A lawyer struggles to find professional happiness. A juror uses his influence to his advantage. A big-firm partner combats guilt. These are the compelling premises of the well-written and creative first-, second-, and third-place winners of the 2016 Texas Bar Journal Short Story Contest. Thank you to the 40 writers who submitted entries this year. To keep the contest fair and impartial, we removed author names from each entry, replacing them with numbers. Two panels of judges faced the challenging task of selecting the winners, and for each round, the same evaluation form was used for consistency. Ten entries advanced to the final round, which was judged by attorney and literary agent Mike Farris of Dallas and previous contest winners Amanda Moore of Austin and Lane D. Thibodeaux of Bryan. We have published the first-, second-, and third-place winners on the following pages. We hope you enjoy these creative short stories as much as we did. To listen to a podcast reading by the authors, go to texasbar.com/shortstory. FINALISTS Please congratulate these attorney-authors for making it through the competitive first round of judging to the finals. “GOOD NEWS, SUNSHINE,” by Logan Simmons (First Place) “JUROR NO. 13,” by Marvin Sprouse (Second Place) “THE UNAVOIDABLE CONCLUSION,” by Blair Dancy (Third Place) “BORN AGAIN,” by Russell Fusco “KID MEALS AND JUMP ROPES,” by Rosanne Gordon “THAT LIGHT IN SILVER WINDOWS,” by Marcus Benavides “FEAR OF FLYING,” by Kevin M. Faulkner “REPEAT AFTER ME,” by Jessica Leigh James “THE SPECTOR AND MR. SIZZLE,” by Thomas Scott Petty “MAKING A DIFFERENCE ON INDIFFERENCE,” by Oscar G. Gabaldón Jr. “Good News, Sunshine” BY LOGAN SIMMONS She wondered what kind of flowers it would be this time. It had been sunflowers when he got into law school. What was that, eight years ago? She could still recall the proud look on his face as he marched into their tiny living room, arms so full of sunflowers that he nearly knocked over their television, and announced, “Good news, sunshine! I’m going to law school.” She had thought he was joking. He had never mentioned wanting to be a lawyer before, and she had no idea that he had taken the LSAT the previous fall. So she had sat there dumbly, expectantly, with the same agreeable smile on her face that people have when they are waiting to be explained a joke they don’t understand. Only he wasn’t joking. The truth came pouring out of him in a passion she had yet to see from her normally demure husband of two years—that he hated his sales job, that he wanted to do something important with his life, that he was unhappy. Looking back on it, she wished she had put up more of a fight. After all, they had been doing pretty well for a young married couple. Better than her friends, anyway, and certainly better than her flighty sister. They had good jobs, the requisite starter home, and all the middle-class dreams that come with it. But it’s hard to say no to the man you love. It’s even harder when that man says he’s unhappy. So instead of raising objections—perhaps speaking of her happiness or questioning the financial impact of his decision—she simply tended to her flowers and listened to him outline their future. More flowers—always yellow for some reason—followed over the next three years. There were tulips when he made a law journal. Roses when he placed in a moot-court competition. And irises when he got a summer clerkship. That was the one she liked the most. Not because of the irises—she thought irises looked like pieces of wilted lettuce—but because the summer clerkship might lead to a job. But it hadn’t. That was back in 2010, when the economy had gone to hell, when they were just thankful she still had her job teaching third graders. There had been some hope that he might find a position after passing the bar—yellow dahlias on that occasion—but he, like many others in the class of 2011, was simply out of luck. There had been no flowers, let alone much of anything else, the past five years. While he had been fortunate to eventually get his old job back, they now had $140,000 in student loans to deal with. That meant no upgrade from their starter home, no new cars, no vacations—unless you count driving down to Austin or San Antonio—and no children. It was like the moment he announced he was going to law school they had pushed a pause button on their lives. Only it was a pause button that did nothing to stop Father Time. Her husband now had small flecks of gray in his sideburns, and when she looked in the mirror, she no longer saw the girl of her youth. Still pretty, but fading fast. While the past five years had not been kind to them, they were slowly pulling themselves out from under. Her husband—who had long held the rank of junior salesman—had received two promotions in the past year and was now making $80,000. With that boon to his income, coupled with what she brought home from her teaching job, they had been able to get his student loans under six