be able to suffer more than she already had.

Then she had descended into terror.  She had given Miles Children’s Tylenol and a cold, wet compress for his eye.  She had asked him where it hurt enough times to satisfy herself that no bones in his head were broken.  She had questioned him about falls, bumps, bangs, trips, walls, staircases, stepping stools, bathtubs, tiles, bannisters, doorknobs—but all she had gleaned was that he had been napping and then had a black eye.  She had held him, rocked him, sang soothing songs to him, and read to him from A Beatrix Potter Treasury.  Nothing staved off her fear.  

 

On Monday, Vicky kept Miles home from first grade and e-mailed her boss.  A beneficiary of the pharmaceutical company’s flexible telecommuting policies, Vicky worked from home, but now she e-mailed to say that she would be online only intermittently because she had to look after her son, who was staying home from school.  In the year and a half since Quint’s death, Vicky had discovered that her boss was only too happy to be supportive of a young widow.

Vicky told Miles to wear his button-down short-sleeve shirt and the navy corduroy trousers, and she donned a black dress.  Miles was still too young to leave at home alone while she ran an errand—so she took him to the florist. The temperatures were at a record high for late September, so Vicky did not leave Miles in the car.  The florist did what Vicky knew she would do: she looked at Miles’ black eye and made assumptions and judgments. Vicky understood that offering an explanation would only provide more fodder for the gossip; and she had no explanation to offer.  So she bought chrysanthemums because the store had no lilies. Miles wanted to carry the chrysanthemums in their pot out of the store, but they were heavy, and Vicky shuddered to think that Miles might fall while carrying them. She made an elaborate show of prioritizing her son’s safety and carried the chrysanthemums herself.  

The chrysanthemums, vibrant and multiplying in their pot, bore stark contrast to the desiccated bouquet that lay at the base of the grave from the last visit, when the headstone had been unveiled.  Vicky let Miles solemnly position the flowerpot in front of the headstone.

The cemetery was without shade, and Vicky noticed that she was sweating.  For a moment of silence, Vicky, Miles, and the chrysanthemums baked in the sun.  

The white light made Vicky recoil at how irresponsible she had been to forget to bring a hat for Miles.  Eventually, Vicky realized that Miles was looking at her, but she had no serious existential sentiments for him to absorb—she stared blankly back, her mind cluttered with the quotidian matters of sweat management and sun protection—and he took this for permission to turn his attention to the fire truck.  Since their last occasion at the gravesite, the toy had acquired a patina of dust and pollen, and when Miles knelt and deployed it into the grass, it emitted a creaking sound that suggested inner rust.

Watching him maneuver the vehicle through the dry grass on its way to a make-believe fire that Miles had begun to narrate under his breath, Vicky groped to remember what she had thought the gravesite visit would produce—an answer to the black eye?  A confession? Of what? That Miles had had an accident?

She finally decided that she needed at least an acknowledgement from him.  “Miles,” Vicky said softly.

He looked up from his four-alarm adventure.

“Daddy is dead.”  Vicky pointed at the headstone.  She felt useless, her arm outstretched to the grave, sweat trickling from her armpit down her triceps to her elbow.  Of course Miles knew Quint was dead. Why was she rubbing the headstone in his face? Just because the boy had said his (dead) father hit him in the eye?  Was that a good enough reason?

Miles nodded earnestly, putting energy into assuring Vicky—with his facial expression—that he wanted her approval.

Vicky dropped her arm and waited, but Miles took no initiative.  Vicky felt the heaviness of her failure. She was the mother. She was the adult.  Knowing what to do to keep her son safe was her responsibility.

Sticky and irritated, she admonished him, “Try not to get grass stains on your good clothes.”  He nodded emphatically and pushed the fire truck away, through the grass, talking to himself, and acting out the roles he invented for the imaginary firefighters aboard the truck.

Vicky stood by the grave, stubbornly out of sorts, unwilling to collect her thoughts.  The malaise unnerving her was vague, and she preferred it that way. Her authority was being threatened.  She did not want to have to acknowledge and confront it. When the heat became prickly, Vicky decided to retreat.  

“Let’s go, Miles,” Vicky called over to Miles, who was engrossed several rows away.  “Put the fire truck back next to the flowers, unless you want to take it with you.”

Wiping the back of her neck with her palm, she walked away from the grave.  She reached into her purse for a cloth handkerchief. Dabbing her forehead and her cheeks, she listened to Miles trampling grass behind her.

“I’ll leave it for Daddy,” he piped.

“Then leave it for Daddy,” she agreed, not caring.

