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winning submissions & honorable mention pieces

Honorable Mention: For Emily

October 22, 2017

“James, we need to talk.” My mother’s voice sounded heavy, but my dad didn’t seem to notice.


“Just a minute, Diane,” he said, still laughing as he ticked my five-year-old sister.


“No, it really needs to be now. Caroline, can you please put your sister to bed?”


“Yes ma’am,” I answer, right as Emily says, “I can put myself to bed!”


“Well, I’ll go with you,” I laugh. “C’mon, goofball.”


As we reach Emily’s room, I can hear my parents’ voices start up again in the kitchen. They are surprisingly quiet, meaning that, at least for now, they haven’t gotten into yet another blowout. 


“Ariel pajamas or Hello Kitty pajamas?” Emily’s question startles me back to the task at hand.

 

Seeing her little face scrunched up, trying to make a decision, I smile. Watching her grow up is so crazy. I guess every older sibling feels that to some extent, but with twelve years between us—I’m pretty sure we were both “accidents”—I think I feel it more than most.


“Ariel,” Emily announces, before taking off her shirt, or at least trying to.


“Here, let me help you with that.” After we successfully get Emily’s pajamas on, I tuck her into bed.


“Goodnight, Caroline. Love you.”


“Love you too, Em. Sweet dreams.” 


I quietly shut the door before heading to my own room. My parents have gotten louder, just like every other night this week. I close my door and search for my earbuds. My British Literature paper isn’t going to write itself, unfortunately, and there is no way I would be able to concentrate with their argument as a soundtrack. But halfway into my third paragraph about the romantic poets, a yell of “Fine!” and the front door slamming are loud enough to cut through Halsey’s voice. I poke my head out of the door and, upon not seeing anything, tiptoe through the hallway. As I enter the kitchen, I see my mom hunched over at the table.


“Mom?” I ask softly as I walk towards her. Her head shoots up, as if she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t be.


“Hey baby.” She wipes away the tears spilling onto her cheeks. “What are you still doing up?”


“I have an essay due Monday. Is everything all right? Where did Dad go?”


“Your father and I are going to be spending some time away from each other for a while. I know this is going to be hard on you and your sister, and I’m sorry. Now, why don’t you go to bed? It’s late.”


“Okay, Mom. I love you.”

 

“Love you too, sweetheart.”

 

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Twelve days. Twelve days pass before I see my dad again.


Emily and I are sitting on the couch, watching Moana. It’s her newest obsession. I think I’ve watched it enough times to play every character in the movie, but Emily still begs me to watch it with her, so I do. Maui has just started singing “You’re Welcome” when the front door slams open.
“Diane!” my dad bellows as he steps through the door. Just one word and I can tell that he has had too much to drink today.


“Daddy!” Emily is off the couch and in front of him before I can stop her. Not that he would physically hurt her, but it would be better if she didn’t witness the yelling match that I’m sure is about to go down.


“I want your mother, not you,” Dad slurs, sidestepping Emily. “Where is she?”


“What do you want, James?” My mother appears as if on cue. “Oh my God, you’re drunk.”


“We need to talk. Now.” 


“We can talk when you’re sober. I think it would be best if you left and came back tomorrow.”


“Don’t make me do this.” The next thing I know, my dad has a gun in his hand. The atmosphere changes from a heated argument to a cold fear in less than a second.


“James, why don’t we put the gun down? Then we can talk,” my mom says in a hushed voice. She walks slowly toward him, as if he were an animal about to attack.


“I’m not moving until we talk, and I suggest you don’t, either.” With that statement, he puts both hands on the gun and points it directly at my mom.


In the next moment, three things happen.


My mom takes a step forward and says, “James, please be reasonable.”


Emily screams for my mom and runs toward her.


The gun goes off.

 

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My mom and her lawyers want me to speak on behalf of the prosecutors. My dad and his lawyers want me to speak for the defense. I just want to curl up in a ball on Emily’s bed and cry myself to sleep, not that I don’t already do that.


My mom’s lawyers want to push for capital punishment. She supports them. “My daughter was killed,” she says. So you want to make sure your husband gets killed, too?


My dad’s lawyers want to use an “intoxication” defense. He supports it. “I wouldn’t have done what I did if I was sober,” he says. Never mind the fact that you’ve been drunk plenty of times before without hurting anyone.


I don’t know what I want. I loved my little sister, and now that she’s dead, there’s a hole in my heart. But I love my dad, too. His death would make that hole bigger, not patch it up.


I don’t know what to do.

 

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My dad was found guilty. I don’t really think anyone was surprised, not even my dad. I had talked to him once since… since that night. He told me he is sorry and that he knows he is guilty. He said he deserves to be punished. But he doesn’t want to die. And I don’t want him to, either.


That is how I end up speaking during the penalty phase at his trial. After I am sworn in and state my name for the record, my dad’s lawyer approaches the stand.


“Caroline, has this incident impacted you?”


“Absolutely.” Even though I know it is coming, I almost want to laugh at the absurdity of this question. Of course, it has impacted me.


“How so?”

 

“I lost my little sister. There was a big age gap between us, but we were really close. She…” I stop for a moment as my eyes tear up. I’ve practiced saying this several times and have yet to do so without crying. “She always wanted me to do things with her. We were watching a movie together when it happened.” I have to pause again as I am hit with a memory of Emily singing along with Moana, a huge smile on her face. “I miss my sister, and I’m going to mourn her for a long time.
“But I also miss my dad. I’m not saying he should walk free, but he should not die. He killed my sister, and that action was wrong. We should not kill him in return.”

 

“Thank you. No further questions.”


It feels like years pass before my dad receives his sentence. The jury deliberates before giving a recommendation to the judge. The judge speaks for a while and then finally says those three words, “Life without parole.”
 

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@2017 by Aimee Murphy and Encounter Youniverse project collaborators.