Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious and created by this author. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Warnings: Explicit romantic and sexual relations between women. Christian themes.
Feedback: Feedback, thoughts, and screaming should be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes: Originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month 2008. This story will be posted in four parts.
Meredith sat at the defense table. Samson sat next to her, his hand over hers.
Natalie was behind them, leaning hawkishly over the barrier. Meredith's in-laws crowded the other side of the courtroom, a flock of pain and condemnation, staring at Meredith rather than at the judge. The courtroom was full of locals--Meredith's co-workers, curiosity seekers, senior citizens, the unemployed, and reporters from all over the state. Two men in uniform stood in the back. Natalie had tried to question them, to no avail.
The judge took the paper from the jury foreman and then nodded at Samson.
Samson rose and Meredith stood beside him.
The judge read aloud, "We, the jury, find the defendant guilty--"
The blood rushed from Natalie's face. Not the comforting sound of "Not guilty," the first word breaking the dam, letting everyone tune out the rest. But guilty.
"--of voluntary manslaughter. Thank you, jury. Sentencing will be carried out--" The judge looked at his calendar. "Monday at 11 o'clock. Defendant released on her own recognizance. Those wishing to make a victim impact statement should file with the clerk. Court dismissed."
Meredith sank back down into her chair. Natalie touched her shoulders, but directed her attention to Samson.
"Thanks a lot, asshole," she said.
Samson ignored her. He squeezed Meredith's hand. "It'll be all right, Merry."
Meredith took a deep breath and released it as a sob.
She didn't look up as the courtroom emptied.
Natalie stroked her hair and said, "I'll take you home."
Meredith said, "The kids--"
"We'll handle the paperwork."
"They'll fight you. They'll win."
"Probably," Natalie said. "Don't think about that right now."
Meredith nodded. Samson helped her to her feet and held the gate open for her. Then Natalie pulled Meredith into her arms and held her, helpless to stop the sobs coming from Meredith, only able to buffer them with her body, and hold Meredith up.
* * *
The press waited outside. Meredith held Natalie's elbow, despite Natalie's limp, despite the fact that if Meredith leaned on Natalie too hard, Natalie might collapse.
"Ms. Jameison, do you have a statement?"
"Ms. Jameison, are you going to appeal?"
"Merry, do you think justice was served, when a family has lost their son?"
"What are you going to tell your children?"
Meredith was wan as Natalie pushed through the crowd toward the waiting car.
Samson waved at the press, trying to get their attention turned toward him. "I'll make a brief statement."
Cameramen took pictures and followed Natalie and Meredith until they were in the backseat of the car.
Samson said, "We will not be appealing. We've stated all along that Ms. Jameison has taken responsibility for her actions. We will focus our efforts on sentencing..."
* * *
Meredith went straight into her bedroom while Natalie talked to the babysitter. She didn't tell Merritt or Beau about the conviction, she just fed them dinner and played with them and helped them feed the cat.
She took dinner to Meredith, who sat tear-stained and pale and unfocused in bed, while the boys washed up. Then Natalie read them stories and stayed with them until she was sure they would sleep and not interrupt her later.
She crept into Meredith's bedroom. Her bedroom. Her chest constricted.
Meredith sat in the same position, hugging her knees. She'd at least attempted to eat, though. The plate had lost a third of its food, and the rest had been moved around.
Natalie sat on the bed. She took Meredith's hands.
Meredith trembled. "I'm a murderer," she said.
"You're not a murderer."
Meredith's voice was thick with tears. "I expected absolution. I don't know. I thought this would all go away."
Natalie squeezed her fingers.
Meredith swallowed. "What's going to happen next?"
"We can worry about that--"
"No, tell me. In legal terms. What do I do?"
"We'll hope for lenient sentencing, and we'll file for a temporary guardianship--if you want--the same day. Grandparents don't have that many legal rights in North Carolina."
"I know. But you do?"
"If we'd been together longer..." Natalie lowered her head.
Meredith leaned forward, pressing her forehead to Natalie's shoulder. Natalie let go of her hands and moved closer, embracing her instead.
"It's going to be okay," Natalie said.
"I'm going to be punished for this forever."
"In some ways. But I'm not going anywhere. And neither are your children."
Meredith turned her head, tucking against Natalie's neck. "I feel awful. Dirty. I..."
Meredith said, "I don't want you to touch me. It disgusts me. I want to curl up in a ball and have you far away, where it's safe. I'm toxic."
"Merry," Natalie said, cupping her cheek and tilting her face up.
"Don't," Meredith said.
Natalie kissed her anyway, the warm lips she had kissed so many times before unresisting as she brushed across them, as she stroked Meredith's jaw. Only then, when Meredith closed her eyes, did Natalie hold her close, and let Meredith weep.
* * *
Meredith looked at no one as her father-in-law took the stand, talking about Vincent, slandering her. He was not describing the boy she had loved, the boy whose secrets had been hers, not his father's. She tried not to hate him, but the terror inside her needed focus.
Natalie sat on her left side, Samson on her right. The courtroom was as full as it had been at the verdict. Fuller, perhaps, with more of her friends there, and just as many reporters, taking notes. Someone sketched a picture of her children's grandfather, crying on the stand.
Then it was the judge's turn to speak. Samson squeezed her hand and she looked up, and met the judge's eyes, and tried to be open to a future decided by others.
"With mitigating circumstances and your status as a first time offender, the sentence imposed is three years in prison."
Meredith held her breath. Her ears pounded. Her vision swam and she thought she might go blind.
