“If you do this,” he said slowly, “you’ll become someone else.”
I looked up at Noah. “I already am someone else.”
And when he met my eyes, I knew that he saw it.
In seconds, he broke our stare and shook his head. “No,” he said to himself, then, “No, you’re not. You’re the girl who called me an asshole the first time we spoke. The girl who tried to pay for lunch even after you learned I had more money than God. You’re the girl who risked her ass to save a dying dog, who makes my chest ache whether you’re wearing green silk or ripped jeans. You’re the girl that I—” Noah stopped, then took a step closer to me. “You are my girl,” he said simply, because it was true. “But if you do this, you’ll be someone else.”
I struggled for air as my heart broke, knowing that it wouldn’t change what I had to do.
“I know you, Mara. I know everything. And I don’t care.”
I wanted to cry when he said it out loud. I wished that I could. But there were no tears. My voice was unexpectedly hard when I spoke.
“Maybe not today. But you will.”
Noah held my hand. The simplicity of the gesture moved me so much that I started to doubt.
“No,” Noah said. “You made me real, and I will hurt for you and because of you and be grateful for the pain. But this? This is forever. Don’t do this.”
I sat down on the steps, my legs too shaky to keep me upright. “If he’s found guilty, I won’t.”
“But if he’s acquitted—”
“I have to,” I said, my voice breaking. If he went free, he might go after my brother again. And I was the agent. I could stop it. I was the only one who could.
“I don’t have a choice.”
Noah sat down next to me, his expression grim. “You always have a choice.”
We said nothing for what seemed like hours. I sat on the unforgiving stone and the unnatural coolness of it penetrated my jeans. I turned the night of the collapse over and over again in my mind, until the thoughts and images whirled like a cyclone.
Like a cyclone. Rachel and Claire were caught up in my fury, which was too explosive, too wild to have any focus.
But that was not the case today.
When the doors clicked open behind us, we were up in an instant as a throng of people flooded the courthouse steps. Reporters with microphones, cameras, flashbulbs, and cameramen shining their painful lights in my father’s direction. He was in front.
Lassiter was behind him, beaming. Triumphant. Cool anger coursed through my veins as I watched him approach, followed by police. With guns in their holsters. And in an instant, I knew. I knew how to keep everyone else here safe while I punished Lassiter for what he tried to do. Before he could hurt anyone else.
My father made his way to a podium so close to where we stood, but I shifted out of his way, out of his field of vision. Noah held my hand, squeezed it, and I didn’t pull away. It didn’t matter.
Microphones jabbed at my father’s face, vying for dominance, but he took it all in stride. “I have a lot to say today, as I’m sure you can all guess,” my father said, and there was a murmur of laughter. “But the real winners here are my client, Leon Lassiter, and the people of Florida. Since I can’t hand over a microphone to the people of Florida, I’m going to let Leon say a few words.”
I saw the gun. The matte black metal was so plain and unremarkable. The metal was dull on my fingertips. The grooves on the grip dimpled my palm. It almost looked like a toy.
My father stepped out of the way, moving his head to the right, and Leon Lassiter’s took its place. I was right behind him.
It was strange the way it felt; the weight unfamiliar and somehow dangerous. I looked down the muzzle. Just a hole.
“Thank you, Marcus.” Lassiter smiled and clapped my father on the shoulder. “I am a man of few words, but I wanted to say two things. First, that I am grateful, so grateful, for my lawyer Marcus Dyer.”
I pointed the gun.
“He took time away from his life, his wife, his children to get justice for me, and I am not sure I’d be standing here right now if it wasn’t for him.”
Blackness seeped into my field of vision. I felt arms holding me, felt the brush of lips by my earlobe, but I heard nothing.
“Second, I want to tell the parents of Jordana—”
And then the oddest thing; before another thought appeared against the backdrop of my mind, someone began popping popcorn right there at the courthouse. Pop pop pop pop. The sound was so loud that my eardrums tickled. Then rang. Only then did I hear the screaming.
Moments later I could see again, and there were bowed heads, ducked and tucked under hands and knees. The hand holding mine was gone.
“Put the gun down!” someone shouted. “Put it down now!”
I was still standing. I looked straight ahead, straight in front of me, and saw a pale arm extended in my direction. Holding a gun.
It clattered to the steps. A wave of screams erupted with the bounce.
I didn’t recognize the woman standing in front of me. She was older, her face splotchy and red, with streaks of mascara trailing down her skin. Her finger pointed at me like an accusation.
I heard the voice of Rachel in my mind, the voice of my best friend.
“How am I going to die?”
“He killed her,” the woman said calmly. “He killed my baby.”
Officers surrounded the woman and gently, reverently placed her hands behind her back. “Cheryl Palmer, you have the right to remain silent.”
The piece semi-circled the board, sailing past A through K, and crept past L. It settled on M.
“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Landed on A.
The sound died away, and the pressure lifted from my hand. I looked beside me, but Noah wasn’t there.
Zigzagged across the board, cutting Rachel’s laughter short. R.
Panic overcame me, threatened to pull me under as I searched for him with feral eyes. There was a flurry of activity to my right; a swarm of EMTs buzzing around the leaking body on the courthouse steps.
Then back to the beginning. To A
Noah knelt beside it. My knees almost buckled to see him alive, not shot. Relief flooded me, and I took another step just to be closer to him. But then I glimpsed the body lying on the ground. It was not Leon Lassiter.
It was my father.
A MACHINE BEEPED TO THE LEFT OF MY father’s hospital bed as another on his right hissed. He’d been joking an hour ago, but the pain medication had put him back to sleep. My mother, Daniel, Joseph, and Noah were all huddled around the bed.