It was more like a plaintive howl than a scream. Visceral and primitive, the sound filled the small room and echoed down the hall, but she did not hear it as it emanated from somewhere deep in her soul. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that she asked her good friend, as they sat at the dining room table writing “thank you” notes, “Did I scream that night?”

Her friend put down the pen with which she was addressing an envelope, reached over and squeezed her hand as she said gently, “Yes, honey, you did.”

“I keep hearing this horrible sound in my head,” she said. “I didn’t realize what it was until just a few moments ago. Isn’t that odd?”

“Not really,” her friend assured her. “It was a horrible shock. People react all sorts of different ways when they receive such terrible news.”

“I guess,” she said absent-mindedly as she stared at the blank envelope in front of her.

“How about if you let me finish doing this and you go take a nap?” her friend suggested.

“No, no,” she replied. “I’m fine. I need to keep busy. I’m just glad I finally figured out what that sound was because it’s been very perplexing.”

“All right then,” her friend said as she picked the pen up and resumed writing.

“You’re early, Ms. Carlisle,” the deputy said as she placed her handbag on the conveyor belt to be xrayed and walked through the metal detector in the courthouse lobby. “The hearing’s not for another hour,” he said kindly as he retrieved her purse and handed it to her.

“I know, Seth. I wanted to get here before the newspaper people and. . . ” her voice trailed off as the deputy looked at her knowingly.

“Well, Judge Humphreys is still hearing his 8:30 calendar. You can sit in the courtroom if you’d like. There are only a couple of folks in there,” he said.

“Thank you,” she smiled softly as the two of them walked down the hallway. When they reached the second of three sets of double doors, Seth opened the door for her and gestured toward the back left corner of the courtroom, gently closing the door behind her as she took the seat she had occupied every day during the three-week trial. Judge Humphreys was on the bench and there were two lawyers standing behind the tables placed on opposite sides of the aisle, one flanked by a female client and one by a male. They were taking turns arguing about bank accounts and a visitation schedule as the female client kept her head down, her long hair falling over her shoulders as she self-consciously dabbed her tears with a pink handkerchief. The man at the other table was staring at the judge, his hands clasped as they rested atop the table, while the lawyers’ exchange grew increasingly animated.

It was a crisp autumn morning and the air in the drafty courtroom was cool, so she kept her jacket on as she settled into her usual seat. She had listened to every scrap of evidence introduced throughout the trial, committing most of the details to memory. She had studied the young defendant, her son Sean’s best friend, as he listened to the details about the speed at which he was navigating the car down Main Street when he lost control of it, the velocity with which it struck the light pole, how the boys driving the car against which the defendant and her son were racing sped off without stopping after the crash, and the details concerning her son’s fatal injuries. The District Attorney had tried to convince her to leave the courtroom when he showed photos of the vehicle to the jury, including the poster-size color shots of the jaws of life tearing off the roof of the vehicle in order to extricate her boy so that the medical personnel could try to save him.

But she remained in her seat, diverting her eyes from the photos. She considered the defendant’s parents while the jury stared at the photos in disbelief, several of whom were visibly shaken and wiped away tears. She watched the defendant’s mother sob quietly, her face buried in her hands. She watched his father try to comfort his wife, choking back his own tears, and wondered whether they were crying primarily for the loss of Sean’s life or the loss of their own son’s once-bright future.

She had not spoken to them since Sean’s funeral. She wanted to, but their son’s attorney would not permit them to speak to her. She telephoned their home a couple of times, but they did not answer. A few days later, a letter arrived from the boy’s lawyer in which condolences were expressed, but she was firmly instructed not to call again because they would not converse with her until after the conclusion of the trial — if then.

Each day of the trial, as on this morning, she walked the few short blocks from her modest home to the courthouse and sat in the same seat, rarely speaking to anyone except the deputies who helped her navigate the security checkpoint and escorted her down the hallway. During breaks in the proceeding, they stood near her as if to signal to the reporters and local townspeople who dropped in from time to time to see how the trial was progressing that she was not feeling up to speaking with anyone. A couple of the dputies pressed her to let them give her a lift home at the end of the day, but she declined appreciatively, preferring to walk back home, taking in the cool afternoon air as the sun slipped behind the gently rolling hills just beyond the city limits earlier and earlier with each passing day.