"Considering time already served, I sentence you to a minimum of four months and a maximum of one year at Fountain Correctional Center for Women…"
Natalie's hand settled onto her shoulder. Meredith could barely hear the rest. Suspended sentencing, probation, transportation, incarceration… The words had no meaning for her. Until Natalie nudged her arm. She looked up at the judge.
He shuffled his papers. "Guardian ad litem will continue under the previous agreement, and temporary guardianship of Merritt and Beau Jameison will pass to Natalie Ivanovich, am I correct?"
Meredith swallowed and nodded.
Vincent's father stood. "We object."
The judge said, "You've filed your objection here. I've been through the transcripts of the previous hearings and see no need to re-tread old ground. Visitation will continue under the previous agreement. Is Natalie Ivanovich here?"
"Here, your Honor," Natalie said.
The judge asked, "I understand the boys will be staying at their current residence and entering kindergarten on schedule?"
Meredith bit back a choked sound.
"Yes, your Honor," Natalie said.
"And you will respect the visitation schedule and guidelines put forth by the county-appointed guardian?"
"Yes, your Honor."
"Your occupation, Ms. Ivanovich?"
"I'm an attorney, your Honor."
The judge rolled his eyes.
"And your relationship to Meredith Jameison?" The judge paused. "Legally speaking."
"Her partner, your Honor."
The judge nodded and wrote something on his form. "I'll schedule a custody hearing for six months from now. Ms Ivanovich, I want a family services visitation at the home within two weeks."
"Yes, your Honor."
"Ms. Jameison, you have three days to get your affairs in order before presenting yourself at this court house for transportation to Rocky Mount. Court is adjourned."
Meredith buried her face in her hands.
Samson looked across her back at Natalie. "I'll file for a commuted sentence with the governor."
He said, "And I'll talk to the press. Why don't you two go out the back way?"
"Thank you, Samson," Natalie said.
Meredith took a deep breath and uncoiled herself long enough to hug Samson and then stand, reaching for Natalie's hand and squeezing too tightly.
* * *
They settled onto a bench at Clement Park, where they could watch Merritt and Beau on the playground. Other parents were there, and those that didn't recognize Meredith were quickly informed by those that did, so Natalie and Meredith sat alone, isolated but unmolested.
"We should have gone up to Rose Hill," Natalie said.
Meredith shook her head. "I don't want to leave home. Not until I have to. Three days."
"I'll bring the kids up every week. It'll pass by before you know it."
Meredith shook her head. "I don't know. When I get out, will I be better, then? Will those women over there stop looking at me like that? Will I be able to enjoy a day like this without wanting to throw up?"
Natalie wrapped an arm around her shoulders and looked past the playground, at the tree line. The sky was perfectly blue with white clouds and there was just enough heat to feel warm, without sweating. Unless she wanted to run. But she couldn't run anymore.
Meredith took a deep breath. "I should pray."
Natalie squeezed her closer.
"I can't." Meredith closed her eyes.
"We'll pray together."
Meredith settled her hand onto Natalie's leg, but didn't speak.
"I just... can't. Will you?"
"Sure. God likes your voice better."
Meredith smiled, but her eyes were squeezed shut, and Natalie knew she was trying not to cry.
She kissed Meredith's hair. "Let me convey your sentiments."
"And his," Natalie said.
Meredith's grip tightened.
Natalie turned, so she was whispering close to Meredith's ear. "This is what I remember saying over and over as a child. I never knew it in Russian, but that probably doesn't matter. God speaks English, right?"
"I sure hope so," Meredith mumbled.
Natalie said, "Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Meredith breathed in and out with slow, measured breaths.
Natalie said, "Stop me if you know this one."
Meredith shook her head.
Natalie said, "Give us this day our daily bread." She hesitated.
Meredith shifted, turning to face her on the bench. Natalie smiled and met her eyes.
Natalie said, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
"You have someone in mind?" Meredith asked.
Natalie thought of Merritt and Beau's grandparents, but only continued smiling and whispered, "And lead us not into temptation."
"But deliver us from evil." Meredith mouthed the words along with Natalie.
Natalie cupped Meredith's cheek. "They're all staring at us, you know."
"I know. I don't blame them. I would be staring, too."
Natalie shifted, tucking herself against Meredith's side.
Meredith said, "I want to just cry and cry until I fall apart, until I disintegrate right here in the park, in the sunlight."
Meredith said, "But I want to stay here with you. Is that selfish?"
Natalie thought about it, with Meredith's hair brushing her cheek and Meredith's warmth radiating up her side. She said, "No, I think the other way is selfish. The people who love you don't want you to go away. You have to... stay with us. Even if it hurts."
"It does." Meredith tilted her chin up and looked at the sky. "You have no idea how much."
Natalie knew she couldn't really conceive of, or touch, Meredith's pain. Her own pain at the impending separation seemed like a wispy, tangential ache. She didn't know how she was going to take care of four year olds and make American cheese sandwiches or find money to support them all or get to Rocky Mount or deal with the neighbors or supervise non-custodial visits without punching anyone in the face.
She couldn't even bear the thought of going to asleep alone next week. The week after that, and the week after that, might wear her down, might make her give up.
So she gave Meredith the only piece of truth she had. "I love you," she said.
Meredith put her head on Natalie's shoulder. "I know you don't think it's enough, not with everything else, but that's what's going to get us through. It's the only thing."
Natalie reached for Meredith's hand, tangling their fingers. Squeezing hard.
Meredith said, "I love you, too."
The words made Natalie feel lighter. She smiled. Merritt waved at them before he threw himself down the slide. She felt something like rejoice in her chest, watching him.
"Maybe you're right."
Meredith lifted their linked hands and kissed Meredith's fingers. The "I always am" was implied in her touch.
"I think," Natalie said. "I think everything might actually turn out to be easy."
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