“Taking Names” Dark Fiction by John Ryland

“In lieu of a closing statement from the defense, the family has petitioned this court for the opportunity to have the accused speak on his own behalf. I have spoken with the defendant and have an idea of what he will say. With that in mind, I have ordered the courtroom closed for the statements, as to not cause further damage to the reputation and memory of the victim.”

     The judge ran a hand over his thinning hair and looked around the courtroom. The prosecutor sat with the family of Candance Weatherford, and the defense attorney sat with the family of Joseph Patrick. The jury looked tired and battered, like they’d rather do anything than hear the twelve year old boy speak another word. It was a long and difficult trial, and it was clear that there would be no winners.

     The judge looked at Joseph Patrick and sighed. Sitting behind the defense table, the boy looked like any typical kid you’d see at the mall, albeit one who was dressed up for a special occasion. His brown hair was neatly cut, the Windsor knot in his tie was near perfect, and the gray suit he wore fit him well. He’d been quiet and respectful throughout the trial, answering “yes sir” and “no sir” when the D.A. asked questions.

     His eyes, however, told a different story. There was no youthful exuberance common in most young boys his age. No zest for life, no look of immortality often found in young, strapping boys. The look in Joseph Patrick’s eyes was tired, and worried. He looked haggard beyond his years, as if a great weight hung on his shoulders. There was sorrow in his eyes, but no remorse.

     In his forty years as a judge, presiding over the lives of children who’d ran afoul with the law, he’d seen the look before. That was what bothered him. When he’d seen the look before, it was worn by older kids who’d lived a harrowing life or had been subjected to some of the worst depravity imaginable. Something in them had broken and, he guessed, in Joseph Patrick too.

     “You may come forward, young man, and address the jury.” He sank into his chair as he watched the boy roll his wheelchair back from the table and steer it forward. The kid spared his parents a quick look, giving them a sad smile as he rounded the table.

     “I know you’ve all heard a lot of people talking about me and the things I did. I’m not going to say they didn’t happen, but I’m going to tell you why they happened. You might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to tell you, but I swear every bit of it is the truth. It may sound unbelievable, and I probably wouldn’t believe it either, if I hadn’t lived through it.” Joseph took a deep breath and swept his eyes over the adults peering down at him from the jury box.

     A hushed whisper rolled through the jury, but the judge banged his gavel once and they fell silent.

     Patrick cleared his throat and began to speak.

    “When Ms. Foley got called to the office, she asked if anyone wanted to watch the class. No one raised their hand, so she picked Candance. She always picked Candance, all the teachers picked her. I guess they trusted her because they could depend on her to rat us out.”

     The D.A. objected and the judge told Patrick to rephrase his statement.

     “I’m sorry, your honor.” Patrick swallowed hard and looked at Candance’s parents. “I’m sorry.” He looked back at the accusing eyes of the jury and sighed.

     “Anyway, she was dependable. The teacher told her she could take down the names of anyone who acted out and write them on the board, then she’d deal with them when she got back. Teachers did that a lot, especially when another grown up wasn’t available to watch the class if they were called away.

     “I guess kids being kids and all, it didn’t take long for people to start getting restless. The first name on the board was Micah Rodgers. He started talking to Amelia Sutter. I think he had a crush on her, you know. She’s a cute redhead and a lot of guys have a crush on her. Amy, uh- Amelia, was the second name on the board. After that, the class just settled down for a while, until someone threw a wadded up piece of paper at me. It was Cooper Newsome and Candance saw him. His name went on the board next. When I got up to pick up the paper, intending to throw it away, my name went up. I thought it was a little petty, but…” Joseph trailed off with a shrug.

     “The last name put on the board was a kid named Rodney Andrews. Someone passed gas rather loudly. In the quiet classroom it was really loud, and a lot of kids laughed. Candance said she saw him lean over to do it, so she put his name on the board. He denied it, but it was probably him. He did that a lot.”

     Joseph rested his elbow on the arm of his wheelchair and bent down, rubbing his forehead. “All that might seem irrelevant to you sitting here today, but it’s not. Those five names represent five lives that changed that day, and not for the good.”

     “Within a week, Amy began to lose her teeth. They just fell out one by one. Her parents took her to the dentist, but he couldn’t figure it out. She had nearly perfect teeth, but the roots would die, and they’d just fall out. As you could imagine, her parents were freaking out. They took her to doctors and everywhere they could. Over the next three weeks, every tooth she had fell out and then the gums started to rot. I called her once, to check on her, and I could barely understand her. They suspected cancer, but still haven’t found anything. It’s like her mouth just started rotting.”

     Joseph Patrick took a sip of water and looked at the jury.

