Andy kept knocking his head against the wall. Everybody in the courthouse lobby just watched. Some held hushed conversation, stared down the clock, pumped their leg.
Jolene scooted away from the damp slap of the boy beating his simple head against the cream-painted brick. She crossed her Vans near the spread of Gary’s Nike high-tops. He sat straight as his hair-cut but his eyes dived for the floor whenever nobody saw them.
“You here for the thing at school?” Jolene said.
Gary glanced at her. “Bomb threat? Yeah.”
“That’s pretty serious, huh?”
His broadening shoulders hiked. “I ain’t guilty. Got put up to it. School’ll probably drop charges. What’re you here for?”
Jolene pursed her glossed lips, cooking up an answer that tasted better than the truth. Andy’s dad, Harlan, nearly stepped on her feet storming by. Harlan cradled the boy’s head.
“Hey, Andy,” Harlan said in a lullaby tone, “it’s all right. Easy there.”
“I want to go home, Dad,” Andy said, eyes dull under heavy lids.
Jolene and Gary waited, their silent mothers flanking them like graveyard angels, for Harlan’s reply. Harlan just pet his son’s oversized head and turned his worried face away. A court clerk waddled out of Hearing Room 201 to call the next docket.
Jolene started to stand. Her mother stayed her with a touch.
“Not us yet, honey,” she said. Jolene didn’t have time to relax before her mother’s next words made her tense as a coon trap. “Besides, when it comes time, you won’t be expected to speak.”
Jolene twisted her face back to Gary, to hide the look of shock and protest on it. Gary was staring at the hearing room. In its doorway, an officer stood, all meat-red size under a razorback haircut.
“Ain’t that Officer McMahan?” Jolene said to Gary.
Gary’s features answered, quiet and sharp as a cornered animal.
After a half-ton boy was led from the hearing room in handcuffs, attitude angry as his acne, the lawyers arrived. It was late already, but each man acted like time was a force they were immune to.
“Nothing to worry about,” said the towering lawyer to Gary’s mother, casual as the fit of his Knoxville-tailored suit. “We’ll raise the issue of the police officer’s son, Chance, putting Gary up to the bomb threat and yet not getting punished.”
“Officer McMahan’s here, though,” Gary whispered. “He was the one who stuck it on me and let Chance go. If the school’s going to drop it, why’s he here?”
The lawyer left with barely enough time to smile.
Harlan’s lawyer sat by him, picking his blue jeans’ fray. “This ain’t the kind of charge they’ll let slip, Harlan. Your boy’s testimony could sink you.”
“How?” Harlan’s teeth worked his lip like his hands did his knees. He watched Andy beaming at the police officers lined up to speak at the hearing. “The boy’s slow. Retarded. It’s plain to see, even if it ain’t on record because I home school him.”
The lawyer shook his head as if just to see his beard sway.
“Everybody has to be on deck here,” said the beanpole boy of a lawyer to Jolene’s mother, cupping her wilted shoulder. “Speaking for Simon yourself will help. But if Jolene can speak on his behalf, that could make the difference between losing custody of him and a home arrest.”
Jolene’s mother tensed herself like a fist before laying a soft look on her daughter. “Jolene’ll speak for Simon. She knows he didn’t touch none of them kids a bad way.”
Jolene just nodded. She couldn’t raise her eyes for fear of letting her mother see what wailed, chained, within them.
The hearing room clerk called the next docket. Harlan and Andy went inside to stand before Judge Rader.
Jolene pumped her bare leg four hundred times, counting each, as the clock spun until the Hearing Room door opened again. Gary drank down two bottles of Powerade, the blue kind, sharing half of each with Jolene. Their mothers stared at the absences left by their lawyers as if still trying to bargain with them.
“Mr. Darius,” the clerk called. “We’re ready to here the Sumner case.”
Gary looked to his mother, already on her feet, and straightened his pressed shirt. “That’s us, Mama. Where’s Mr. Darius?”
She shook her head, mouth and eyes gaping, feasting on the crowded lobby. “Try and go find him. I’ll wait here.”