figures. Things had been going so well recently that there was even talk of trying to start a family in the fall. She kept thinking that their rising fortunes would cause him to give up his dream of being a lawyer—that it would just be something they swept under the rug and tried to forget. But her husband, God bless him, refused to give up. Every month for the past five years he had scoured legal publications and job sites, sending his resume anywhere in the Metroplex that was hiring. He paid his bar dues, attended CLEs, and went to networking functions. He told everyone who would listen that he was a licensed attorney looking for a job, ignoring the fact that this might reflect poorly on him. Only on one drunken occasion did he appear to give up. He called himself a “loser,” called his law school a “third-tier toilet,” and told her how embarrassed he was that he had let her down. The next day, however, he was back at it, sending off a new batch of cover letters. His perseverance paid off. Three weeks ago, a small personal injury firm called him about a job. He’d gone on two interviews and said they went well. So naturally, she started thinking about flowers again. He was supposed to find out today whether he would receive an offer. As she packed his lunch—for what he undoubtedly hoped would be his last day selling medical supplies—she tried to have a conversation with him about whether the lawyer job would be in the best interest of their family. In short, she tried to do better than she had done eight years ago. “Is there any way you can get them to come up from $60,000?” she asked as she pulled the ham and cheese out of the refrigerator. He frowned. “That’s what the position pays. I already told them I was good with it.” “But it’s $20,000 less than what you make now. Can’t you negotiate? Isn’t that what you lawyers do?” His frown deepened. “I’m not going to jeopardize my chances by trying to squeeze a little more out of them. I’ve waited too long for this.” What about how long I’ve waited? She thought to herself. But instead of voicing her frustration, she calmly walked over to the pantry and got out the bread for his sandwich. She took a deep breath as she started assembling it, then continued the conversation. “I just don’t know how we’re going to manage everything, that’s all. Things have been going so well for us recently. I don’t see how we can afford to take a pay cut.” “We may just have to sacrifice a little more.” He started to say something else but hesitated. Then he softly added, “Maybe we should wait on things a bit.” She was worried by what he meant by that, but said nothing, not wanting to broach the issue she feared. He continued. “And we’ll just have to think of a few ways to make some extra income. Perhaps we could sell some things on eBay. Or maybe you could teach summer school.” “Look around us. We have nothing to sell,” she said as she gestured her hands around their outdated kitchen. “And summer school has already started. I can’t sign up to teach it now.” He nodded. “Well maybe you could teach it next summer then.” “We’re supposed to have a baby next summer, remember? That was the plan, anyway. Start trying in the fall, so that I can have the baby when school is out. You remember the plan, don’t you?” He looked at his shoes. “Maybe we should change the plan. Wait another year.” There it was. What she feared ever since she heard about the potential job—and the starting salary—out in the open. “I’ve waited long enough,” she said. “Don’t tell me about waiting,” he snapped. “I’ve waited eight years to be a lawyer. Worked my tail off in law school, worked my tail off ever since. If anyone has waited, it’s me.” She was too upset to respond, so she hastily shoved his sandwich into a zip-close bag and pushed it toward him. He noticed there was a large indentation in the bread—it looked like she had shoved her thumb right into it—but he chose to say nothing about it. Tears flowed down her cheeks. He walked over to her, put his arms around her back, and slowly kissed the tears as they came rolling down. “Do you want me to say no if they offer it to me?” She looked into his brown eyes—eyes that she had loved for a long time—and didn’t know how she could let him down. She thought about all that he had been through. He was right in some respects. He had worked hard during law school and even harder in the years that followed. Didn’t he deserve this? Couldn’t she put off having a baby one more year? More than anything, she thought about how if she told him not to take the job it would be something that would stand between them forever. No matter how great their lives turned out, no matter what degree of happiness they shared, part of him would always wonder “what if.” She refused to be the cause of his “what ifs.” “Of course you should take the job,” she said. “If they offer it to you, take it.” “Are you sure?” She nodded quickly, for fear that she would change her mind. “Yes, I want you to take