My heart pounds and sweat trickles down my forehead. Today is the day I have dreaded for the past year. My sentencing. I get dressed and brush my teeth as quietly as possible because the last time I woke my cellie, we almost fought.
Sssshs. Water rushes down the rusted pipes of the jail toilet. A brown lump floats in the bowl and mixes with the smells of urine and rotting food that smacks me in the face.
I look over at Tito in the top bunk. He’s looking back. “Again?” He knows.
“Yeah. When are they going to fix these damn toilets?
“Good luck today, Bones,” Tito says.
As I pour water into the toilet and pray it flushes, I glance at the window, then to the patchwork wall where previous inmates have peeled at the paint. I look up at the clock. It’s watched me since elementary school. Now it taunts me. Tick, tick, tick.
In five minutes, the door will slide open and two officers will greet me with iron chains and a metal detector. They will escort me to the first floor for transport. I’ve done this seventeen times.
Tick. Right on time.
On the bus to the courthouse, we peer through windows covered in so many scratches I wonder how many try to claw their way out. Iron bars are welded so close together not even a dog could squeeze through. Every bump and turn rocks us like a boat. Forget the bucket in a puddle of pee; it’s like aiming at a Cheerio.
I curl up in an icy seat, read the graffiti scrawled by previous inmates. They must not have known our saying in here: Don’t leave your name because you’ll probably see it again.
The driver pulls up to the court gates and I take one last look behind me. Creeek. The doors close to reveal an old western sheriff badge painted dead center.
One by one we’re called off the bus. Shuffled to a holding cell, we are crammed like cigarettes in a sealed pack. I start panicking. Who’s coming? Family, friends? Victims? Will she come, my sweet Jennifer?
Pssshhs. The holding cell pops open. “Sanchez, let’s go!” The guard escorts me to the elevator, gripping my arm. It’s quiet as we wait for our stop. Thump, thump, thump. My heart races so loud I hope the guard can’t hear it. Ding! My heart stops.
I step into Courtroom 201 holding my breath. I scan the seats. Mom is slumped in her chair, bags under bloodshot eyes like she was punched. Her hair looks like she fought a tornado. She’s drunk. Baby brother has grown three inches and facial hair, not a baby anymore. I see cousins, friends, but not her. My heart shatters like a plate hitting the floor.
I lumber to the table next to my attorney. She pats my back. “Have faith, Sanchez.”
Yeah right, I think. What public defender cares about a client? The prosecutor takes shots at me like a boxer in the twelfth round of a championship match.
“Drug user, high school dropout, gang member.” And the one that stings deepest: “Murderer.”
My attorney gives it a go. “No parents, traumatic childhood, poor environment.”
I am lost, staring at the heavy courtroom doors.
“Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez!”
I look up at the judge. “Yes, your Honor.”
“Mr. Sanchez, is there anything you’d like to say?”
Creech. The doors open and Jennifer comes in wearing a black dress. Her belly pops out just enough that I could cup it with both hands. I can smell her mango-scented perfume, see the hints of gray in her blue eyes, her sandy hair and the freckles on her cheeks. Her breasts are heavy with milk for our baby.
I smile. “No, Your Honor, I have nothing to say.”
“All rise for sentencing! Mr. Sanchez, as to Count 1— second degree murder, I sentence you to fifteen years in state prison. And for Count 2—assisting in a criminal gang, five years of probation following release from the Department of Corrections. Good luck! Court adjourned.”
Crack! The gavel smacks the wooden desk. Jennifer looks away.