Authors: Marisa de Los Santos
For Simon, Isaac, Michael, and Christina
IN THE TIME IT TOOK A MAN TO SPEAK a single sentence, I discovered three things: there’s a reason a judge’s robe looks like the Grim Reaper’s; a blooming jacaranda tree can feel like a big fat slap in the face; and there is such a thing as a silent scream.
“For the crimes of arson and murder in the first degree, I sentence you, John Thomas O’Malley, to death, the time and method of which are to be determined by the Arizona Board of Corrections.”
Before Judge Biggs had finished speaking, while his ugly words were still smashing through the courtroom, I jerked my face away from the judge—his bat-black robe and flat shark’s eyes—and straight toward a big, arched window.
Outside, jacaranda branches moved in the wind, branches so thick with purple-blue flowers that it was like someone had told them, “This is your last day in all of history to bloom, so go crazy.” The sight of them made me want to burst into tears, screech at the top of my lungs because, at a time like that, nothing had the right to be so beautiful and glowing and easy as those flowers against the blue, blue sky.
But I didn’t cry. I sat stiller than I’d ever sat, just kind of falling in on myself, getting denser and smaller, and all the while I screamed. Not with my vocal cords, nothing so pure and ordinary as that. My mouth didn’t move, but I screamed with my whole body, my hair, my fingers, the back of my neck, the pit of my stomach, the pores of my skin. I screamed until I didn’t have any voice left, until I was empty, and then I floated, shivering, in an ice-cold ocean of silence.
I would have stayed there, maybe forever, but the world tugged me back. Someone’s arm was around me. Someone was wailing a high, choked-throat wail (it was my mother). Someone was saying my name. And then out of all of it, my dad materialized, holding out his hands, so I went and I put my freezing hands inside them, and I’ll never for my entire life forget how warm they were. But even as we stood there, holding on, he was being pulled away.
“Listen, Margaret. Look at me and listen.”
I tried to do what he asked.
“Are you listening?”
“There is one Now . . ,”
I shook my head, confused.
“No. Say it. Finish the line.
There is one Now
. . . .”
I still didn’t understand, but he was so insistent that I called up the rest, said the words that were as familiar as my own face in the mirror.
“The spot where I stand.”
“And one way the road goes . . . ,”
he went on.
“And one way the road goes . . .”
He didn’t let go of my hands.
I sighed and finished it,
There is one Now: the spot where I stand,
And one way the road goes: onward, onward.
The words had been passed down in our family for generations. A sort of poem. No, not a poem. A vow, a sacred one. My father called it a forswearing because it wasn’t a vowing to; it was a vowing not to. When it had come my turn to take the vow, I’d done so without question. But why was he asking for it now, when there was so much else to say? What place could it have here?
His body relaxed. He kissed my hands and smiled his familiar smile at me.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “I love you.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
I said it, even though my mouth felt dry as sand. It was the best and biggest truth I had, but right then, it felt tiny and weak compared to the enormous lie that had just fallen from Judge Biggs’s mouth and onto our lives like a thousand tons of bricks. For a second, my father was with me, his face the one clear thing in a world of noise and chaos.
And then—just like that—he was gone.
He didn’t do it.
I know how that sounds coming from me, his daughter, his only child, but trust me when I tell you that everyone who knew him, everyone who had ever
him, even for a minute in the grocery line or at the gas station, knew there was no way John O’Malley could ever hurt another person. He was a fighter, yes, but a colossally kind one, the type of man who makes people—even kids—dig up words they don’t usually use like “benevolent” and “gracious” and “colossally kind.”
Once, when I asked how he could be so decent to everyone—because I don’t find it nearly as easy—he told me it was because he figured out at some point that everyone was a human being exactly as much as he was and he had to honor that, even when it was hard.
He didn’t do it. He couldn’t have done it.
Even ask the jury who convicted my father. Even—and I’d bet my life on this—ask Judge Biggs with his ugly black robe and his rotten little soul who sentenced my dad to death in the same voice he probably uses to order lunch. They wouldn’t admit it—no way—but deep down, they all had to know that John O’Malley could no sooner have committed that crime than he could’ve flown to Jupiter.