Vicky heard Miles stumbling, and as she turned she registered the sickening crack.  She was already running back to the grave.

Miles lay on his left side in front of Quint’s headstone, the shock flattening his face.  He was making an effort to hold up his right arm, obviously broken. His scream hit her ears.  

 

He fell while running.

The Emergency Room was empty.  Wheelchairs were lined up beside the row of open seats in the waiting room; the television was off.  Behind the window bearing the sign, “Triage,” the workstation was vacant. A poster hung lopsided by the Triage window, its acronym, F.A.S.T., and its awareness-raising message about stroke response, going unheeded.  No doctors or nurses strode past; no voices blared over the intercom. Except for Miles’ pitiful crying, Vicky heard only silence.

He fell while running, he fell while running, he fell—the babble of her stream of consciousness whirlpooled around this single phrase.

“Hello?” Vicky called.  

She looked to her left and right—the halls were unpeopled.  The hospital appeared abandoned. The overhead lights contributed a metallic, sterilizing hue to the bizarre scene.  She noticed that the temperature in the hospital was very cold.

He fell while running, he fell—it sounded plausible, right?  Boys broke their arms when they fell down running, she was sure of it.  In this respect, Vicky did not mind that the Emergency Room was a weird void.  It gave her more time to get used to the explanation. If it sounded natural to her … he fell while running.  Actually, she realized, practicing was making her more nervous.

“Hello!” Vicky called again.  

She gripped Miles.  He whimpered.

Down the hall, a door marked, “Staff Only,” swung open, and a man clad in scrubs stamped with the words, “Emergency Department,” emerged.

Vicky’s exasperation instantly escalated, but she could not identify this heightened sensation as relief or terror.  Her hands, though cold, broke into a sweat. He fell while running—

“Hello!” she bleated, inanely.

“Hello,” the nurse smiled as he approached.  “Sorry about the wait.” He was not hurrying.  “We are a sleepy old place.”

He fell while “My son is in pain.  He broke his arm.” running He fell

“Well that’s just awful,” the nurse agreed.  “Good thing it’s not life or death, is it, little man?”  The nurse smiled widely and leaned into Miles’ face, scrutinizing the black eye.

Vicky swallowed a kick of uncertain indignation—was the nurse belittling Miles, or assuaging them both?  And what did the black eye cause him to think?—while Miles emitted a bewildered protest at the stranger’s proximity.  Vicky attempted to comfort Miles with her hand on his shoulder; he felt rigid beneath her touch.

“Oh you are just fine,” the nurse decided.  “Resiliency, thy name is—what’s the little man’s name?”

“Miles.”  Vicky’s voice was thin.

“Miles.  Resiliency, thy name is Miles.  Now we’ve just got some paperwork here, let me see—”  The nurse picked up a phone receiver and began pressing numbers on the dial pad.  

Vicky cleared her throat.  She wanted to speak up for Miles.  He needed urgent medical attention.  She had taken a big risk coming to the Emergency Room so he could receive immediate care.  But she feared that her impatience would not be well received by the nurse. He might ask her what happened.  He fell while running.

The nurse looked over at Vicky.  “Someone’s got to turn the computer on.”  

“Oh.”

“Fill this out for me while I wake some folks up.”  The nurse pushed a clipboard and pen at Vicky and turned his attention to whoever was on the other end of the phone.

Vicky suppressed her confusion, and the consternation that arose with it.  She did not understand what was happening. Intuiting that it was safe to do as she had been told, she examined the form.  She began writing.

Shortly, a female ER tech in scrubs sidled up pushing a blood pressure machine and, murmuring quiet words of reassurance, pushed a thermometer into Miles’ mouth.

The nurse dropped the phone receiver into its cradle and leaned over the clipboard.  “That’s your insurance?” the nurse asked. He was reading Vicky’s form upside down, his brow knitted.  

A receptionist appeared behind him and occupied the workstation chair.  Moments later, the computer screen was alight.

“Yes, it covers emergency visits—”

“—I am going to have to call them.  Resiliency is free,” the nurse intoned knowledgeably.

The ER tech led Miles away into an examination room.

“Last name,” the receptionist demanded, her fingers at the ready on the computer’s keyboard.

“Peterson,” Vicky automatically replied.  Then she paused, puzzled. The nurse’s remark made no sense to her.  “I know the insurance covers emergency room visits. My husband came here when he broke his back in the roofing accident.”

The siren of a vehicle approaching the ambulance bay surfaced and then abruptly terminated.

The nurse had the phone receiver at his ear again.  “Well no doubt we called the insurance company then, too.  Roofing accidents are free,” he added.

