The bailiff called my name, ordering me behind the podium. I meekly tore away from the barricades separating me from my own father—his ember eyes framing me with each step. He could see each ragged respiration and the perspiration falling from my forehead. Awkward and stiff in the suit Jennifer lent me for court, I wondered if anyone would understand that I was lost in this. I didn’t know what to do and how to handle any of it. I put my hand on the Bible and repeated after the almond-eyed bailiff. I then retreated to the chair behind the podium beside the judge.
The judge’s wispy, white hair nestled across his crown like a snow dusting, giving hints and chances to see his scalp. Wrinkles carved into his face, framing his eyes and his mouth as if to accentuate the prowess he held with his stern expression.
I uncomfortably wringed out my wrists and turned my gaze back to an attorney stalking her way to me. My heart fell out of my chest and rattled in my abdomen as I recognized the pixie-cut and square jaw of a personal trainer I had come across once. I frantically glanced at the judge and turned back to the attorney, and then I noticed the crowd nestled behind the attorney. I nestled in my chair as my nerves wrought their fury inside my chest. I shook my head furtively as I made eye-contact with those beautiful discolored eyes.
He was dressed in periwinkle shirt that accentuated his blue eye, forcing it to gleam violently. His green eye remained fiercely gorgeous in its own special way. My mouth dryed out as I could barely believe he was here after I so poignantly begged him to not come. I didn’t want to admit to any of this. I didn’t want to admit to this in front of anyone, let alone him.
Terra Stone, apparently the defense attorney, gently placed her hand on my podium. I wiggled away from her poisonous touch, afraid she would taint me some more. Her cat-like eyes sharpened as she gave me a toothy grin. “How are you, Miss Devin?”
The memories of the first time I met her flooded into my mind. Her hand was clammy and shaking as she shook mine. She had an eyebrow piercing and a tongue piercing. A tattoo snaked its way from her upper arm to her neck, a tribal pattern in pure black. I remember thinking she could never get a real job outside of personal training if she did not remove the tattoo.
I didn’t answer.
Terra turned to the jury and threw out her arms animatedly. “Welcome, jurors, to the case of State vs. Sebold. Our first witness is Devin Sebold, the supposed victim.” She gracefully paced the floor in her pencil skirt that accentuated her curvaceous muscles. Her hands came together in front of her abdomen as she slyly glanced at me. “But she was never the victim.”
I glanced at the prosecutor’s table, but my lawyer was gone. My heart threatened to tear from my chest and dance on the floor like a fish out of water. This ponderous weight suddenly burdened my chest, and all I could do was drop my jaw in disbelief—a mute.
Terra’s hazel eyes glared into me as she placed her hand dominantly on the table again. She hissed, “You loved every minute of it.”
I shook my head slowly. My eyes locked on Ned’s, and I noticed a sense of bewilderment and shock flash across his eyes before he was able to hide it.
“How many you people have you slept with?”
Under the table, I found myself using my fingers to count. I popped a finger up and ran out of phalanges too quickly. I began to reuse digits and follow through the mental list I created years prior. But why was I answering this question? What propelled my lawyer to leave me to the shark? What let him believe this woman who knew me in all the wrong ways would actually—
“Miss Sebold, answer the question,” the judge issued.
My eyes whizzed from my fingers to the judge and then to Ned. I whispered, tears collecting in the corners of my eyes. “I’m still counting.”
Ned shook his head with disappointment brooding in his facial structures. His brows rose as he fell into himself in shock.
“Answer the question,” the judge reminded.
A tear slid down my cheek as I could only stare at Ned. “Thirty-six.”
The jurors released a gasp in unison as if they were breathing with one pair of lungs, as if they were parts of a machine instead of individual creatures.
Terra leaned over, her inches away from mine. “Were they all men?”
Without removing my gaze, I slowly shook my head.
Ned cuffed his face in his hands and rustled his hair. He stood up from the bench, and I expected him to leave. He readjusted his pants and then relaxed back upon the stained pine.