    “Then Micah Rodgers, the kid who was talking to her, woke up with a mouth full of blood. He told me that himself. He just woke up one morning and his mouth was full of blood. It was all over his pillow. When he went to the bathroom and looked, his tongue was bleeding. At first, he thought he’d just bit it in his sleep, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. His parents took him to the emergency room when they couldn’t get it to stop. They couldn’t find a reason. It was like blood was just seeping out of every pore. They did all kind of tests and stuff, but they couldn’t stop it from bleeding. They sent him to specialists and everything, all the while his tongue just kept bleeding. With no other recourse, they had to cut it off. They had to cut a thirteen year old boys tongue off. He will never talk again.”

     Joseph rubbed his eyes with both hands, then pushed them over his hair. “So that’s Amy and Micah, whose names were on the board for talking. By this time her teeth were gone, and her gums were rotting away, and he’d lost his tongue. The next name on the board was Cooper Newsome.”

     “Your honor,” the D.A. said, standing as he waved a hand at Joseph. “I appreciate the court’s indulgence of this young man, but the medical situations of other young people have no bearing on this case and aren’t pursuant to its timely end. He is on trial for murdering a beautiful young girl in cold blood. Should her parents endure this irrelevant nonsense before justice is wrought by the jury?”

     The judge banged his gavel once. “Your objection is overruled. The defense has agreed to use this as a closing statement and have the right to include any exculpatory statements or evidence to that end. You had your chance to object before agreeing to allow the defendant to speak.”

     “Thank you, sir.” Joseph spared his parents a nervous glance, then looked back at the jury. “As I was saying, the next name on the board was Cooper Newsome. He was a pretty good baseball player. He played outfield because he had such a good arm. He was young, strong, and healthy. He was a shoe in to make the middle school team when tryouts came around.

     “But he didn’t make the team. He didn’t even get a chance to try out. Not long after his name went on the board, he started having a pain in his right arm. At first, he just thought he slept on it wrong, or maybe pulled a muscle or something. It kept getting worse, though. His parents gave him Tylenol or something and didn’t really pay much attention. Until the knot popped up on his shoulder. They took him to his regular doctor, who sent him to a specialist. An oncologist, I think they’re called. It didn’t take long to find out that he had cancer. I can’t remember the name of it, it’s long and hard to pronounce, but it is cancer. That’s enough to know.

     “Me and Coop were pretty close, so I spent a lot of time talking to him about it. His parents were devastated. He’s been depressed and hurting a lot even with the pain pills. They started chemo and radiation. I remember seeing him after one of his trips to the doctor. He lost weight, his hair was falling out, and he had thrown up all over himself.”

     Joseph shook his head and took a few minutes to compose himself. “Coop was the quintessential athlete. He was tall and strong, had a good build, and was good looking. He had it all. To be honest, deep down I guess I was always jealous of him. If I tried out for the middle school team, I’d have had a decent shot at making it, but not Coop. He was a pretty cool guy, too. Everyone liked him. He wasn’t a jerk like some athletes can be. He was smart and funny too, but last time I saw him he wasn’t any of those things.

     “He was pale and skinny, quiet and scared. He was fighting for his life from a cancer that just popped up and was aggressively spreading. To be honest, if he doesn’t die, it will be a miracle. His thirteenth birthday was two months ago.”

     Joseph swept his eyes along the jury box slowly, making eye contact with each member. Some of them returned his stare, convinced of his quilt. Some of them dropped their gaze to their hands, unable to look at him.

     “Another name on the board that day was Rodney Andrews. He is a black kid who is ten times smarter than he wants people to know. He always acted like he didn’t care about school, like he wanted some street cred or something. His mother didn’t have much money, so he didn’t always wear nice clothes with name brands on the label. But he was smart. I learned that last year when we got paired up on a science project. I wanted to do something simple and get it done, but he wouldn’t hear of it. We ended up doing a massive project detailing how the introduction of a pack of wolves into Yellowstone National Park actually changed the path of the Colorado River. It was amazing, and probably the best piece of schoolwork I’ve ever done, and it was all because of Rodney Andrews.

     “Rodney’s name went on the board that day because he farted. Like I said, Rodney could have been a straight A student, but his home life wasn’t that great. I’ve met his mom a few times and she seemed nice enough, but she has to work a lot. Rodney’s father wasn’t around and the man that lived with them wasn’t a super nice guy. He’s probably getting settled into his prison cell right about now, as a matter of fact. Rodney’s mom was a nursing assistant at the hospital. One morning when she came home, she found Rodney laying in his bed, naked and barely conscious. It seems that her boyfriend and another man had gotten high, then beat and raped Rodney repeatedly while she was at work. I don’t even want to imagine the horror he went through that night.

