She stands at the top of the courthouse steps, clutching her toddler son to her ribs. His chubby fists form tight balls. He grabs her rope necklace, the one her husband bought her for their first anniversary four years ago. From it, hangs a modest silver cross. She inhales, and begins her descent, trying not to make eye contact with the reporters coming toward them. They hold cameras, microphones, pens, notebooks, and determined expressions. They remind her of a lynch mob or of hunters at the beginning of deer season. She tells herself they are interested in someone else. She’s used to lying to herself. But there’s no use. She stops, right there, on the Northhampton Superior Courthouse steps. Her words leave her lips before she even has a chance to think about them; assemble them, scan them for consequence.
“He’s okay. We’re okay,” she says, anticipating their questions but not their assumptions or prior knowledge of the history here. “It’s just a little scrape. He just misses his Papa!”
A mustached man with a giant camera comes closer, taking the steps two at a time. Behind him is a skinny woman with big glasses. She carries a long stick with fuzz on the end that Dawn can only assume is a microphone. It reminds Dawn of the over-sized dusters her grandmother used to have her clean the trailer with as a child. She holds baby Noah closer, pulling the necklace from his grip. He doesn’t fight her and instead begins to drool. She looks to her left. She looks to her right. The only way out is down the steps. She’s frozen.
“Why was your husband given a second chance?” a petite, chubby blonde who has caught up to the skinny one is the first to ask what everyone wants to know. “…Do you believe you have battered wives syndrome? Has he ever hit you too? Or does he save that for kids?”
Dawn winces. The questions continue like rolling waves: One after the other after the other. They smack at her ears and she can barely make sense of them. She feels like she’s drowning in a tiny tidal pool. She knows she can touch bottom -- if she chooses -- but doesn’t know how to find her footing. She never did learn to swim. Where is Mom? And Dan. Why does he have to be in jail? Dan would have protected us. These people are vultures.
“…What are you going to do to protect your son?”
“Why did you let your husband near Noah after what he did before this?”
“How many times does it take?”
She swallows, wondering how to navigate the steps safely. Let them go away! Make them disappear. Don’t listen to them. They don’t understand. They are monsters.
“How could you let him hurt the baby?”
More questions come faster than Dawn can process them. She wants to run down the stairs but is frozen. Move. Do something! Where the hell is she? Dawn scans the street in front of the courthouse but can’t focus. People move in the streets like they don’t have a care in the world: Like it’s an ordinary day. A woman counts out change for a lunchtime $1.75 hot dog.
“It was just an accident,” she begins, trying to be polite and reminding herself that good Christian women always stand by their men. She tells herself Dan didn’t mean to hurt Noah. He just loses his temper. He’s a good father, really. Tell them that. Maybe they will understand that.
“A broken limb and a skull fracture?” And “…How is that an accident?” And “…Who was the caseworker that let your husband around your son? What is her name? Was it Kim? Danielle? Which one?” Their words make her dizzy. They jumble together and she can hardly make sense of the things the reporters are now yelling at her. I’m a good person. A good mother. Dan always says so. How can this be happening to us? Why can’t they understand?
“Wait! Was her husband allowed near the kid? Who was brilliant enough to allow that to fly?”
“What idiot judge made that ruling?”
“Brock. It was Brock. Said so on the docket.”
Reporters, camera operators, and more long microphones surround Dawn. In her 38 years, she’d often fantasized of a chance at being in the limelight; the ever-pined-for “fifteen minutes of fame.” But not like this. This wasn’t how she imagined it. She reaches for Noah’s right wrist, pulling his thumb from his mouth. She’s careful not to jostle his left arm; enclosed in a tiny baby blue cast.
“Wave at everyone, Pumpkin! Tell them you’re alright. You just had a fall! Tell them you just want to see your Papa! Say ‘hi’ to Papa, Baby!” she prompts, holding his round hand toward the cameras. “Wave to Papa!”
Noah, a chubby cheeked brute of a toddler, pulls his right wrist back and buries his face into his mother’s neck. His mouth quickly reunites with his thumb. He’s even less interested in participating in the scene on the courthouse steps than his mother is.