“Quint Peterson,” the receptionist said, reading off the screen.

“Quint?  Yes, that’s my husb—No,” Vicky shook her head.  “No, Quint is—my son is Miles. Miles Peterson.”  Vicky reengaged the nurse, talking at him as he hugged the phone to his ear.  “He has a broken arm. He’s only six. It’s his right arm. He’s right handed,” Vicky pleaded.  “I would prefer that medical care, I mean, if possible, not be delayed because of administrative—”

“How do you spell Miles?” the receptionist barked.

Vicky told her.

“Medical care is not free,” the nurse mused.

“Date of birth,” the receptionist prompted Vicky.

“I wrote it down on this form.  May I, is it okay if I give you the form?”  Vicky pushed the clipboard in the receptionist’s direction.  

“Excuse me,” an EMT shouted.  

Vicky pressed herself against the wall beside the Triage window as a team of EMTs wheeled a stretcher past.  Vicky glimpsed the exhausted face of the patient, a protective collar around his neck. A bloody gash across his eyebrow had been ineptly bandaged.

“Where’s the charge nurse?” another EMT asked.

“Sorry about the wait,” the nurse answered, hold music audible through the phone receiver.  “We are a sleepy old place.”

“It’s a c-spine injury,” the EMT grumbled.  “He could be paralyzed.”

“Well that’s just terrible,” the nurse agreed.  “What happened?”

“Da—, Da—”

“He fell while running,” Vicky said.

The nurse stared at Vicky.

Catching the nurse’s look, the EMT quipped, “That would be nice for him, but it was a car accident.  Drunk driver hit him.”

“Da—Da—”

Miles’ stuttering flitted into the Triage area like a moth.  Vicky felt the shock of paresthesia along her arms and legs. They had taken Miles away.  She knew that if she came to the Emergency Room, they would take Miles away. Her heart ricocheted through her ribcage.  She pivoted around. The EMTs instinctually stepped back, giving her space. “He fell while running.”

Vicky could see Miles and the ER tech in the examination room across the hall.  It was the pediatric emergency examination room, as indicated by the painted multi-colored teddy bears around the entryway.  Miles was sitting on the examination table, his legs dangling over the side. He was wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat, a prize given to him by the ER tech.  He was bent earnestly towards the ER tech, straining to articulate.

“Nothing wrong with the drunk driver, of course,” the EMT continued.  

“Except being arrested,” another EMT chimed in.

“Well that’s good,” the nurse agreed.  

Vicky bolted past the EMTs and their patient on the stretcher.  

“Daddy did it.”

“Your daddy broke your arm?” the ER tech asked, her voice soft and mournful.  “And what about your black eye?”

Vicky caught the doorjamb at the entrance to the examination room.  She was not confident that she could stand on her own. “He fell while running,” she argued, breathless.  Behind her, she caught the EMTs and the nurse speculating about the drunk driver’s fate: “Oh she’s going to jail.”

The ER tech cast a questioning look at Vicky.

“Miles,” Vicky lurched forward to crouch in front of where her son sat at the edge of the examination table.  In her peripheral vision, Vicky registered the ER tech’s motion to stop her—to shield her son from her. But the ER tech checked her hand.  

“Miles, tell them. You know.”  Vicky’s voice was firm. She had the impression that she was hiding her desperation well.

Miles looked at her, confused and frightened.

“Miles,” Vicky urged him.  “Daddy is dead.” Reflexively, Vicky turned to the ER tech to reinforce the message: “His father is dead.  We were just at his gravesite. He knows his father is dead.”

The ER tech looked baffled.  Rearranging her face to reflect careful pity, she asked Miles, “Your daddy passed?”

Miles nodded.  

“So why did you say daddy did it?” the ER tech probed softly.

“Because he did,” Miles whispered.

“Miles!” Vicky gasped.  Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes.  She did not know why she was crying. Because her son was crazy?  Because the prospect of Quint hurting Miles was too painful to consider?  Because she had felt safe after Quint’s death, and now she felt unsafe? Vicky reached to hug him, but the ER tech intervened.  Vicky was surprised at how gently the ER tech managed to restrain her.

“His arm is broken,” the ER tech reminded her politely.

Vicky knew she was right, but felt furious anyway.  Miles was her son. She was his mother. She knew best for her son.  Her authority was being undermined. She resented having to acknowledge it.  “Miles,” she cried, “we just came from the graveyard. Tell them the truth. Daddy is dead, you know that, we just talked about it.”

“Yes, Daddy is dead.”  Miles was distraught. He wanted to please his mother, but she was crying.

