Panic Snap

A Novel

Laura Reese

St. Martin's Press

Panic Snap
Before the Verdict
I must not think about the verdict. I must NOT. But, of course, I do. I can think of nothing else. I keep looking at the clock, watching the time, wondering when the jury will reach a decision. I can see it there, up high, through that narrow slit of a window, plain as day. It's the old-fashioned kind, with a round face and big black numerals and a constantly moving red second hand, ticking off the time. No digital numbers flashing, not on this one. I look again. The red second hand continues its sweep, steady, unrelenting: five hours so far and still no verdict.
Limping from my injuries, I pace back and forth, slowly, from the gray west wall to the locked door and then back again, a short distance, a few steps. The first hour or two wasn't so bad, not really. My lawyers came, gave me a few encouraging words, sat with me for a while. I could tell, despite their words, they had doubts about the outcome, but their presence reassured me. Now, alone, I pace and watch the clock, each hour more difficult than the one before. What do other people think about, I wonder, while they're waiting? What? Mostly, I'mjust scared, and I think about that. When I was first arrested, my lawyers assured me the case would be dismissed, it wouldn't even go to trial. They were wrong. My fate, my life, will be decided by a jury of twelve, but what I've learned, over the years, is that justice doesn't always prevail.
I place my forehead against the wall, just to feel the coolness on my skin, the temperature stone cold and soothing, bringing slight relief to this face newly marred. I'm on the second floor of the courthouse building, a guard outside my door. It's a cell, really, but they call it the waiting room, a kind of holding tank for the soon-to-be-judged. Innocent, I go free; guilty, I stay.
Two guards--I haven't seen them before--walk quickly past my locked door. They glance inside the window as they pass, wanting to catch a glimpse of me, curious to see the woman whose crime made headline news. A sharp tension cuts the air, something almost palpable, as prickly as stinging thorns. The guards wait, as do I, for the verdict. Everyone wants it over with.
Placing both hands on the wall, I feel the cool texture of concrete against bare skin. My fingernails, once long and manicured, painted in reds and pinks, are gone now, chewed to the nubs. Earlier, for lunch, I ate an apple, the only food I could manage to eat. A trickle of juice, very sweet, dribbled down my chin. I didn't wipe it off. Instead, I leaned back against the cell wall, closed my eyes, savored that apple as if it was the first I'd ever tasted. I thought about a happier time, the time I realized I was in love, really in love. We took an afternoon off from the winery and went hiking in the mountains, the air fresh and smelling of rich humus and tree bark. He said I had such a carefree manner, my step blithe and springy, like a young girl on a clandestine adventure,that anyone, just by observation, could tell I thought nothing bad would happen that day. Carefree, blithe, and springy--not words usually applied to me. My hair was blond and clipped short, a style worn by tomboys or gamines, and that morning I wore scuffed tennis shoes and faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt that said, in cotton-candy-pink lettering, "Sweet ... but not innocent." I looked like a teenager from the back, he told me, my body slight, my arms slimly muscled, but as soon as I turned around, anyone could see I was a woman, late twenties, maybe early thirties, hard to tell with a face like mine, he said, smooth, no lines, an unusual face, slightly odd, difficult to describe--and here he stroked my cheek, then added--but with a waifish expression, sweet, innocent, vulnerable too, in those pale blue eyes, inspiring protection, wanted or not. His words took me by surprise. Where others, and I, saw a peculiar coldness in my face, he discovered something else.
That apple made me cry.
I sit down. The trial and stay in jail have taken their toll: dark crescents beneath my eyes, from lack of sleep, give me a haunted look, and a heavy air of defeat seems weighted on my shoulders. My hair, grown a few inches, hangs straight and limp. The judge, from the very beginning, denied me bail, and even though Napa County is on a fast-track court system, I've been in custody for almost three months now. If the verdict comes back guilty, I'll be in prison for years. I'll be an old woman by the time I'm released. I may never get out.
As I think about this, my heart races, pounds. "It's okay, it's okay," I mumble to myself, quietly, over and over. "It's okay." I knead my hands, balled up tight in fists, the knuckles white, into the sides of my thighs. Imprisonment, for years and years. It'salmost too big to think about, too incomprehensible. This shouldn't be happening to me, not on top of everything else. The world will go on, the seasons will change, the sun will rise on a new day. All without me. No sunshine in a prison cell. I close my eyes, try to squeeze back the tears. My fists dig into my legs. Right now, right this moment, I want to believe in God. Save me, God, I pray. Save me from this. But all I get is a sinking feeling that hollows out my chest. Maybe this is what I deserve. I rock slowly on the edge of the chair. Through the narrow window, I see the clock high up on the wall, another hour gone by. I want to scream. I want to cry.
Instead, I get up and begin pacing again, drag myself slowly from one end of the room to the other. I try to divert myself, try to think of other things. I used to wear beautiful clothes, dresses, skirts, tailored suits, classy slacks, skimpy sundresses, lots of clothes in different colors, a rainbow of hues. Now I always wear blue; blue chambray work shirt, faded blue pants--standard jail issue. I've come to hate the color blue. Slowly, I walk back and forth, to the door, to the wall, back to the door again, my shoes beating out a soundless march, my legs and back aching with each painful movement. "It's okay," I say again, even though I don't believe it.
When I think back, I wonder what I could have done to prevent all of this from happening. Almost a year ago, I met the McGuane family. Seven months later, I was in jail. But it began even before that, with a lifelong search I was powerless to stop. At one time, I would have given anything for my questions to be answered, for my search to be successful. There was no price too high. The reality, however, is the forfeiture of my freedom.
Peering out the window, I see guards down the hall, then I check the clock once more. My handsfeel cold, my mouth dry. A few minutes ago, I was sweating; now my palms are clammy. This, I recognize as fear. I swallow, but I have no saliva. This, also, is fear. The time is close, a verdict will come soon. The jury will decide if I am guilty. Suddenly, my skin begins to itch, a frantic call to life, as if all the nerve endings are screaming to be felt. In my ears, the blood pounds, hammers out my panic in a throbbing pulse. "It's okay," I whisper, "it's okay," repeating the words that have become my mantra, my prayer of reassurance, two small words of denial to get me through the day--but it isn't okay. Nothing is okay. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I was foolish to believe no price was too high. I say it once more, "It's okay," then place my forehead against the gray wall, again feel the cool concrete on bare skin, and wish for a mother, for the warmth of a mother's love, unconditional and always protective. Where is my mother?
I try to think of other things.
A newspaper reporter dubbed me Madame de Sade. And the tabloids, reveling in that sobriquet, pushed it even further--they had me bartering in souls, scourging human flesh, participating in pagan orgies, both bloody and sexual. They turned me into a monster because monsters are easy prey. The truth is much simpler. I came to Napa Valley, to the McGuanes' home, for answers. They didn't know who I was--who I really was--and perhaps the truth is never that simple, but no one was supposed to get hurt, least of all me. Two people changed all that. One tried to be my savior, the other my destroyer. I did not foresee who would bring me down. I did not see it coming. I thought I was smarter, wiser, more cunning than the other. I was wrong.
I look at the clock one more time. Still, there is no verdict. And there is no one with me while I wait, no family, no friends. I sit on a chair and close my eyes. I remember the opening line of a Dickens story I'd read in college: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." For me, there are no pages, no story for others to see. People will remember what is printed in the newspapers. I will remember what I can. Only one thing is for certain: I am no hero.
PANIC SNAP. Copyright © 2000 by Laura Reese. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.