“I disagree on all accounts,” I shouted.
My lawyer, Claire Underwood, put her hand upon my shoulder to calm me, but I refused to stay silent. By God, I might get hung by this kangaroo court, but I would not go quietly.
“Order,” the white-haired judge shouted at me. “By God, I’ll have order in my courtroom or all of you will be placed under arrest.”
“I don’t care,” I snarled back, as I leapt to my feet. “You and your courts disgust me. I remember when people got upset when children could not read! It wasn’t so long ago that we hated it when our children didn’t know how to sign their names. Now, we have ‘graduates’ who can’t understand the basic principles of…”
“BAILIFF! Take that man into custody.”
The bailiff, an old black man with crags of experience cut into his weathered face told me to put my hands behind my back. He led me out of the courtroom, all while journalists clamored around to take photos of my removal.
My eviction from the courtroom would be headline news for five minutes, and then some other travesty would get top billing.
Claire followed the throng out; each journalist threw elbows to gain a better advantage. Reporters shoved microphones in my direction for a sound bite.
“Mr. Freeman, what is the big deal? Is getting your message out so important you risk imprisonment?”
I stopped and the bailiff was swarmed with reporters. Claire stood behind them, tears in her eyes as she shook her head no at me.
“This country used to stand for something,” I said. “Back before the jackals in the media shacked up with the political insurrectionists. We cared about our children, and the environment they grew up in. Parents would place the needs of their children before their own personal gain.”
“You’re blaming us for the state of the world,” one reporter yelled at me.
“No. I’m blaming all of us. Because we knew you for liars, frauds, and charlatans, and we did nothing to stop you.”
My words sparked outrage and the crowd of journalists swarmed closer. Look at ‘em, they’re like cockroaches. As soon as light cuts through the darkness they come pouring out.
The bailiff took me by the arms and escorted me to my cell. I knew it was too late to change my fate, and that of my country, but I had to try.
In my cell, I sat in silence and thought of the road that landed me here. I wasn’t a man given to frivolous fights. Nor was I one to follow the masses and demand change by burning cities, toppling statues, and interrupting the dinner of those whom I disagreed with.
I was a live-and-let-live sort of man. If I could live my life the way I wanted, with zero interference from anyone else, then I would stay out of the way. In today’s world, such thinking was ostracized and called ‘old fashioned.’
But no…nothing can ever be that easy.
Down the hall I could hear Claire whispering to the bailiff, or it was the guards. Either way, soon after the whispers I heard the clacking of her heels upon the hardwood floors.
“You made a mess, Joe. I told you not to unload on the judge.”
“I know, Claire.”
She gazed at me with those beautiful bluish-grey eyes, and I felt naked in front of her. Claire could read me like a book. Always could. I waited for what would come next. She took a deep breath and shrugged.
“Why pick this fight, Joe? Everyone knows what happens to those labeled dissidents.”
“I didn’t pick the fight, Claire. These clowns raped my daughter to death because they ‘felt’ as if she owed them.”
Claire wrapped her hands around the bars and stuck her face between them. She was beautiful in the low light of the dank cell. Her short red hair was cut to frame her pixie face, her lips were full, and time had been kind to her. Some women preferred the ‘ripped’ look, but Claire didn’t have a sharp edge to her. Instead, she had the soft, curvy look of old Hollywood starlets.
“You should let the law handle it, Joe,” Claire said, stepping away from the bars.
She gave me a look that seemed to puzzle whether I had crossed over into full lunacy. I nodded and sat down on the dirty mattress I had to sit on.
“I know you don’t respect the law, and you find it inadequate in your situation, but please let me do my job without further incident.”
“Yeah. Okay, Claire.”
“They’re not going to make this easy, Joe. The men accused of raping your daughter are police officers. Naturally, the court believes them over…”
“A drunk? A pill addict? A disgruntled veteran from the last pointless war they started?” My voice raised, and I realized I was shouting at my only friend. I scratched at my salt-and-pepper beard and closed my mouth. Claire wasn’t my enemy. She’d been a friend throughout this time.