     “He was an innocent kid, just hanging out at home and this happened to him. Completely aside from the humiliation and shame they heaped on him, they also broke his jaw and did significant damage to his, well, you know. He had a couple of surgeries and will probably have more. Right before this trial started, the state people came to take him from his mother and put him in a foster home. I don’t even know where he is, and neither does she.”

     Joseph looked at his own legs, sitting limply in the wheelchair for a long time before he began to speak again.

     “My name, Joseph Patrick, was also on the board that day. I just got up to retrieve a piece of paper thrown by Micah Rodgers. I was just going to throw it away. I wasn’t even talking or acting up. Having my name on the board for simply picking up a piece of paper was bullsh- it was petty if you ask me.

     “I guess I’m a pretty good kid,” he offered a questioning look at his parents, who forced a smile and nodded emphatically. “I make decent grades, never really get into any major trouble. I do my chores, I do my homework, I hang out with my friends. Pretty average all the way around.  I’m not a monster. I ended up in this wheelchair because I picked up a piece of paper.”

     “Objection, your honor.”

     The judge banged his gavel once and pointed it at the D.A.

    “It’s closing statements, sit down. You’ll have your chance to refute any claim made here.”

     Joseph looked back at the jury with a tired sigh. “The last day I walked, I went to talk to Candance Weatherford. See, I put two and two together after Amy and Micah began to have their problems. They both were put on the board for talking and both were having problems with their mouths. When Micah, whose name was on the board for throwing paper, developed cancer in his throwing arm, I knew something was happening and I wanted to stop it. After all, my name was on the board for getting out of my seat.

     “I asked Candance if she was doing it somehow. She denied everything and got mad at me. She said I was just jealous because the teachers trusted her and not me. She said if I acted better maybe things wouldn’t happen to me, and that everything was just a coincidence. She was pretty upset, like I said. Her mother ended up telling me to leave, so I did.

     “I was in the middle of the crosswalk at the corner of her block when a car ran the red light and hit me. I remember laying there on the pavement thinking that it was Candance’s fault. It didn’t seem real. I wasn’t in pain. Nothing hurt. It was like I was just lying down. People came running, the driver was hysterical. I remember hearing her screaming. I remember hearing the ambulance coming, the paramedics. I remember riding to the hospital.

     “That was when I knew something was wrong. They’d been telling me to lie still, but on the way to the hospital they kept doing something to my legs and asking if I felt it. I didn’t feel it then and I never will. I am twelve years old and I will never feel anything below my waist again. I stayed in the hospital for a while, then went to rehab. None of it worked. I knew early on that I’d never walk again, just like Amy wouldn’t be able to talk and Micah would be mute for the rest of their lives. While I was in rehab, Rodney got his punishment for going on the board.

     “There’s no way Ms. Foley, our teacher, could have known what she was doing when she asked Candance to take names that day. There’s no way she could have known that the things that happened would happen, because no normal human being would. Through whatever means she has at her disposal, Candance Weatherford caused these acts to happen. Whether through witchcraft, black magic, voodoo, or whatever, there is no doubt in my mind that she did this to us. That’s why I had to stop her. She had to be stopped and no one was able to do it but me.”

     The judge gaveled down a murmur from the jury box and told them to be quiet.

     “I know this isn’t Salem, Massachusetts and that it’s not the 1600s or whatever, but Candance is some sort of witch, nonetheless. You may scoff, and I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t believe this story if I hadn’t lived through it. You may call it coincidence, but every name Candance put on that board has had something horrible happen to them, something that normally doesn’t happen to kids. Horrible incidences that just happen to occur to kids whose name Candance wrote that one day.”

     Joseph unlocked the wheels of his chair and rolled closer to the jury. “There has to be an explanation. If this isn’t the right one, then I ask you, what is? What would cause this to happen? What would cause horrible things to happen to five kids, all of which was related to the reason their name was put on the board? What? If not Candance, then who?”

     Joseph turned his wheelchair and started toward the defense table, but stopped when the back door to the courtroom opened quietly and a petite, dark haired woman slipped in. He offered Ms. Foley a sad smile when she looked at him on her way up the center aisle. She offered one of her own and sat down in one of the empty seats.

     “Ms. Foley, I have cleared the gallery for closing statements,” the judge told her flatly.

     “I know, your honor, but I was hoping to be present if I could. I have testified both for and against the defendant, and as the teacher of all six students involved, I feel like I should be present.”

     “I don’t mind,” Joseph said with a shrug as he took up his usual position beside his distraught parents.

     Mrs. Weatherford stood and addressed the court. “Your honor, if you do not object, I would like Ms. Foley to remain. She has been a stalwart of support for the families involved, especially ours. She has been involved in the trial from the beginning.”

