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In Pictures of Gunmetal Gray

*********Editor's Note: Disturbing, adult story follows*********
Willa always told me that to get realistic sketches, you have to draw what you see, rather than what you think you see. Nowhere is that truer than in the courtroom.
I'm shoved in the third row of the gallery, my elbows bumping those next to me and my stubbled upper lip collecting sweat as I huddle over my sketchpad. I've learned, over the years, how to keep the pencil silent, to pass the charcoal over the page without a sound, to blend in and not draw attention. Still, the woman beside me cranes her neck and whispers, "Is that for one of the papers covering the trial?"
I flip the page shut. She wasn't supposed to see that. As politely as I can, I whisper, "Freelance, ma'am."
"You caught that scumbag's scowl," she comments. "Gives me shivers. Those poor runaways...."
"Excuse me." I work my way to the outer aisle to get some fresh air. From the counsel table near the jury box, Mateo's gaze meets mine, but even though we've been friends since our days of Little League, his face doesn't shift from "prosecuting attorney"-mode. I quickly find another seat.
The suspect takes the stand, and Mateo's called up to interrogate him. I flip the page and pull a pencil from my pocket, squeezing it so hard my knuckles crack. It's time.
Whenever I sketch, I think of Willa. She's the one who'd taught me to draw not just what I saw in the physical world--faces, bodies, buildings, clothes--but how to make sense of the other things I saw and capture them upon the paper, too. Though five years younger than me, my little sister always knew how to make me feel not quite so alone in my peculiarities. Not quite so strange and afraid.
Now, as the man on the stand rolls carefully selected words over his tongue and out his bloated lips, I sketch his face (asymmetrical, bulbous nose, small eyes), his shoulders (broad, like a linebacker's, but hunched over to make himself appear small and harmless), his tailored suit (expensive, but not too expensive, and as well-pressed as a preacher's). But there's more. As I listen to the back-and-forth of Mateo's questioning and the suspect's stilted answers, the scene that I sketch echoes his testimony, though not precisely as he lays it out.
"Yes, I was there that night at that rest stop," the suspect says in answer to Mateo's questioning, "but I didn't see any girl there."
Yet behind him, in wisps of smoky gray, like a silent movie that only I can see, the memories that spill out from his head tell a different story. A light beams down on him, radiating from a nearby streetlamp. Before him is a dark-haired girl, crouched on the curb. Her mascara is streaked, and she doesn't even look up from her cell phone as he approaches.
"We found tire tracks near the canyon trailhead where her phone last pinged," Mateo says. "They match your truck's. Tell me, are you familiar with this trail?"
As the man's thoughts shift, so does the scene, and I hurry to flip the page so I have room to capture what I see. There are rock formations, shadowy and high, reaching above the witness stand. There's a path before him, and its clarity tells me that he's walked it many times before. There's something draped across his shoulder--something fuzzy, unclear, as if he only recalls his burden in a vague, disconnected way, as a weight he must carry, rather than an identifiable thing.
The lead of my pencil snaps as it works its way across the page, reconstructing the scene. I fight to keep my focus as I pull a new one from my jacket. I can't afford to lose the thread of memory now. I can't think about the words he's saying; most of them are lies, anyway, and I don't want them to subconsciously distort my sketches. I can't think too much about that obscure and blurry burden, either, or I'll never be able to make it through his testimony.
A cave forms, just before the witness stand. It's only a few feet high and its entrance is blocked by a boulder. Overlaid across the suspect's face is a gray memory of his features, straining and darkening as he shoves it out of the way.
"You stated that you generally hike alone," Mateo asks. "Did you ever take anyone else up on that particular trail?"
"Never," the man lies. Their faces appear around his and I sketch them as quickly as I can, trying to catch their eyes (wide with terror), their mouths (open, sobbing) their distinctive features (a mole on the cheek, a scar on the brow, a dimple in the middle of the chin). When I'm satisfied I've captured them all, I set down my pencil.
Mateo meets my eye. "Can we take a recess, your honor?"
I join Mateo in the side chamber and hold out the sketch. It can't be used as evidence, but--as he likes to remind me--that doesn't mean it can't help. Mateo pulls out a burner phone and dials the tip line. "That trail you've been searching... there's an old cave up there, just past the stream. The opening can't be more than a few feet wide, small enough to cover with a boulder... Maybe take the dogs...."
As he hangs up, I know he's trying to figure out how to shape his line of questions and apply just the right pressures to make the suspect snap. To make him think that they've already found enough evidence. That they already know what he's done.
He seems to forget I'm there until I mutter, "Sorry, Mateo, but I'm not feeling well."
"You're sure none of these are--?"
I don't need to answer; he can tell from my expression. We've been through this so many times before. Not a single face on the sketch was the one that I've been searching for. Not a single one was Willa.
"Why don't you head home now?" he says. "You've done so much already."
I sit on the edge of my bed and watch the news as the reports come in. The outcome's happier this time: Two victims were found alive, now hospitalized for trauma and malnutrition. They show a photo of one, and my hand twitches, recalling the curves of her face, the gentle waterfall of her hair sketched out on my paper.
Reporters swarm Mateo as he descends the courthouse steps.
"Does today's discovery change the prosecution's strategy?"
"Were you surprised at what the authorities found?"
"How'd you know to ask the suspect about that cave?"
He holds up a hand and walks through them, offering up no comment.
I click off the television and grab my paper and a pencil of gunmetal gray. This time, it's my own memories I reach for, which swirl in hazy circles around the room.
The stadium lights of my old high school football field casting a glow across the shadowy parking lot.
The keys of my truck, glinting as I fumble with the driver's side door.
Willa, ten steps behind me, angry at me for making her leave before the final whistle. Her hands set on her hips in that all-too-familiar pose. Her chin, jutting out defiantly.
Me, yelling that--fine!--she could find her own ride home.
Then a shadowy figure, whose features I didn't recognize, approaching her as I watched through the rearview mirror. As I drove away and left her alone.
In my sketch, he's nothing but a silhouette of gray. A nameless, faceless smudge that could be anyone. But as I tear the page from the sketchbook and tuck it into my satchel, atop the hundreds of identical torn-out pages with identical smudges of lead, I swear to you, Willa, I'll find him. I won't stop sketching until I do.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 21st, 2022
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