it.” She watched his car pull out of their driveway and wished it wasn’t summer. Wished that she didn’t have to spend all day waiting on her future to announce itself. She tried to distract her thoughts by watching The Bachelor—her favorite guilty-pleasure show—but instead of enjoying it, she found herself growing frustrated with the stupidity of it. What had once seemed exciting and fun, now seemed fake and unmoving. I’ve got to do something to keep myself busy, she thought to herself, something productive, otherwise I’ll go insane from the waiting. So she grabbed a dust cloth and marched around her bedroom dusting everything in sight. She picked up a picture frame that contained a photo her college roommate had sent her last year. It showed her roommate—a good 50 pounds heavier than their college days—the roommate’s bald husband and their two young boys. They looked immensely happy. How she envied her roommate. She then picked up a picture of her niece making her famous “ferocious” face for the camera. It always made her laugh. Even now, a smile escaped her lips. But the smile turned as she wondered how her head-in-the-clouds sister—her younger sister—had been able to produce something so perfect. As she put the picture back on her dresser she silently cursed herself for letting his pride take precedence over her happiness. She reached into the bottom left drawer of the dresser—what was supposed to house her old T-shirts—and pulled out a large shoebox. Inside were baby clothes she had been secretly buying ever since they had discussed trying to start a family. She pulled the pieces out of the box, one by one, giving each her full attention. The last one—a blue onesie with a lion on it that read “Brave like Daddy”—she pressed to her heart. Flowers make a poor consolation. Hours later she heard it. The faint sound of his trusty Toyota pulling into the driveway. She rushed over to the door. As she neared it, she noticed that her heart seemed to be beating out of her chest. People have so few truly life-altering moments, and she knew this was one of them. She paused for a second to enjoy one last moment of the present and then peered into the peephole to glimpse her future. Her eye was met with bright yellow, as if she was peering into the soul of a jubilant sun. Chrysanthemums by the look of it. She exhaled slowly, tried her best to put on a genuine smile, and opened the door. “Good news, sunshine!” LOGAN SIMMONS is a staff attorney with the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. He lives in Arlington with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Luke and Jude. JUROR NO. 13 BY MARVIN SPROUSE Triskaidekaphobia. Fear of the number 13. I don’t have it. I am not superstitious. I was Juror No. 13, and the number meant nothing to me. Designated as an alternate juror, I did not expect to participate in deciding the case. But the judge dismissed Juror No. 3 on day two after catching him asleep in the jury box for the third time. Three strikes and out. Juror No. 3 may have been tired, bored, or just had something better to do, and then he was gone. As I sat with my fellow jurors at the end of 12 hours of fruitless deliberation, my vote counted. As a lawyer, I had not expected to be picked as a juror. Both sides must have thought I might help them in the jury room, if it came to that. One side was wrong. Juror No. 1 was the jury foreman. Self-appointed. Self-important. Lifted weights in high school, sells insurance. Plays golf at the municipal course. You know the type. “I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re at that point. We’ve been round and round. We need to let the judge know we’re deadlocked.” He looked around the table. “Does anyone disagree?” I knew what would happen next. If we told the judge we were deadlocked, there would be at least two hours of argument between the lawyers over just how and whether the judge should tell us to keep trying. It was Friday morning. We would not start deliberating again until after lunch. The judge might keep us late. She might threaten to work us over the weekend. Certainly, the trial would spill into next week. I had enjoyed a break from the office. But I have clients, and things are piling up. Enough is enough. “I’d like to make a suggestion,” I said. The other jurors turned to face me, a little surprised. I had not had much to say during the previous 12 hours. The jury foreman pointed at me as though he was granting permission to speak. “What’s your idea?” “We have been at eight to four in favor of convicting from the beginning. We’ve been over the evidence, the testimony, and the arguments many times.” Juror No. 6 was impatient. “What’s your point?” he asked. “Let him speak,” said Juror No. 2. “Everybody gets a chance. It’s only fair.” She smiled at me. I had asked Juror No. 6 not to interrupt her early in the deliberations, and she was returning the favor. “My question is this,” I said. “If you were the defendant, and you had been charged with killing your husband ...” I paused. What I was about to say could change everything. “If you were accused of murder, and if you were innocent ... would you have testified? If just to say, simply, ‘I didn’t do it.’ ” The room erupted. Juror No. 7 quickly pushed his chair back and stood up, as though something revolting had been placed on the table before him. Juror No. 8 exhaled and put his head down. Juror No. 5 put her hands over her ears and tightly closed her eyes. “Are you kidding me?” said Juror No. 4. It was not really a question. Only Juror No. 11 did not react. He slowly looked at me and gave a subtle nod. He was, perhaps, already with me. The jury foreman was red in the face. He picked up the jury instructions and flipped and scanned the pages. He found what he was looking for. “Lookit,” he said, holding up a page and pointing to the text as though I could read it from 10 feet away, “it says right here, black and white, plain English, and I quote: ‘The jury may not consider the defendant’s decision not to testify as evidence of guilt or innocence, or for any other reason.’ ” “I know what it says.” “Then why bring it up?” asked Juror No. 10. “I don’t know, man,” said Juror No. 4. “I don’t want to get into trouble.” “There is such a thing as juror misconduct,” I said. “This isn’t it. Not even close.” “How do you know?” asked Juror No. 9. “You a lawyer?” “I thought he was an accountant,” said Juror No. 2, looking at me. “Right?” “I am an accountant,” I said. “But I also went to law school, and I am a lawyer.” “Sheesh,” said Juror No. 8. The foreman looked at me like I was crazy. “Don’t you think we should have known that from the beginning?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Juror No. 4. “You could’ve been helping us this whole time.” “I was afraid of that,” I said. “I really didn’t want my being a lawyer to influence anyone. We’re all adults here. Citizens. Nothing special about me or my opinions.” “Why should we listen to you now?” asked Juror No. 6. Right on cue. I raised my hands in surrender. “I’ll shut up if you want me to.” There was a silence at the table. A real caesura. Juror No. 11 spoke. “The defendant didn’t testify. Tell us how considering that would not be wrong.” “My idea is different. I am not saying we should consider why the defendant didn’t testify. I am saying, as a sort of thought experiment, whether in the same position—accused of murder—whether we, on a personal level, would want to testify and say we were innocent.” “I think you’re splitting hairs,” said the foreman. “He’s a lawyer,” said Juror No. 6. “Splitting hairs is what they do.” He turned and gave me a smarmy smile. “No offense.” “None taken,” I said. Jackball. “What’s a ‘thought experiment’?” asked Juror No. 8. “A thought experiment is when you consider something on a theoretical basis. You’re basically trying out an idea, and examining its consequences, without committing to it.” “Let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Juror No. 5. “You want us to first imagine whether, personally, we would want to testify in our own defense if we were wrongly accused of a crime. And then, with that frame of mind, you want us to judge whether the defendant in this case is guilty.” “I think that’s it,” I said. “I don’t see a difference between that and what the judge told us not to do,” said Juror No. 2. “Yeah,” said Juror No. 9. “I don’t want to get popped by the judge for ‘juror mis ... mis ...’ ” “Juror misconduct,” I said. “Look, juror misconduct in this case would be if we were researching facts about the case, or the defendant, or the victim on our own. In other words, if we were considering things outside the evidence. We’re not doing any of those things.” Juror No. 2 shook her head. “Surely, we can’t just do whatever we want. I want to take this seriously. There’s a lot at stake. For the defendant, maybe even her life.” “I think we are all taking this seriously,” I said. “I hope so. But the conduct of this jury has been outstanding, compared to some juries. The defendant is lucky to have us—she could have done a lot worse.” “What do you mean by that?” asked Juror No. 4. “There’s a case taught in every law school. It’s called Tanner v. United States. In that case, after the verdict, it was discovered that during the trial, most of the jurors had been consuming alcohol. Pitchers of beer at lunch. Wine. Mixed drinks. Many of them had been using marijuana. One juror sold a quarter-pound of marijuana to another juror. Drugs in the courthouse. Some jurors even used cocaine during the trial.” “Shoot!” said Juror No. 9, a 20-something forklift driver. He was intrigued by the possibilities. “You mean we could have been partying this whole time?” “Not on my watch, buddy,” said the foreman. He turned to me. “What happened in that case?” “Nothing,” I said. “The case was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that the defendant in that case had a fair trial, even if the jurors were