“I’m so sorry,” the ER tech murmured to Miles.  “You’re such a big boy. But still too little to have lost your Daddy.”

“He fell while running,” Vicky insisted.

“Yes, I was just going to ask him,” the ER tech said.  “Miles, what happened?”

Miles glanced at Vicky’s face.  What he found there cause his expression to widen into helplessness before crumpling into tears.  “Mommy doesn’t want me to say what happened,” Miles squeaked.

From the Triage area, the nurse’s voice rang: “Going to jail is free.”

 

Quint had wanted more children.  After the roofing accident, being a dad was all that had been left to him.  He was not a provider anymore. He was physically broken: being a rescuer, hero, or winner was past him now.  He was no longer desirable. His self-worth derived entirely from being a father. The more children he had, the better he would feel about himself.

Vicky knew she was being unfair to Quint.  He had wanted more children because he loved children.  He had wanted more children, not because he was selfish, but because he was generous.

This line of thinking made Vicky uncomfortable.  She was good at avoiding habits of thinking that unnerved her.  She could not comprehend why the courtroom inspired these reflections.  The prosecutor, Attorney Shirley Jackson, had just said, “Abusers are known to reenact violence they experienced themselves, as victims,” and Vicky’s defense lawyer, Attorney Javier Marías, had objected on the basis of assuming facts not in evidence, an objection that Judge Henry James had upheld.  Vicky had missed everything after that development because she had sunk into contemplation. Quint had wanted more children.

She had agreed with him initially.  Four months after the roofing accident, Miles’ birth had been like a reprieve of a death sentence: they had both thought they would live again.  Of course they would have more children. More children equaled more life—the equation seemed obvious. The elation of Miles’ birth made the eventual disappointment all the more crashing: by the time Miles was six months old, the fact of Quint’s opioid addiction was unavoidable.  

Vicky did not think it was a good idea for an addict to have more children.

Quint called her miserly for not wanting her salary to be stretched further than a family of three.  You’re wrong, she had argued. I believe in you—you’re going to work again. This isn’t about money.

Quint had accused her of not being sexually attracted to him after he broke his back.  That’s a lie, she had said. Your back injury doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve never stopped loving you.  

He raged at her for not wanting to have sex with a cripple.

Are you stupid?  You’re not a cripple.  I don’t want to go to bed with a dope addict.        

He hit her, so she screamed, You’re an addict, and he hit her again, and she screamed, I’m not fucking an addict, You can’t make me fuck an addict, and so he punched her.  Vicky collapsed and gave no resistance when he raped her because she was not conscious.

When she came to and understood that Quint could make her fuck an addict, she counted the days since her last period, gave thanks not to be ovulating, and got birth control pills from her gynecologist.  When her gynecologist asked her if she felt safe at home, she said, yes, because any other answer was unmanageable.

Vicky told Quint to divorce her and have babies with another woman, but he would not consider it.  He did not believe another woman would have children with him—not now that he was unemployable, crippled, addicted to opioids, and prey to his violent impulses.  His assessment dripped with loathing and self-pity, but its core comprised solid honesty, and it terrified him. He could not bear to think that Vicky would get custody of Miles.  He accused her of goading him into divorce because she wanted Miles to herself, now that she was not sexually attracted to a cripple. I don’t want to be divorced, she retorted. I have never stopped loving you.

She did not have to reflect to know that she was speaking the truth.  Vicky did love Quint, never stopped loving Quint. She sought no explanation for her love.  Opposites attract. Like predator and prey.

She successfully took the oral contraceptive pills secretly for almost five years.

About a month before he found the pills stashed in an inner pocket of her purse, Quint had asked her, genuinely curious, why she never got pregnant.  Vicky could not remember seeing Quint so receptive to her since before he had fallen off the roof—he was open. He wanted to know. He wanted more children.  

Because rape sperm are no good for making babies, she had told him.  

He had punched her.  But that was all he had done.  

Vicky remembered with shame—her naivety was embarrassing, in hindsight—that she had thought: it’s over.  She had thought, I’ve been raped for the last time. I’ve survived being punched for the last time. She had almost celebrated, I made it.  And then he had found her birth control pills.

Some kind of discussion was happening between Judge James and the lawyers about the child advocate’s report.  Vicky emerged from her memories feeling humiliated. The sensations of shame were as tangible as a shroud. The emotion was so absorbing, so demanding—she could not follow the legal details.

Prosecutor Jackson was on her feet, speaking:  “The child advocate was unequivocal about what, ‘Daddy did it,’ means.  ‘Daddy did it,’ means, ‘Mommy did it.’”