     The judge sighed and shook his head. “Very well,” he said, looking at the teacher, dressed in a black skirt that ended just above her knee and an open jacket that covered skintight blouse. She was definitely young and attractive, but there was something about her that just didn’t feel right with him. “But I will admonish you from speaking to the press or anyone else about the particulars of what is said here today. You are aware of the gag order placed upon these proceedings due to the age of those involved.”

     “Yes sir, your honor, I am aware.”

     The judge scratched the bold spot on back of his head and nodded to the prosecutor to begin. The D.A. stood and approached the jury box, launching into his closing statement.

     The judge began to thumb through the file before him. He’d studied it ad nauseam, but suddenly felt the urge to review it again, if only to pass the time. The D.A. would have a lengthy closing, covering every scrap of damning evidence against the boy. He was nothing if not thorough.

     Turning a page in the file, the judge found himself staring at a photo of the classroom blackboard. The names on it had become familiar to him. Amelia Sutter, Micah Rodgers, Rodney Andrews, Cooper Newsome, and Joseph Patrick. Five names placed on a blackboard by a girl who, if the truth was told, was little more than a snitch.

     His brow furrowed as he stared at the names, for the first time noticing something peculiar that he’d overlooked. Five of the names had suffered horribly before Joseph Patrick snuck his father’s nine millimeter pistol and waited for Candance Weatherford to walk out of her house. Five names of young, innocent lives visited by terrible tragedy before Joseph pulled the trigger, killing Candance in her own front yard.

     The five names: Amelia Sutter, Micah Rodgers, Cooper Newsome, Joseph Patrick, and Rodney Andrews, were all written in the neat, sprawling script of a young woman.  He allowed his eyes to trace the near perfect penmanship of the names, following the loopy, smooth scraping of chalk on a blackboard. When he finished the five names, his eyes went to the top of the photograph, to the top of the blackboard.

Watchman: Candance Weatherford

     He stared at the writing, obviously written by someone else. The lettering was sharp and hard, like the writer was striking the board with the chalk instead of allowing it to flow across it. Who wrote this, he wondered? Ms. Foley? 

     Looking up, he found her staring at him from her seat. Her lips were pursed, and her left eyebrow arched ever so slightly. When her eyes locked on his, he gasped as an intense pressure against his forehead pushed him back in his chair. Summoning what force he could, he ripped his eyes from hers and dropped his gaze to the paper before him.

     He took a deep breath to calm himself as the strange feeling began to subside. It felt as if something, or someone, had passed right through him. It felt like she had passed through him. Still shaken, he looked around the courtroom in disbelief. No one had noticed. He stole another glance at her, but discovered her watching the D.A.

     He looked down before she could do whatever she’d done to him again. Looking at the picture, he realized that there were not five names listed on the blackboard of children who had suffered greatly, but six. Candance Weatherford’s name was also on the board, put there by Ms. Foley, and she was the only one who had died.

     The judge looked at Candance’s father, sitting stoically as he watched the D.A. His wife wiped tears as she too watched the man do the job of prosecuting a preteen boy of murder. His eyes then went to Joseph, then his parents. The boy was slumped in his wheelchair, resigned to his fate, while his parents wiped tears from their cheeks as the D.A. recounted the day Candance Weatherford died.  

  Suddenly, the whole case began to feel dirty, as if justice were being perverted somehow. His eyes went back to Ms. Foley and found her staring at him again. This time he did not look away but returned her knowing stare despite the tingling sensation that was spreading throughout his body. She was pushing him again, but this time he was pushing back. In his thirty years on the bench he’d never been stared down, and he had no intention of starting today.

     Her stern face softened as a smile spread across her dark lips. She stood, moving in the smooth, unhurried way of a woman confident in her position. She straightened her jacket and gently touched the back of her hair before slipping out of the seat and into the aisle.

     The tingling subsided as she away from him with a casual, elegant walk that held his attention. When she reached the back of the courtroom, she put a hand against the dark mahogany of the door but did not push it open. Her long fingernails, painted a deep maroon, laid against the wood like claws as she turned to look at him over her shoulder.

     When their eyes met again, he felt a sudden push against his forehead as a thought fought its way into his mind.  Knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A wise man remains quiet in the face of his ignorance, a fool speaks of things he cannot understand.

     Unaware that he was pushing back against the invasion of his mind, his torso lurched forward as the assault stopped suddenly.  He took in a deep breath to steadied himself. His eyes, drawn to the woman, fell on her as she waited at the back of the room. She gave him smile and a quick wink before pushing the door open and slipping quietly from the courtroom.

“Taking Names” first appearing in the short story collection “Southern Gothic” by John Ryland.

Mr. Ryland notes:

“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”

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