You are 17. You stand in court in your Walmart suit. The gavel slams down, the judge’s voice booms out the verdict, Jordan Stackhouse has been found not guilty of murder. Unbelievably, he repeats the same words for the other charge. You hug your lawyer, feel your mother’s stiff hand on your shoulder. You won. You shake off the claims of cold blooded murder and accept with relief the new cloak of self-defense. Your head swirls with hope, your armpits dampen with expressed adrenalin. You no longer have to imagine your future in prison. You immediately begin dreaming of a new life, one you wouldn’t have dared to dream one week before.
Ralph Sorenson. Gabriel Wisner. You see them everywhere, the two you killed. Not as in imagining they are everywhere. They are everywhere. You can’t explain the difference, to yourself, to anyone.
You didn’t know who they were that night. You only knew the weight of the gun in your hand, your frigid feet moving fast. You didn’t know before you killed them that one was a drug addict, the other, bipolar. Both, occasionally homeless. You say you were on patrol, a self-appointed defender of the public good. You thought they were running after you, wielding their own weapons.
So, you turned and shot them, a move repeatedly playing out in your dreams or when you close your eyes or simply when your attention drifts. You turned and pulled a trigger, once, twice, heard the gasp, the thud of bodies. In that moment, a (shameful) jolt of exhilaration pulsed through your body. You ran and kept running. You bolted home to your mother.
No one knows why a 17 year old would have this type of weapon, the assault kind, strapped across a hairless chest. But you loved that gun- a gift from your estranged father -the only gift from him you ever received.
You are 19. It’s two years since your acquittal. Ralph and Gabriel are sitting at the end of your bed. They don’t talk, don’t move. You can see the absent gaze, the hint of instability in their eyes. You recognize it because now you know you have the same look, a kind of looney one, that’s what you would have called it before. You inherited this from them.
Down the hall, in the small yellow bathroom you share with your mother, you splash your face with cold water, observe your buzzed head and acne-sprayed cheeks in the mirror. You are trying to get back on track, but Gabriel and Ralph are standing behind you.
“YOU tried to kill ME, remember?” You try to convince them, yourself.
They keep staring, a wall of lifeless eyes.
You want to get dressed, get ready for work, but you call in sick, go back to bed. Your mother, the one who told you what to say, the one who held you that night and said you were in the right, knocks on your door. She has been drinking already.
“Get up, Jordan. Don’t waste your life! You got a second chance, you know!”
She reminds you of that every day. Your second chance.
You roll over, feeling Ralph and Gabriel’s rotting breath on your cheek. You cover your face with your pillow, wishing you were dead too. Kind of.
You are 22. You are embarrassed to admit you still construct your old Lego sets, repeatedly taking them apart and putting them back together. Your mother couldn’t afford the really expensive ones, so she bought a generic pirate ship, a horse and some other odd- shaped kits on sale. You are careful about all the pieces and paper instructions. Even now, you assess, inventory, organize.
You are 29. She is 27.
“You seem familiar to me,” this woman, the date you find on the app, says.
Your disappointment at this clouds the joy you are feeling, sitting here with her chocolatey eyes and shiny hair. She smells like apples, something nice. So far, there’s no Ralph, no Gabriel.
You attempt to ignore the observation, since it’s something many people have said, say to you. Over ten years after the acquittal and you can still feel the eyes on you-in the grocery store, the post office, on the street. That guy looks so familiar. You remember the hundreds of emails and letters your received in the beginning, the requests for interviews, all those in support or the opposite. You still get them from time to time. All the opinions, words, commentary blur together in a kind of white noise, a cacophony of meaninglessness.
What were you doing with that gun, kid?
What kind of mother lets their kid have a gun like that?
Good for you, kid! Way to defend yourself! We need more like you!
Finally, when she says it the third time, you admit, “I was involved in a court case that received a lot of media attention. It was a long time ago and-”
But not long enough. She puts down her beer, her eyebrows rise.
“You’re that Jordan-didn’t you shoot someone?”
“It was self-defense. The jury deliberated and found-” The words spill, a tumult.
“But those guys you shot-they were homeless, I think.”
She holds a small brown purse in her lap, her right fingers twisting part of the strap.
“I know,” you say, “I know.”
You are well practiced in the pushing down of bubbling feelings, like sitting on an over-stuffed suitcase, forcing the straining latches closed.
She grows quiet. Briefly, her eyes meet yours, then quickly, they move away. She doesn’t run out the door, but you know she won’t be introducing you to her friends and family any time soon, ever. The small wriggling flame of possibility between the two of you extinguishes cold and fast. All the while, Ralph and Gabriel are down the bar, heads bent over full beers, steady, unmoving.
You are 32. You can’t focus. With the effort it takes just to get up and get moving each day, you don’t do much. You remember the lawyers said Gabriel was a genius with perfect SAT scores. Ralph was an artist, a painter. You dropped out of school at 16.
You watch a lot of television while the dark brown framed photo of your smiling Uncle Mike, the cop you never met but still idolized, hangs steadfast on the wall. He died on duty. His uniform has so many silver buttons. You used to stand there and count them.
You get a job working for a landscaper. You mow lawns, weed wack, blow leaves. You plow driveways in the winter. The guys you work with are strangers. You like the way they don’t know your name, your face. You enjoy being outside, the physical nature of the work, the cold and hot, the rake and shovel pushing against your hands until waxy callouses form. You admire the way skin has its own way of protecting the tender, vulnerable parts.
You are forty. You are crouching in the woods, far away from the highway. You live out here ever since your mother died. You have your rifle poised, aiming. Ralph and Gabriel are darting in and out of view. You are always on the offensive. But you are happier here, your purpose more clear, your almost-anonymity secure.
You fish, hunt, live off the land. You don’t know whose property this is, you just found yourself here one day and stayed. You lose yourself in a maze of trees every day, looking up to the sun and stars for guidance.
You move your camp each night. You warm your hands, cook on the blazing fire you build yourself. Spring, summer, fall, you bathe in a stream, baptizing yourself again and again, attempting to absolve your sins.
You are 62. You find the world, even in the woods, is a box. Your hands mime, feel for the walls closing in. Ralph and Gabriel are all you see, their faces appearing in every puddle, shadow, ray of light. In a way, they are the only people you have ever really known.
Finally, you lean into a tree, slump down. At last, you are released, your spirit separates from your haggard body.
You are moving away, as fast as you can. You wonder if you have wings, if you can fly. But you are exerting yourself, running, just like before, frosty feet pounding, heart racing. You turn to find Ralph and Gabriel behind you, giving chase.
You are disappointed. You are relieved. You are scared. You are not surprised.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com