“Objection,” defense Attorney Marías called as he stood.  “Misstates evidence. The child advocate said that, ‘Daddy did it,’ had to be understood as the boy’s psychological accommodation with his father’s death—”

“Sustained,” Judge James announced.  “I am familiar with the child advocate’s report, counselor.”

Defense Attorney Marías sat down.  Vicky wondered if he could explain to her what was happening.  But he did not look at her, and she did not want to interrupt him in the midst of this important exchange.  

“Your Honor,” Prosecutor Jackson continued, “the child did not abuse himself.  The poor boy’s father is dead by his mother’s hand—”

“Objection!”

“Sustained.”  

“We agree that the father is dead.  Process of elimination leads us to the mother.  The boy plainly appreciates that accusing his mother will leave him an orphan, so he accuses his father.  But the law operates according to adult rationality, not a child’s ‘psychological accommodation,’ and applying rational thinking to the situation produces only one answer.”

“Counselor, are you sure there’s only one answer?” Judge James probed.  “What about an accident?”

“A black eye and a broken arm within two days?” Prosecutor Jackson scoffed. “With no witnesses?  And the boy doesn’t say they were accidents. He says his parent hurt him. And he says that his mother does not want him to say what happened.”

“That’s not the same as naming his mother,” Judge James emphasized.  “He does not name his mother.”

“Your Honor,” Prosecutor Jackson struggled to control the frustration in her voice, “if the boy says his deceased father gave him a black eye and broke his arm, and that his mother doesn’t want him to say what happened, what’s more likely?  That he had an accident, that his father did it from beyond the grave, or that his mother was abusing him?”

Prosecutor Jackson was too familiar with Judge James to risk his ire by adding her view that Vicky’s killing of Quint, when viewed alongside Vicky’s son’s injuries, decreased the likelihood—to nil—that either was accidental.  

Judge James knew Prosecutor Jackson sufficiently well to predict her view without it being stated.  “Thank you, I have your position,” Judge James said.

Prosecutor Jackson sat down, and defense Attorney Marías rose slowly.  He stood for a prolonged pause, clearing the air of its argumentative edge with his dignified presence.  Then he said, “Whatever is more likely is not relevant. We are here today to establish what happened beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A scream severed defense Attorney Marías’ closing argument.

Vicky sprang to her feet with momentum that overturned her chair.  The hairs on her arm shot erect, her breathing sharpened, her eyes dilated.  Miles was in the courtroom! Vicky had not known that he would be there for her trial.  

She spun around to scan the audience and found him seated directly behind her, beside his foster mother.  He had been living with a foster family since they took him away from Vicky at the Emergency Room. How long had Miles been in the courtroom?

He screamed again.  The sound was pitched terror with raspy edges, as if a serrated knife was dragging across little Miles’ throat.  An incongruous smell—like barbeque—amplified the horror.

Vicky vaulted over the low wooden barricade that separated the spectators from the legal actors.  Miles was cowering and crying, unleashing another desperate wail that spurred her forward. Vicky clambered and hurtled over the rows of benches between them.

The foster mother jumped to her feet and leaned forward to block Miles from Vicky’s reach.  Fury at this stupid woman coursed through Vicky, simultaneous with the recognition that charcoal was in the air, and then she choked—felt the air sucked from her lungs, her body pummeled by a blast of heat.

Vicky forced her eyes open.  The tears evaporated off her eyes, and her throat parched.  Before her, as big as a blazing fire, Quint loomed over Miles.  His enormous left hand had trapped the cast on Miles’ arm, pinning the poor child to the torture: Quint’s right held the open flame of his lighter to Miles’ fingers.

Vicky lunged.  Miles’ scream reverberated through her bones like an explosion. Her arms outstretched wrenched Miles from Quint’s ignited grasp.  Vicky felt the burn on the skin of her knuckles and the backs of her hands. Torn free, Miles howled, and Vicky locked her him to her body with a ferocious hug.  Quint reared like a tidal wave, and hurled them backwards into space.

Vicky came to on her back.  She was on the floor between two rows of seating.  Her head pounded; she could feel the bulging at the point of impact.  Miles was in her arms, attached to her for life, his fingers rigid, clutching the silk of her shirt.  She exhaled, squeezed him, kissed his forehead, murmured, “I’ve got you,” ignored the pleas of the people around her, the foster mother, the bailiff, her defense Attorney Marías, until she was at last persuaded by the extraordinary appearance of Judge James, who had descended the bench and ventured forth into the gallery, to relinquish her hold and allow the medical personnel who had been summoned to confirm that the little boy’s heart had stopped.

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