Sean and the defendant had been friends all their lives. They grew up together, participating in Boy Scouts, sports, and church activities before graduating from high school. Her son, a dedicated student determined to become an architect, won a scholarship to the state university, while his friend continued living at home with his parents and attended the local community college before transferring to the university. The two became roommates in their junior year and came home together for holidays and school breaks. It was during the break between semesters last winter that the two had decided to go out with some of their other friends for pizza and a movie. They were scheduled to begin the spring semester of their senior year in just a couple of weeks. Sean had already been accepted to the most prestigious graduate program in the state and offered a summer job with a large architectural firm.

The defendant had always had a wild streak, but had never been in any serious trouble. His parents told her many times over the years that they were grateful for the boys’ friendship because her son was a stable, responsible influence in their son’s life.

None of them had any inklin that the boys had ever engaged in street-racing. So nothing prepared them to learn that the defendant had been driving his car 110 miles per hour down Main Street that night, as conclusively established by the vehicle’s data recorder.

That night, the phone startled her when it rang at just after midnight. She had dozed off while watching television and was momentarily disoriented. But when the deep voice on the other end of the phone asked if she was the mother of Sean Carlisle, she knew something was terribly wrong. The gentleman advised that two officers should just be pulling up in front of her house to take her to the hospital because her son had been involved in a motor vehicle accident. He claimed not to know any details about Sean’s condition. Just then, the doorbell rang and the remaining events of that night unfolded as though in slow motion.

The officers escorted her into the emergency room where her priest was already waiting for her, along with the police chaplain and her long-time friend. Immediately, she was taken into the small examining room where Sean’s body had been prepared for her viewing. When the door opened and there was no sound of a respirator or other medical equipment working to sustain her son’s life, she instinctively knew that her only child had been taken from her. It was at the moment when she caught the first glimpse of her dead son that she involuntarily screamed in agony. She learned later that he died instantly at the accident scene as a result of blunt trauma.

The litigants and their attorneys exited the courtroom separately, the woman still wiping her eyes, and Judge Humphreys turned his attention to two different lawyers who were debating the details of a contract for the sale of computer equipment as the court clerk scribbled notes furiously. Townspeople were beginning to filter into the courtroom and the deputies warned them to remain silent so as not to disrupt the proceedings. Before long, the judge entertained argument from a fifth pair of attorneys about the disposition of a decedent’s assets, including several Arabian horses. A little while later, as the judge finished arraigning several prisoners wearing yellow jumpsuits and exited the courtroom, she observed the defendant’s parents enter the courtroom, accompanied by a dozen or so friends and relatives. Both wore sunglasses and looked down at the floor as they quickly took their seats immediately behind the railing separating the gallery from the table where their son would be seated in a few moments. None of them looked at or acknowledged her.

Moments later, the door to the right of the judge’s bench opened and Sean’s best friend was escorted into the courtroom by his attorney and a couple of deputies. Wearing a black shirt, grey tie, and black suit, he nodded slightly to his supporters as he took his seat next to his lawyer. Six weeks earlier, he had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, as well as driving recklessly, but was allowed to remain free on bail pending this sentencing hearing. In the intervening weeks, a recommendation had been prepared and submitted to the judge for his consideration.

“All rise,” the bailiff commanded as Judge Humphries returned to the bench. Following the usual formalities, he turned to the defendant, who stood alongside his attorney to hear his fate.

“Young man, this is an enormous tragedy because the lives of two young men have been ruined — Sean Carlisle’s and your own — solely as a result of your reckless behavior,” Judge Humphreys began. He then discussed the details of the recommendation that had been submitted to him and asked the defendant if he wanted to make a statement prior to learning his sentence. On behalf of his client, the defendant’s attorney declared he would forego the opportunity to address the court.

“Very well,” the judge replied before announcing that Sean’s best friend would spend the next 16 years in state prison, followed by four years of parole following his release, for a total of 20 years.

Although the defendant neither flinched nor showed any emotion in response to the judge’s pronouncement, which was followed by a directive to the deputies to take him into custody immediately, she heard a strange, but eerily familiar sound. As the deputies pulled the young man’s hands behind his back and placed handcuffs upon them, her attention was drawn to his mother. The scene seemed to unfold before her in slow motion. His mother was being restrained by her husband on one side and, on her other side, a man she recognized as the defendant’s uncle. His mother was trying to rise from her seat, extending her arms toward and calling for her son. As she did so, the sound she emitted was more of a plaintive howl than a scream. Visceral and somewhat primitive, the sound filled the courtroom and could be heard echoing in the hallway of the courthouse by the small crowd gathered there.

Inspired by A Thousand Words: Prompt Number Eleven
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