Part of me wanted him so desperately to abandon me, but I needed someone there to help me survive. I needed him there to keep me alive.
“Did you like it?”
“Did you like it when I pulled down your panties in the back of the church? When my tongue slithered inside of you and made you wet? Did you like it when I defiled you? Did you like it?”
I didn’t answer as Ned became more and more uncomfortable right before me. I slowly shook my head.
“You liked it when we managed our way inside of you. You liked it.”
Ned ripped his gaze from my eyes, and I knew then he was disconnected from me. He didn’t need to know these things about me. I needed to shove them in a drawer where it could not be seen. I murmured, “I want out. I can’t do this.”
Terra egged on, “Oh no, you can’t get out of this, Devin. Come on, tell the jury about how much you enjoyed it every time we slept with you. Tell them how much you seduced us all into sleeping with you. How much we made you scream in pleasure.”
“I didn’t, I swear,” I tried to convince them, but I mostly tried to convince Ned. He pulled himself from the bench again and began to make his way toward the door.
“What about Heath Frey?”
I froze as Ned glanced over his shoulder at me with narrowed eyes, impatiently waiting for a reply.
“Please explain to the jury how much of a slut you are.”
I didn’t answer as I abruptly stood up behind my podium.
The judge declared, “Please answer the question, Devin.”
And then I screamed one word that escaped from a guttural, primal emotion. “Ned!”
He whipped around and glared at me with a venomous gaze.
I squealed, “Ned…Ned…Ned…”
“The question is very relevant to the case, Devin.”
Jude glanced over his shoulder and then turned back to me with a toothy grin splitting his face. He latched onto my gaze, and he wouldn’t let me avoid him. He clicked his jaw and confessed, “Eh, guess he’s leaving you, too. Just like Heath. Don’t worry, baby girl, I won’t leave you.”
Terra reassured, “We’ll never leave you. We’ll always be a part of you.”
I cuffed my hands over my ears and stared at the podium frantically, scouring for a way out of this. I needed out of this. I couldn’t get out.
“They’re right, Miss Sebold.”
I pivoted my gaze to the judge, and the flesh peeled away as if he was an insect molting. Manny tore away a layer of skin to reveal his barbaric features. And then I turned back to the jury—all of them. Men with glistening smiles bore holes into me as I realized who they were as I scanned each and every one of their faces. I melted in my chair and turned back to the podium.
I started to taste copper.
I let out the most animalistic, frightened shriek I ever heard in my life.
I sat up quickly in my bed, a pool of sweat wetting the sheets. I scoured the guest room as I began to recognize where I was. I put my hand over my heart and let out a resigned sigh. I shook my head and then froze.
Ned sat up beside me lazily and asked, “Bad dream?”
His arm wrapped around my bare stomach, pulling me to his chest. He pressed his lips against my forehead, and a minute smile came across my face. He must have felt it because he asked, “Why are you smiling?”
And then my eyes slid open. My vision wandered as I stared in front of me, the person I most longed for was gone. I couldn’t even tell him about what was happening to my own dad. I couldn’t explain to him that there must be something wrong with my brain. He wasn’t there to console me. My navy eyes remained on the space where he was in my imagination. I gently clawed at it, expecting to feel a hint of heat, but it had always been vacant.
Ned wrapped his arm around my neck, pulling me to his chest. I rested on him, hearing his rhythmic heart dance inside of him, lulling me to sleep. I nuzzled into his bare chest, wondering if this was uncomfortable for him, but then I slowly lost tension and relaxed into him. He murmured, “Don’t let what I say freak you out.”
I whispered, “Okay.”
“Sometimes, I think about us.”
“Like, you know how people get this feelings in their gut that they are meant to be together? You know how people believe in all of this phony crap about astrological signs and quizzes that they belong together?”
“This is going to sound so stupid, but I think you and I belong together, you know?”
I nodded because I knew that we were meant to be together.
And I still believed it as I lay in that bed alone and terrified to close my eyes and succumb to my imagination and thoughts. I believed full-heartedly we belonged together, even if we weren’t meant to be happy.