Keith’s own testimony had been the defense’s best weapon. It had been a big gamble to put him on the stand, but Michael had known by then that the jury would only believe Keith if they heard the story firsthand.
With Keith, there were no previous crimes, no barroom fights or petty shoplifting charges in his youth, nothing that his testimony would open the door to. He had been a good kid who had grown into a fine man who had been broken by war. He testified about trying to get help from Veterans Affairs and the helplessness he felt. He cried when he talked about his wife, although he seemed to be unaware of his tears. When he said, “If I hadn’t gone to Iraq, maybe I’d still be working at the feed store and we’d have a baby by now. Theresa. That was the name Emily picked for our daughter. It haunts me, thinking stuff like that,” several of the jurors had shiny eyes.
Michael had hoped—as all defense attorneys did—for either a lightning-fast verdict or a very slow one.
This time, he got his wish. The jury’s deliberation went on and on. For six days, Michael went into the city, sat at his desk. He read reports and conducted depositions and drafted pleadings, but all the while he was waiting. The worst part of it was that he needed to be at home, and yet here he was.
Since Tami’s funeral, Jolene had fallen into a despair he couldn’t imagine, gone to a dark place he couldn’t follow. The tiny footprints of their reconciliation—that one kiss—had been lost in the rubble of her grief. She drank too much and took sleeping pills and slept the days and nights away. She woke screaming at night but wouldn’t let herself be comforted. When he tried, she pushed him away, looking at him through eyes that were wide with pain. The girls steered clear of her. Lulu cried herself to sleep, wondering what had happened to her mommy.
Michael was literally at the end of his rope. He was trying to give Jolene space and let her grieve, but she was pulling them all under water, drowning them, and he didn’t know what to do.
His intercom buzzed. “Michael? The jury’s in.”
Michael thanked his secretary and grabbed his coat. Within minutes, he was walking up Second Avenue in the spitting cold rain. Damp bits of paper and black leaves skidded along the wet streets, plastering themselves to windows and bus stops and windshields.
Inside the courthouse, he stomped his feet on the stone floor and shook the rain from his hair.
Not far away, a knot of reporters had gathered. More would probably follow. In the past week, both CNN and Fox News had done stories on the case.
They called out to him, waved him over.
He paused just long enough to say, “No comment yet, guys,” and then walked into the courtroom, where he took a seat at the defendant’s table.
The Kellers had been staying in a local hotel, waiting, and they arrived a few minutes later.
Every seat was taken by the time a guard led Keith into the courtroom. He looked pale and drawn after his months in jail. He was allowed to hug his parents—briefly—and then took his place beside Michael.
“How are you doing?” Michael asked.
Keith shrugged. For once the marine posture was gone; Keith was just a kid now, facing life in prison and worse—life in the prison of what he’d done.
“All rise.” The judge took his seat at the bench.
The jury filled in. Michael tried to see the answer in their eyes, but they wouldn’t look at him—not a good sign.
“Have you reached a verdict in the matter of the State of Washington v. Keller?”
“We have,” said the jury foreman.
“What say you?”
At first there was the legalese of case and crime, and then: “On the count of murder in the first degree, we, the jury, find the defendant not guilty.”
Michael released a breath. He heard a rustle of noise behind him. People were whispering among themselves.
“On the charge of second degree murder, we find the defendant guilty.”
The gallery erupted. Once again the judge tried to take control. Michael heard Mrs. Keller cry out.
“We’ll appeal, Keith,” Michael said quickly.
Keith looked at him, and for once he looked old. “No, we won’t. I deserve this, Michael. And it’s not murder one. You did a good job. They know I didn’t mean to kill her. That matters to me.” He turned away, was enfolded in his parents’ arms.
The associates who’d worked on the case surged around Michael, congratulating him on beating murder one. He knew this case would set precedent here in Washington and carry weight nationwide. It was a statement about the jury’s belief in PTSD. They believed Keith didn’t intentionally kill his wife. For the young lawyers, who hadn’t yet learned the chasm that sometimes existed between justice and the law, this would be cause for much celebrating. For them, it was simply a win, a victory against formidable odds. They wouldn’t think about this case again, except in technical terms. They wouldn’t think of Keith sitting behind bars, suffering through nightmares.
“I deserve to go to prison,” Keith said to him. “I said that from the beginning. Maybe you’re right and the war messed me up, but Emily is dead and I killed her.”
“You didn’t mean to.”
“It’s not intentions that matter. It’s actions. My drill instructor used to say that all the time. We are what we do and say, not what we intend to. I meant to tell Emily a thousand times that I was in trouble, but I never did. If only I’d told her the truth, maybe we would have had a chance. Thank you, Michael. Really.”
Then the bailiff came and took Keith away.