I had few friends left from the old days, except for Claire, and she’d stood by me. Even when I walked into the police station with a shotgun hunting the people who killed my daughter.
Claire motioned for me to come to the bars, and I stood. My frustrations had nothing to do with her. I had never been a good father. My daughter, Janie, was a sophomore in high school, but she had the smoking hot body of a supermodel.
At 15, she received attention from men up into their fifties. I had made several attempts, threats really, to more than one loser who dreamed of a night in the sheets with my child.
“You’re not my dad,” Janie shouted. “You’re an addict, a loser,” she screamed at me. I shrugged and retorted, “I am, and I’m also armed and dangerous. If I find you in the back of a van with these 30-year-old pedophiles again; I’m gonna show all of you what I learned back in Iraq.”
The two men had left Janie standing with me as they tore out of the 24-hour truck stop. Janie shook her head and said, “Now what, dad? Hmm? Are you going to walk me home, or am I sleeping over in your Charmin box?”
“You can do better than this, Janie. I don’t want you to follow my path.”
“What path? Going into the military? Getting kicked out for substance abuse?”
I looked at my hands, they were filthy. My clothes were ragged, my beard was long. Every day I went to the homeless shelter to shower. During growing season, I worked the fields for a little money, which I used to buy Janie a birthday gift.
Money and gifts were no substitute for a dad. I knew my gifts were paltry, but it was what I could afford. Making peace with my daughter looked like an insurmountable chasm that I could not cross.
How would I explain what I have done? Would she understand, and if she didn’t, would she love me anyway? The irony of these thoughts wasn’t lost upon me. Instead of me focusing on being a better dad, I focused on being a better person.
Things began to change.
I began going to services at the homeless shelter and volunteered to help reach out to homeless veterans. My prior service helped put them at ease. They joined me for meals. Then, in time they would sit in the back and listen.
After six months, I gave up alcohol and pills. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but with help from the staff, I got it done. Day one of sobriety was hard. So were days 2-60. In time, I found ways to stay sober, and I reached out to Janie.
She wanted nothing to do with me. However, I spoke one night to a group of veterans. I wasn’t a public speaker, and I was nervous. When I was called to the front, I walked up to the stage with my head down.
I pulled out a dirty piece of paper, it had a mushroom gravy stain on the bottom right corner, and I tried to wipe it off. It smudged worse than it was, and I blushed.
“Um, my name is Freeman. I’m an addict, but I’ve managed to stay sober for 79 days now.”
No one said anything, and the silence was deafening. I looked up to see if everyone had gone home, and I saw Janie standing in the back with one of the priests.
She smiled at me, and my heart leapt with excitement. Hot tears wet my eyes, and I cleared my throat.
“I ain’t nothing special, but if you want to find help and quit whatever you are battling, you can find it here. I did.”
A smattering of applause came from the crowd, and I folded up my paper and walked down from the stage. Janie waited for me in the back. I walked back to her, and she hugged my neck.
It was the sweetest hug I’d ever had. A moment of clarity and forgiveness between father and daughter.
“Is there somewhere we can sit, dad?”
“Yeah, come on. We can go sit in the chow hall.”
Both of us walked in the chow hall and sat at a table near the back of the room. It allowed us to have some privacy. Janie looked at me, and I looked back. She looked so grown up to me.
“I never thanked you for all the gifts you sent me on my birthday, dad. You were hurting, and I never…”
“It’s okay, Janie. I wasn’t in a good place, and money, gifts, none of that could make up for me missing your birthday, or Christmas. I’m just really glad to see you.”
And that was it. We built up a relationship from the ashes of our past. Janie graduated with honors, I continued my work with the homeless veterans and shelter.
I even got a job at a local grocery and rented a small apartment in the impoverished area of town. Every day I got stronger in my sobriety, and Janie prepared to go off to college. Things were looking up until last Friday night.
A knock at my door woke me at 0316.
