She looked so innocent. Her hair fell in a soft wave over her forehead, her cheeks flushed. She sat down with the folder I’d given her and took a deep breath, the way I imagined she would before she was getting ready to take a particularly hard test.
Then she opened the folder.
And I saw it.
I saw her face cloud with confusion, and then panic.
I struggled to keep myself calm. I’d been through hundreds of these hearings -- they didn’t have any bearing on what was actually going to happen. The prosecution would pull out their big guns, would rush around throwing evidence at the wall, hoping something would stick. It was an intimidation tactic. Whatever was said at an evidentiary hearing almost didn’t matter.
The state would never bring charges against someone unless they were certain they had enough evidence to get a trial – they did not want to look foolish. But evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing was just that. It had no bearing on a trial. No one could be sent to jail because of what was presented at an evidentiary hearing.
That’s what I would have told a client. That’s what I was telling myself. But telling myself was the easy part.
Something foreign pulsed through me.
Not about the case.
Not about being found guilty or about going to jail.
But about Charlotte, about her not believing me.
She turned to look at me, and I opened my mouth to speak, to tell her all the things I would tell a client to keep them calm. It’s just an evidentiary hearing, it does not mean anything, this is not what we will see at trial.
I stopped when I saw the emotion in her eyes. It wasn’t doubt. It wasn’t fear. It was something else. Something far more powerful, more intense.
It was anger. Accusation. Not burning bright, on the surface, but bubbling slowly, underneath, the kind of emotion that was far more serious. Emotions that exploded off of people tended to burn themselves out quickly. Once the fuel of that emotion had been exhausted, there was nothing left. But emotions that simmered under the surface were much more dangerous. They had the ability to boil and roll, so slowly that you were somehow able to convince yourself you didn’t even feel them. Until one day you woke up and realized they’d ruined everything.
Charlotte turned to me. Her eyes were watery.
“Who did…” she trailed off.
She said it at a normal volume, but to my ears, it sounded as if she was whispering.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?” I was struggling to keep calm, struggling to keep the panic out of my voice. It was a strange feeling. For the first time in a very long time, I felt the first tiny bit of my control start to slip from my grasp, the first crack in a carefully controlled existence.
“Who did you tell about us?” she demanded. “Who knows?”
“No one. Why?”
“Because I’m on the witness list.”
The crack suddenly got wider. It wasn’t slow, the way a crack in a carefully built foundation would split over time. It was immediate, deep, devastating.
They would call her to the stand.
They would ask her about us.
They would ruin her.
I’d seen it happen, over and over.
They’d take a fiancé or a girlfriend – never a wife, since spouses had spousal privileges – put her on the stand, try to trip her up, to make her say something incriminating. If the person decided to be stupid and lie, the prosecution would threaten them with a perjury charge, only to swoop in later and offer them a deal – testify against your boyfriend and that pesky little perjury charge will go away.
They were going to try to play with her.
And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My whole body was shaking. Thoughts swirled through my head, impossible to untangle. My heart pounded, sending blood whooshing through my veins so loudly I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack.
“Charlotte,” Noah was saying, but he sounded like he was talking to me from a tunnel, his voice echoing off the walls. “You’re having a panic attack.”
“No,” I shook my head. I didn’t have panic attacks.
My fingers and toes were numb, and I felt Noah’s hand on the back of my neck. I was shaking, and my entire body felt cold, the way you would after coming inside after a long day out in the snow.
“Lie down,” he commanded, and I felt him guiding me down on the bed gently, my head sinking into the pillow.
As soon as I was lying down, my stomach stopped rolling, and my fingers and toes started to tingle, as if they were waking up. I flexed them over and over until they began to feel normal. My heart rate started to slow.
Noah disappeared for a moment and then returned with a glass of water, made me take a sip.