May 26th


MY PALMS were wet, and I wiped them carefully on the pleats of the beige skirt I had borrowed for the occasion. It belonged to Ricky, but her dad said I could have it. The blouse, teal cotton, was my mother’s. I felt as if I was sweating through it. My thighs were sticking to the sleek, polished bench under them. In my lap was a copy of my sworn statement, the edges wet with perspiration, the paper creased from constant folding and unfolding.

I couldn’t forget or change the slightest detail, or my testimony would be thrown out. That’s what my lawyer told me. The real one, the prosecutor, not my mother.

Being a witness is not what it looks like on television. You can’t be in the courtroom before you testify. You have to know your testimony backward and forward. Don’t lose your temper, don’t answer too quickly (but don’t hesitate for too long, either), don’t estimate times, don’t volunteer information, and don’t look to your lawyer for help, even if you don’t understand the question. Always ask for clarification.

It was like an exam—the biggest test of my life. Worse than the SATs, worse than any test I’d ever taken, because this test would determine whether the man who killed three people I love would pay for it, or go free. It was a test recorded forever from a dozen camera angles, a test that would be taped and transcribed, reported on in the newspaper, forever public record.

When it was my turn, I handed my mother the damp, creased pages of my sworn statement and followed the bailiff to the stand. He was black, over six feet tall, and had broad shoulders and hands the size of dinner plates. His face reminded me of Robert Shay, with his quiet strength and broad nose, but when the bailiff briefly touched my back as I climbed into the box, I did not feel comforted. He was not Robert.

“Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

Right hand raised, left hand on the Bible, I said, “I do.”

My palm left a sweaty circle on the cover of the Bible. I would have affirmed instead of sworn, but for Jessa. Her parents were in the audience, their eyes trying to meet mine. I resolutely did not look at them, though my swearing on the Bible was more for them than for anything, since I do not believe in God.

I did not look at the Fuenteses behind the prosecutor, or at Mr. O’Brien in the second row, or at my parents beside the Fuenteses, or at Amanda Barrett, on the other side of the courtroom, seated behind her son. I did not look at Dustin, in his crisp suit. The prosecutor stood and I looked at him only, his flat gray eyes and gray pinstripe suit, his silver tie embroidered with tiny white flowers, his slicked-back gray hair. His name was Harry Haywood. He was a ghost, no color even in his cheeks or lips, but he was kind. He had coached me for this.

A clerk said, “Please state your full name for the record.” I did not look in her direction.

“Corinna Mai Nguyen,” I said, remembering just in time not to shorten my name to Corey, though I’d practiced this part a hundred times. I almost winced but held it back. A little stutter so early wouldn’t hinder the case. Seventeen-year-olds are allowed to be nervous in court.

“Your witness, prosecution,” said Judge William Gillis, sounding exactly as he had in the video clips Mr. Haywood had shown me before the trial—his voice was booming, a heavy undercurrent of bass that made him sound perpetually angry, even when it was clear that he was not. I had been told not to be intimidated by him. He was fair, methodical, and a good pick for this case: he had two daughters of college age.

“Corinna,” said Mr. Haywood, using my first name to make me seem younger and more familiar to the jury. He’d told me all his tricks. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir. I turn eighteen in a couple of weeks.” Youth and innocence were on my side, making me a compelling witness. I had my hair pinned back in a bow, wore no makeup, and stood only five foot five in flat shoes.

“And where do you go to school, Corinna?”

“McMinn University,” I answered.

“Aren’t you a little young to be in college?” Haywood looked at the jury, raising his eyebrows skeptically.

“I was identified as gifted in the first grade and put ahead a year in school when we moved out of the city,” I started, finding the easy flow of conversation Haywood and I had practiced. But that familiarity was instantly taken from me.

“Objection,” the defense lawyer said dispassionately, barely glancing away from her fingernails to look to the judge. “Relevance?”

The judge looked to Haywood, who shrugged and said, “Establishing the character of the witness, Your Honor.”

“I’ll allow it,” the judge said, but it was already too late. My nerves had been fried by the interruption. Going off-script had never been part of the practice for direct examination. I’d been ready for it in cross-examination—no telling what the defense would ask—but not so soon.

“Corinna,” Haywood started again, his voice lulling and soft, trying to counteract the boom of Judge Gillis. “Tell me about Erica O’Brien.”

I heard Mr. O’Brien’s sharp intake of breath. Phillip and I had seen more of each other in the past few months than we had during the entirety of my friendship with his daughter. It was a shame, really, that he hadn’t been around much for the last months of Ricky’s life.

“I called her Ricky,” I started, taking a deep breath to steady myself. We’d skipped over some of the script—I was supposed to tell the jury about being valedictorian last year, about my volunteer efforts and prefect duties, about the Gay-Straight Alliance I’d helped to form. I didn’t mind the change of pace; I’d never been completely comfortable talking about myself anyway. This was easier. “She thought that Erica was too girly and uppity sounding, so she made everyone start calling her Ricky in the fifth grade.” I smoothed my hands on her skirt again. “I’m wearing a skirt borrowed from her closet today. We were about the same size.” I smiled a sad little smile, risking a glance at the jury. “Ladies’ extra small.”