Michael stood there until everyone else was gone and the courtroom was empty. The Kellers thanked him, as did the Plotners, and he didn’t know what to say in response. He had done his best for their son, and it had been almost enough. He remembered his father saying once that ghosts were the curse of the criminal defense attorney, and he knew that this case would haunt him. He would wonder forever if he could have done something more, if he shouldn’t have put Keith on the stand.
All the way home, he replayed the trial in his mind, tried to follow the threads of different choices, wondering if any one of them would have changed the outcome. Then he began to construct his argument for the next phase of the trial, how he would ask for mercy in the form of a lesser sentence …
When he walked into his house, though, all of that fled. He could tell instantly that Betsy and Lulu had been fighting. Lulu’s eyes were red and puffy, and Betsy was shrieking at her.
“She’s NOT the boss of me,” Lulu wailed at him, running, throwing herself into his arms.
Betsy rolled her eyes and stomped off.
Michael couldn’t handle this tonight. Not tonight. “Where’s your mom?” he said more sharply than he intended.
Lulu looked at him through her tears. “In her bedroom. She hates us.”
“I need to talk to her.” He tried to put Lulu down, but she clung to him like a burr on wool, crying harder.
“Damn it, Lulu…”
“You s-said a b-bad word.”
“I know. Sorry.” He kissed her damp cheek and forced her to stand on her own. “Stay here,” he said, leaving the room. He went to Jolene’s room, knocked, and opened the door.
She was sitting up in bed, her hair a mess, holding Tami’s unopened letter, staring down at it.
“Read it,” he said harshly.
She ignored him.
He saw the open wine bottle on the nightstand. Without thinking, he walked over to her, grabbed the bottle, saying, “Enough, Jo.”
She reached out. “Don’t—”
“Don’t what?” he yelled at her. “Don’t love you anymore? Don’t want you? Don’t care if you drink yourself into a coma?”
She flinched at the obvious reminder of Tami.
He saw her eyes go blank again. She was retreating, pulling her pain into that dark place inside of her, the place to which he’d never been granted access. “Enough,” he said again, yelling it. “I was an a**hole before you left. I admit it. I was an a**hole and I broke your heart and I might have ruined us. Maybe I did ruin us. But I’ve changed, Jo. I’ve changed and you don’t seem to care. I’m sick of throwing myself against the concrete wall of your defenses. You’re giving me nothing. You’re giving your children nothing. Nothing. And you know what that’s like, don’t you, Jo, getting nothing from your parents. If we’re broken now and this family is ruined, it’s on you. On you. I can’t try any harder.”
She looked at him through tears. “You think I don’t know that?”
“Give me something,” he said, his voice breaking. Her tears brought it all home to him, pulled the fire from his anger and left him shaken, cold. “Reach out, Jo. Talk to me. Be my wife again.”
“So we’re done … after all this…”
She rolled away from him, pulled the covers up around her.
He stood there, uncertain, feeling as lost and alone as ever in his life. It was worse even than standing at his father’s graveside. Jolene, he realized right then, realized it to the marrow in his bones, was his life.
Behind him, there was a knock at the door. He said nothing, but the door opened. Lulu stood there, her face wet with tears. “I’m scared, Daddy,” she said.
With a sigh, he went to her, took her in his arms. “It’s okay, Lulu,” he lied, leaving Jolene’s room, closing the door behind him.
The next day was Carl’s “celebration of Tami’s life” for friends and family.
All day, Jolene had been shaky, angry. She’d snapped at her children and cried at the drop of a hat. The fight with Michael had pushed her to the very edge of control. She kept her emotions in check with the fiercest grip of her life. A headache throbbed behind her eyes. She drank two glasses of wine, but it didn’t still the trembling in her hands. She should have been at Tami’s house at three o’clock, setting out food and plates and utensils, making sure that everything was ready. It was a best friend’s job to help out the husband at a time like this.
Jolene had nothing to give. She was so empty inside she was surprised every time she looked in the mirror—how could her veins not be showing through her pale skin, how could her bones not be visible?
At seven, Michael knocked on her bedroom door and came inside, closing the door behind him.
She sat on the bed, dressed in jeans and a white blouse, her hair still damp. She knew by the look on his face that her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot.
“You don’t have to do this if you can’t,” he said tiredly, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. She saw how much she’d wounded him, hurt him, and it shamed her. She thought of the letter she’d written to Michael before she left for Iraq. I loved you, beginning to end.
“I have to.” She got unsteadily to her feet.
He was there in an instant, holding her arm. At his touch, she felt a surge of loss. Had it only been a few weeks ago that he’d kissed her? That she’d thought maybe? and began to fall in love with him again? It all felt so far away now, like memories held under water.