stoned, drunk, or both.” Juror No. 5 looked around the table. “I don’t care what you all do on your own time, but I haven’t seen anything like that going on here.” “Neither have I,” said Juror No. 9. “Too bad.” “Still, I don’t think the judge would like it,” said Juror No. 2. “Our deliberations are confidential,” I said. “There’s even a rule of evidence that says the judge only gets to know the verdict, not how we got there. But if the losing lawyers learn anything about what we have discussed, and I mean anything, they will be all over us, even though we’ve done nothing wrong. Each of us would be deposed, and we would all need lawyers of our own. There would be another trial over what happened in this room. It would be a nightmare.” “It’s nobody’s business,” said the foreman, nodding. “I think we should try it,” said Juror No. 11. “What have we got to lose?” asked Juror No. 5. “Wait,” said Juror No. 2, still hesitant. “It’s just an experiment, right?” “Right,” I said. “If it makes any difference to the outcome, we can talk about it, set it aside, whatever. No harm, no foul.” “Ok, then.” The foreman picked up his pencil and squared his notepad before him. “I think we all get it. But tell us one more time to be sure.” I knew we were on the cusp, and I had to be careful. “Here’s the scenario: You’ve been accused of a murder you did not commit. You are innocent. You are on trial. Your lawyers tell you they will take care of everything. Your lawyers tell you that you will only hurt your case if you testify. The question is, would that be enough to keep you from going under oath, and telling the judge, the jury, and the world, that you did not commit this crime.” I waited to let that sink in. “Now, whatever your answer is to that question, take that feeling with you and look again at the facts of this case. Think about it. Then vote.” There was a peculiar weightlessness in the room. Even the air seemed thinner in a silence that was almost reverential. One by one, each of us wrote a verdict, tore off a sheet, and passed the folded paper to the foreman. “I count twelve,” said the foreman. He opened the papers and made a note of the tally on his pad. He passed each paper to Juror No. 2, who did her own count. The foreman dropped his pencil on the pad and took a breath. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I have 12 ‘guilty’ votes here.” “I have the same,” said Juror No. 2. “Judas Priest,” said Juror No. 10, a white-haired retiree. My grandfather used to say that. I had not heard the expression in a very long time. “It’s the first time all 12 of us have agreed on anything,” said Juror No. 2. The foreman cleared his throat. “I guess the question now is, do we keep talking, or do we tell the judge we have a verdict?” The room remained silent. There was no eye contact. The jurors looked down, or straight ahead to an imaginary horizon. All except for Juror No. 2. She was looking right at me. She said nothing, but her look was a question: Are we really going to do this? Now I am driving home. Ahead of traffic but just barely. I will have time for a shower, a nice dinner, and then I’m off to the game. I have tickets to the Spurs. The Spurs are favored to win big. Thirteen-point spread. I have money on the Spurs. MARVIN SPROUSE is a litigation and creditors’ rights attorney at Glenn Rogers in Austin. He was inspired to try fiction writing after reading a certain deposition transcript. He has never served on a jury. The Unavoidable Conclusion BY BLAIR DANCY Some pranks go too far. There they were, the words that only she would’ve written: “The unavoidable conclusion, founded on the irrefutable logic detailed above. ...” Someone had written her words, in my brief. My chair groaned as I leaned back. Friday night in downtown Austin, and the skyscrapers glowed all around as if the moon had fallen to Earth. Darkness had long claimed the skyline, and a rolling storm threw lightning around the Hill Country, west of town. The lightning flickered tremulously, as if the storm wasn’t sure it wanted anyone to know it was there. The chair growled as I sat forward, stood, and made my way out of my office. The place had emptied hours ago, and the cleaning crew had already done their rounds, turning off lights as they shuffled through the hallways and offices. Amid the secretarial carrels, printer and monitor LEDs threw algae green light between looming shadows. Floors stretched farther, walls higher, ceilings more distant than in the daylight. Without the chatter and hustle of staff and associates, the space felt hollow. Her office had been two doors down from mine. It was still two doors down from mine. Her light was out, along with the rest. We’d left it out all week, except for Wednesday when Melinda had turned it on. People kept pausing in front of the door, peering in. A few mumbled questions about why her light was on at all. One secretary sobbed. Melinda turned it off promptly at five, before the cleaning crew arrived, and