Gary bolted like he did on the field trying to avoid a sack. Jolene trotted behind.
“I’ll help you look,” she said.
He shot a look back to her, but any confident reply dried up and blew away under the hot shock on his face.
They walked the hall, flanked by cheap print-out posters of smiling families, ads for community outreach emblazoned with Sheriff badges, tacky daisy-orange flyers trumpeting the U of Tennessee Volunteers.
The end of the hall had no lawyers, only sad, fat women and the rain-frosted glass doors where jailhouse vans sat. Gary circled, darting, refusing to be still.
Jolene tapped his arm and pointed up to where the Child Services offices were.
“I’m going up there.”
“Why?” Gary asked, only glancing.
“Got someone I need to see.”
The docket was called again. Gary looked down the hall and back, and Jolene was already most of the way upstairs.
Harlan came out of the hearing room alone with his head bowed.
“I never did any of those things,” he muttered, his lawyer’s attention buried in his Rolex knock-off, deaf. “I was the best father I could be to that boy and no less.”
He turned back to Judge Rader’s chambers to watch the bailiffs cuff his son.
Jolene felt the scorch of her mother’s stare all the way down the hall. She unfocused her eyes, like they taught her in school to watch an eclipse, and walked into it.
Andy sat, cuffed and with his head cradled in both Harlan’s hands, beside Jolene’s mother.
“Where you been, girl?” Jolene’s mother said. Jolene just shrugged and sank down and watched the rain chase smokers making frantic phone calls outside the lobby.
“You got to go, Andy,” Harlan said, voice carefully kneading any trace of his sobs from it, refining it into something strong enough to reach his retarded boy. “I’ll visit you soon as I can.”
“Because you burnt up that house, boy. I tried my best. It was just one too many things for the Judge.”
“I want to stay with you, though,” Andy said, echoing it again and again as the bailiffs smirked to one another, idling away the time with a talk of college football.
The hearing room opened and Gary came out with mother and lawyer in tow. His shoulders were level but his eyes stared out as if he were laid on his back.
Darius and Gary’s mother drifted to a corner and talked—him smooth, her all anxious speed. The clerk called for Jolene’s mother.
“You coming?” Jolene’s mother asked her.
Jolene shook her head. She drifted closer to Gary, staring at his hand as if she were holding it.
“You ain’t going to say your piece for Simon?” Jolene’s mother hissed.
“I said it already,” Jolene said. She didn’t watch as her mother entered the hearing room, spine sagging more with every step.
“You get off, Gary?” Jolene asked, finding enough hope in herself for a smile.
“Nah,” Gary said. “But they didn’t convict me neither. Trial’s been postponed a third time. School won’t drop it but they won’t make a case.”
Jolene followed Gary’s stare. She saw it fracture as it met Officer McMahan’s. The School Resource Officer glared back at Gary, just to watch the quarterback’s confidence crumble. Then he went into the rain with his bailiff buddies hauling Andy away.
Gary and Jolene sank down onto the bench by Harlan. Harlan’s copper hair screened his face as he stared at his John Deere hat, working it in scarred hands.
“Been here all my life,” Harlan said to his hat. “And they take my son, just like that. Just like I was nothing.”
“How about you?” Gary said to Jolene, looking away from where Darius was trying to get his Mama to share a smile.
“How about me?”
“Did you get out of trouble?”
Jolene looked up, teeth releasing her lip as she saw the Child Services officer come from upstairs and head to join her mother in the Hearing Room. The CS woman laid a look of sympathy on Jolene, all the pity of a saint in stained glass shining on her.
Pity didn’t make Jolene feel good, but it was all she had. It straightened her up. Her hand slid within brushing distance of Gary’s. Her smile found his hardened eyes.
“For now, maybe,” she said. “For as long as you can ‘round here.”
From within the Hearing Room came her mother’s wails of loss.
Matthew C. Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is an editor of Needle Magazine and a staff writer for Planet Fury and Criminal Complex. Winner of the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web, Funk has work featured at numerous sites indexed on his Web domain and printed in Needle, Grift, Pulp Modern, Pulp Ink and D*CKED.