It would have been funny if it weren’t so terrible. My father would not have burned down that stupid laboratory even if he could’ve gotten a signed affidavit from God that it was empty. And if he had come across it burning, just happened to be passing by, you can bet he would’ve run in without a second thought to save whoever might be inside.
I promise you, the words “arson” and “murder” had no business being in the same sentence with my father’s name. Neither did the word “death.”
Maybe I should’ve seen it coming. After all, he’d been convicted. If he could be convicted, if that totally wrong thing could happen, then anything could happen, right? And Judge Biggs was infamous for slapping people with the very harshest sentences possible.
But more than that, the giant, towering, shameful fact was that this town, my town, Victory, Arizona, was a company town, and Judge Lucas Biggs was a company man. My dad had done about the bravest (and some would say most foolish) thing you could do in my town: he’d taken a stand against Victory Fuels.
I knew all that. But it’s one thing to know facts with your mind, and it’s another thing to be thirteen years old and to sit inside a courtroom in your Easter dress and watch your father, the best person in your world or maybe any, be led away in handcuffs out the door of the courtroom and out of the everyday world of freedom and sunlight and blossoming, out of
world, for the very last time.
Outside, the reporters waited, cawing and crowding in like a murder of crows, just like we’ve all seen on TV. Except that when it’s happening to you, it’s nothing like that because you’re not watching it, you’re living right inside its nightmare center, and right inside your own body, which feels stunned and stinging, like someone’s been scrubbing it with steel wool, and about as exposed and fragile as a newborn kitten.
I was on the verge of total, crazy, animal panic, when my friend Charlie was suddenly right there.
“Hey,” he said.
He put an arm around me, which would’ve been awkward in any other situation, since he and I weren’t the touchy kind of friends, even though we’d known each other forever. But in this situation, it felt normal, like the first natural thing to happen all that day. As dazed as I was right then, I still felt grateful.
“Keep your head down and keep walking,” he said in my ear.
I did. We followed my mom, who was being propped up by
best friend, Anne Jensen (or Dr. AJ), who had known me, literally, since the first second I was born, being the doctor who’d delivered me. Right before we got to the car, the reporters gave up on us and turned in unison, like a flock of idiot birds, back toward the steps of the courthouse. Roland Wise, our lawyer, was getting ready to give a statement, just like he’d told us he would.
Roland Wise was a man of his word, a lawyer who made you feel bad for ever thinking lawyers were sleazy (although I can’t say the same for the prosecutor). I knew he would come by the house later, because he’d said he’d do that, too, to talk about “our next step,” although in the state I was in, I found it hard to believe there was any step that wouldn’t plunge us all straight over the edge of a cliff.
Just before I got into Dr. AJ’s car, in the little space of sort-of quiet after the reporters had clamored away, Charlie leaned in and said in a low, urgent voice, “So, here’s the deal, no
are we letting them get away with this.”
What he said barely registered. He took my arm and shook it.
“Hey! This is not over. Do you hear me?”
I looked blankly down at my shoes, cream-colored ballerina flats that I’d loved when I bought them, but that now seemed to belong to another girl, someone I didn’t know. Same with my feet, my ankles, the hands that dangled down useless against my blue dress. None of it looked like mine.
My head felt so heavy as I lifted it to meet his eyes. Charlie, looking way too tidy. He’d gotten his always-shaggy hair cut at the start of the trial, a gesture that had made my mom put her hand on his cheek, call him “sweet boy,” and cry.
“Okay,” I said in some other girl’s voice.
“No, seriously!” said Charlie. “Grandpa Joshua thinks he knows a way we can fix this and save your dad.”
I looked over Charlie’s shoulder and saw his grandfather, tall, straight, and skinny in his suit, with hair as all over the place as Charlie’s usually was, but white. Same smart, serious brown eyes as Charlie’s. He nodded at me, and, in a vague, disconnected way, I felt sorry for the old man for thinking that justice was possible, for thinking for a second that anyone or anything could be saved.
“Come over tomorrow morning,” said Charlie, “and we’ll make a plan.”
His voice was so charged up, it sounded almost angry. I shook my head.
“Hey!” He gripped my arm harder.
Pulling myself away, I got into the car and didn’t even flick my eyes toward Charlie until he banged on the window with his palm.