didn’t turn it on again yesterday or today. I slipped off my shoes and walked on the balls of my feet across the padded carpet to her door. Lightning streaked across the horizon and illuminated her office in ghostly white. Her judicial portrait stared back at me: tortoise-shell glasses, spiked platinum hair, and a tight-lipped grin that challenged anyone who came before her. That was before the stress had taken its toll, before she gave up the court for private practice. The lightning ceased. Her office surrendered again to the dark. It felt as if someone had installed a mausoleum two doors down from me. And here I was, not comfortable at funerals to begin with, the only one with lights on around the whole floor—like a beacon summoning her back. I retreated to my office, flicked off my lights, pulled my door halfway closed, and returned to my chair. The lightning strikes had come closer, hitting somewhere between the hills and downtown. The blue of my computer screen fluttered. “A power surge,” I told myself. Usually the sound of my voice bolstered my confidence, but tonight it quivered. I cleared my throat and thought about saying something else but held my tongue. No use making things worse. This brief had to go out, tonight, and I was almost out of time. The words remained on the screen: “The unavoidable conclusion, founded on the irrefutable logic detailed above. ...” She wrote like a Victorian-era throwback, elegant but dated. She’d missed her era by over a century, but her analyses dug deeper than anyone else’s, and the appellate courts adored her. The only problem? Clients couldn’t get enough. If she was going to pull a half million-dollar salary, she had to put in the time. Doctor’s orders or no. Hell, if not for the medical issues, she might’ve taken my office someday. No one else wrote like her. Not in this office, anyway. This was just a cheap trick. Someone’s nasty joke. I opened the firm’s document management software. With a right click, the menu offered me the option to audit the edit history for the last 90 days. The computer searched, the familiar hourglass spinning. What an odd icon. A standing hourglass with sand flowing downward would be accurate, showing time passing in one direction. But an hourglass spinning ... as if time had been suspended, or even reversed. The first entry popped up. My initials, last saved at 11:47 p.m. today. One minute ago. The hourglass kept spinning. Lightning flew through the oncoming storm, dancing between clouds. The screen fluttered again. I bit my tongue. A window popped up: “No additional histories found for the last 90 days.” Impossible. We’d been working on this all day. Not only me but Deep and Chandra, too, and some Dallas associate to confirm petition histories. Melanie had entered handwritten edits for someone. There should be a mile-long history for today’s work alone. Maybe someone had saved it as a new file. A soft shushing sound drifted from the outer office through my door. Paper chafing on paper. I spun in my chair and leapt to my feet. What the hell! I slowed my breathing and tiptoed to the door. It remained half closed. In the common area, splotches of green light illuminated a half wall and the underside of a swivel chair, the rest in shadow. I held my breath and listened. Nothing. I placed a hand on the door, and in a sweeping pull, opened it. The halls remained empty, carrels abandoned. A single sheet of paper lay on the floor. A second sheet drifted down from the cabinets. Reams of paper sat stacked on top, one ream torn open. A third sheet blew off the stack, just below a vent. Someone must have put an opened ream back on top. My arm fell a few inches short of reaching the paper. I pulled Melinda’s chair out. It had wheels, but who knew where to find a stepladder? A gentle step up, slow and steady. Undoubtedly an OSHA violation, if this had been a construction site. Undoubtedly negligent. But as long as I didn’t hurt myself, nothing more than a calculated risk. I clutched the corner of the offending stack and pulled, but the wrapper had been ripped apart. The sheets didn’t stay together. The first hundred sheets or so came willingly. More sloughed off toward my left, then a few toward my right, spilling into the night air as the chair began to roll under me. I lurched to my right. The file cabinet was closed, leaving only a sunken handle within reach. I grabbed it. The cabinet flung open as I plunged backward. The chair zipped out, striking the desk with a plastic clunk, and I dropped like the villain in a wrestling match. I lay still. My ankle throbbed. A warm drip formed on my calf. I must’ve sliced myself on the desk. My back ached. There’d be a bruise for a couple weeks, but nothing seemed broken. I pulled myself into a sitting position. The chair splayed sideways, its arms twisted in non-ergonomic angles and legs jutted toward the ceiling. Pale white paper sheeted the floor as if to conceal the darkness. The vent above the cabinet