“Mr. Freeman, this is Officer P. Belton. I need to speak to you.”
I opened the door, and two officers stood on my doorstep. They looked at me, and I stared back.
“Well, what is it?”
“Do you have a daughter named Janie?”
My heart pounded in my chest, and I licked my lips. Something is wrong. What happened to Janie?
“I do. Why? What happened?”
“Sir, someone found Janie in a back alley and called an ambulance. She is in the hospital. We will explain on the way. Please come with us.”
“Let me get dressed, it’ll only take a moment.”
They nodded, and I shut the door. I pulled on a heavy tee, Wrangler jeans, and heavy, steel-toe boots. I shoved a Benchmade spring-loaded knife into my right pocket. Then, I walked out and joined the police officers.
As P. Belton drove us to the hospital, his partner briefed me. She introduced herself as Judith.
“Mr. Freeman, someone raped Janie, well, many people raped her. The doctor is trying to stabilize her condition. They beat and stomped on Janie, and then left her for dead. I am so sorry this happened to your daughter.”
The icy hand of vengeance gripped my heart, and I gave Judith a nod. “Thank you for telling me the truth, Judith.”
Her eyes searched mine for any sign of rage, but I kept my emotions under control. There would come a time for rage, it was not now. She paused, and I waited. Judith licked her lips and said, “I have a daughter that is fifteen. This town has become a sewer. Someone should clean it up.”
P. Belton watched me from the mirror. He was an older man. His hair had turned silver, he kept his moustache trimmed, and he had the sagging stomach most older men get when their diet consisted of too much beer and pretzels and not enough water and vegetables. He had kind eyes, but tonight they showed a penchant for violence.
“If I was your age, I would take a stab at it,” he said, as he pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. I met his eyes and forced a grin.
I was not going to take a stab at it. Instead, I intended to find the people responsible, and then I would become the man my enemies knew as “The WidowMaker.”
Dr. Sara T. Braxton met me at the door of the Intensive Care Ward. She appeared fatigued, and she stared at me with a look of sadness I had seen before. Dr. Braxton came toward me, and I slumped down in a chair. She sat on the ottoman opposite of me.
“I am sorry, Mr. Freeman. We tried to get her stable, but she was too weak to continue fighting.”
“I understand, Dr. Braxton. Thank you for trying to save my daughter’s life.”
“You’re welcome, but…”
“Could you please tell me the extent of my daughter’s injuries?”
Her cool blue eyes looked into mine, and she nodded her head. Dr. Braxton wiped her mouth and said, “They raped her, multiple times. It appeared to me that some of them held her down, others choked her. Janie had broken ribs, one which punctured a lung. Her face,” Dr. Braxton paused and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly and continued, “They broke every bone in her face, when they stomped her.”
Cold rage built up in my heart and I wanted to scream, punch, kick, and act a fool, but I held onto it. Wait until you have them. Then, you can make them pay. I nodded at Dr. Braxton and muttered, “Thank you.” She patted me on the knee, and then walked back into the ward.
Officers Judith and P. Belton waited for me in the lobby. Both expressed deep regret at the passing of my Janie.
“May we give you a ride somewhere?”
“Home, if you do not mind, Officer Belton.”
“I don’t mind at all. It is the least we can do for you.”
Once again, Officer P. Belton drove me home. Judith kept her eyes straight ahead. It took seven minutes for them to pull up to the curb outside of my apartment. Judith turned and looked at me and passed a card to me.
“This is for crisis counseling, Mr. Freeman. Detectives will reach out to you tomorrow, if not tomorrow, the day after. They will keep you informed of any progress made in your daughter’s case. I will pray for you.”
“Thank you, officers. I appreciate your aid.”
I stepped from the car and walked toward my apartment. Judith’s words supplied little comfort for me. I will pray for you. I still had my faith, and believed in the power of prayer, but Judith had it wrong.
Don’t pray for me, pray for my enemies. When I was done, I would seek absolution, but right now, I plan to find my enemies and give them a new definition of pain.