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1| Guilty as charged

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Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

"Texas District Court," reads the sign above the revolving glass doors. "Where Justice is Served Before God."

I shift my gaze away from the window to study the two guards. Benson is tall, with dark skin, cropped black hair and a smile that can put me at ease. Peterson is short and pale in comparison, with a head as bald as the palm of my hand and the ability to violate me with a single look.

Ironically, it is Peterson I feel safest with. It's the nice ones–the Bensons of the world–I ought to watch out for; they are the ones who turn at a moment's notice.

I scoot towards the edge of the truck, holding my handcuffs out for Benson to take a reading. They're designed to monitor blood pressure in a bid to prevent custody death. If my levels fall out of the normal range, the handcuffs will beep. Even so, the guards are required to take a manual reading every so often, just to be on the safe side.

"All right, Miss Gomez," Benson rumbles, wiggling a finger for me to stand up. "Out you come."

I get to my feet, following Benson towards the glass building while Peterson brings up the rear. In the distance, a crowd of protesters have gathered on the grass–twelve in total–and the sight of them causes my stomach to lurch, this morning's breakfast threatening to make a re-appearance.

Twelve. Only twelve of the thirty or so million living in the state of Texas think my life is worth saving.

I scan each poorly made sign, taking in the distorted faces of the angry Texans clutching them. Execution is Legal Homicide, one reads, next to a stick man being hung by a rope. Execute Justice, Not People, reads another. Not All Murders Are Equal, and Is This Justice or Revenge? I don't have time to read the others before I am ushered through the revolving glass doors.

Inside, men and women in business suits flutter around like finely dressed birds, a blur of swinging black briefcases and clacking heels against polished floors.

A man in a gray suit waltz's right past me, glancing at my creased, orange jumpsuit before continuing through reception.  Somebody else sits in the business lounge, a cup of coffee clutched in one hand while her other taps wildly in thin air. She must be using an I-lens, the wireless contact lens that projects your phone screen into the air for your eyes only.

It reminds me of a documentary my mom and I once watched, about how the I-lens could be damaging to the retina. I'd been staring at our TV screen–the oldest and cheapest model still available–wondering why it was we weren't able to afford such things, when she turned and said, "Well, I suppose that's one of the advantages to being poor. Our eyes won't get damaged by all of these gadgets."

We had never put a label to our situation before then, but in that one sentence, my mother had summed up our entire lives perfectly. We were poor, I was never going to have the things I wanted, the things my friends had, and through the naïve eyes of eleven-year-old me, it was all her fault; now I'd do anything just to see her again.

"Keep it moving," Peterson barks.

I follow Benson through the reception and into the elevator, where, for the first time in two weeks, I am able to sneak a look at my reflection in the mirror opposite.

I wish that I hadn't. My long, dark curls are frizzy and matted, my once clear, olive skin now blotchy and ashen. I've spent the last two or three years keeping my dark circles at bay, and now they sit defiantly under dark brown eyes, a reminder of all of those sleepless nights in the holding facility.

"Floor twelve," Benson says.

The three of us fall into an uncomfortable silence as the elevator shoots up to the twelfth floor. When the doors slide open, Benson leads me towards the courtroom before turning to look at me, his face a mask of indifference. Of course, it is. He might treat me better than the other guards do, but I'm not stupid enough to think he sees me as anything more than a criminal.

"You ready?" he asks, but he doesn't wait for an answer. He opens the doors to the courtroom and ushers me past the threshold, causing me to stumble into the aisle.

The room doesn't look like the courtroom my first trial was held in. It is long and rectangular, with a ceiling made of large glass panels that allow sunlight to shine through. Dark wooden pews sit either side of the aisle, filled with the bodies of glaring spectators. At the end of the room, inside of a large wooden circle made of dark oak panels, stands the judge's podium.

The judge looks jaded, as though she hasn't slept in years. I can't help but wonder what toll it must take to have to sentence people to death all day long. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe she enjoys condemning people in the name of justice, but there is something about the look on her face that tells me otherwise. When she finally meets my gaze, I think I see a flash of pity.

All heads turn to watch me as I'm led down the aisle, the sound of my ankle chains clanking through the silence. My friends and family are in here somewhere, nervously awaiting my sentencing, but I know looking at them will prove too difficult, so my eyes stay fixed on Benson's meaty neck as he leads me to my seat.

My lawyer, Mr. Roberts, is already in his seat, wearing his usual light gray suit with a garish orange tie. I purse my lips when I see he hasn't washed his hair, which hangs in limp, greasy tendrils around his shoulders.

I could have gotten a free lawyer appointed to me by the state if I'd wanted, but it's no secret the justice system favors the rich. Money talks, and an expensive lawyer makes all the difference to a sentence like this. Mr. Roberts might only be marginally better than any lawyer the state would have appointed, but it is a margin that could save my life.

He gives me what he must think is a reassuring nod and I sit down beside him, unable to take it anymore. I scan the spectators, finding my family easily enough amidst the faces. In the two weeks I've been gone, my mother seems to have aged far beyond her fifty-five years. Her dyed black hair is streaked with gray, her brown eyes bloodshot, and even from here I can see she's bitten her nails to bloody stubs. It's one of her worst habits.

It is harder for me to look at my twelve-year-old brother, Tristan. He sits hunched beside her, his own brown eyes fixed on the podium before him, his face just as gaunt. He's not been eating. Neither of them have. I pray it's because they've been too filled with grief and not because they can no longer afford to.

I force myself to look away, instead searching the spectators for other familiar faces: my best friend, Luna, my boyfriend, Darren, my countless other friends from school, but as I scan each row, each face, I realize all of them are missing.

I'd somewhat expected as much. They hadn't bothered to turn up to my trial, after all, but a small part of me had hoped they'd at least make it to my sentencing.

With my stomach in knots, I'm about to turn back to the front when I spot her, her face half-shrouded by a curtain of bottle red hair. Eliza Attwood, my neighbor, and the first friend I'd ever made when my mother moved us to Texas six years ago. I'd ditched her somewhere around the ninth grade when Darren Patterson took an interest in me, and we haven't spoken since.

She catches my eye, and I expect her to give me an evil smirk–the kind that tells me to rot in hell, because that's what I'd do if I were her–but she doesn't. Instead, she tucks her hair behind one ear and gives me a nod that lets me know I've been forgiven.

Now I'm really on the verge of crying, so I give her a brief nod and turn back to the podium. I don't think about anything else now, not the betrayal I feel at my friends for abandoning me, or the haggard appearances of my family.

The only thing I focus on is the jaded woman with the sad blue eyes, who holds the key to my salvation in her gavel.


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