continued to blow on the torn wrapper, somehow still stuck up there. It flapped in the blowing air. This was ridiculous! I forced myself to stand and made my way to the nearest light switch. Blue fluorescents came to life, bathing the corner of the general office, illuminating a half-dozen secretarial stations. Paper crunched under my feet, and drops of blood moistened my sock. Her words stuck in my head: “The unavoidable conclusion ...” I marched to her office. The light from the common area shined through her doorway, onto her portrait. Her smile defied me, even now. “You could’ve quit any time,” I said. “You could’ve worked fewer hours. That wasn’t my decision. You’re either full time, or you’re useless. Do you got that?” Her spiky hair didn’t budge. Her eyes remained focused. Undaunted. Defiant. She shouldn’t be looking at me that way. Hell, if she hadn’t had the heart attack, I wouldn’t have worked every night this week, wouldn’t be here working right now, wouldn’t be so sleep deprived. If anything, she was the one to blame for both our situations. I strode back to my office and slapped the light switch off on the way. The office fell back into darkness, the carpet littered with white rectangles, the chair still akimbo. I left my door wide open this time. The lightning struck a mile away, brighter than any fluorescent. The thunder rolled through downtown and rattled the windows, imitating feedback from a good Stratocaster. My tongue tasted metal, whether from a cut inside my mouth or the electricity from the storm, I couldn’t tell. My chair had chilled since I’d last sat. The cold seeped through my pants until goosebumps rippled up my nape. The computer screen remained lit, the words illuminated. I opened the document management software again. Multiple briefs! That explained it. I’d told everyone time and again not to save multiple copies, but they’d done it anyway. No one listened. As usual, I had to do everything myself. I audited the next document down to identify the offender. There’d be staffing changes come Monday. Right click on the next document. Menu. Spinning hourglass. Me. My damn initials. It had to be a mistake. Why would I do that? Or maybe Melinda had hopped in as me and ... no, that couldn’t be. There were her initials right there, separate from mine. A couple clicks, and I audited the next document. Again, me. Another document. Again, me. Rain slammed into the window. My arms lashed out instinctively, as if to shield myself, and struck the desk. The blow sent me backward, nearly dumping me from the chair. My heart thumped in my ears. The storm drove the drops sideways, then away from the building, then directly into the windows again, as if trying to break in. Paper fluttered in the hallway. Damn vent. Then I heard them. Footsteps. Crinkling of paper on the carpet. I shot out of my chair and dived behind my desk. “Who’s there?” I called out. No one answered. The rain beat against the window like a drum. Lightning pierced the air. Thunder shook the whole building down to the girders. I could taste my fillings. The flash lit up the whole office. It took me a second to process it, but someone had been standing in my doorway. Just over five feet. Short, spiky, white hair. Glasses. “No!” I shouted. Enough was enough. I stood to face whoever it was. The image was gone. I tramped out of my office, my socked feet padding across the carpet. If someone was here to prank me, they’d better be ready for all of me. The figure was nowhere to be seen. Nothing but the blue-white papered floor, spots of blood dotting a few sheets, and the green-lit chair on its side like an ossified spider. And one office light on. Its brightness cut a path through the secretarial stations like the beam from a lighthouse. It came from her office. I didn’t remember turning it on. I tiptoed toward her door. The blood on my sock had crusted, chafing my calf. The cut stung. My heart beat faster, as absurd as all this was. Her portrait beamed proudly at me. A younger her. I could practically hear her, in those years on the bench, overruling my objections, her eyes asking me if I had any other grounds. I hadn’t seen her that satisfied in years. Lightning lit up the Capitol dome. Thunder rolled in, softer than before, barely audible over the thrashing rain. “I didn’t kill you,” I said. My heart raced. Who the hell turned on these lights? “You killed you.” My voice rose. “Do you hear me?” Wind pounded the building. Lightning blasted outside the window, shaking me to my core. Fresh blood covered my tongue, salty. My chest ached. Really ached. “D’you h’r me?!” I screamed. My words slurred. Her smile remained on her portrait, steadfast. Those eyes of a decade ago told me I was overruled, again. As the darkness closed in, all I could wonder was who was going to finish this brief. BLAIR DANCY is an Austin-based trial lawyer who has never left a brief unfinished due to a haunting.
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