Enjoy the first two chapters from The Burden here!
Monday, March 14, 2016
Jeremy Heston could feel it radiating from the other side of the polished oak door.
His throat swelled like a water balloon as nerves piled up in his empty stomach. After months of preparation, the time had arrived for Jeremy to face the world and put his experiment to the ultimate test. Three days after his rampage at the Open Hands office he looked down at his dark red prison uniform knowing a grueling road awaited. His hands were cuffed in front of his crotch and shackled to his matching ankle cuffs below, clanging around with each depressing step he took.
The door was a side entrance into the courtroom that would be his temporary home for the near future. Two officers stood on each side of him, ready to escort the mass murderer into the courtroom as soon as the judge ordered.
Over the weekend it occurred to him that he had never planned how to act in the courtroom, but used his newfound down time to devise a plan of attack. Sleep was impossible; he could feel the puffiness under his eyes and assumed heavy bags hung below his eyelids.
Stay quiet. Show no emotions. Don’t look anyone in the eye. Poker face.
The entire experiment could fail if he made one misstep in the courtroom. If he wanted an acquittal based on the insanity plea, insanity was what he’d need to project every step of the way. Give the people what they want.
Being his first time out of his jail cell, his stomach growled in starvation. He hadn’t eaten any of the food, only picking at some of the chips and crackers provided on the side. His mind had grown too consumed with what would come next that he forgot to eat.
The door in front of him swooshed open. “We’re ready,” a voice whispered from behind and the two officers put a hand on Jeremy’s shoulders and guided him forward into the courtroom.
Cameras shuttered in rapid fire, snapping every breath Jeremy took as he walked toward his defense team. The table was only ten steps away but felt like a half marathon as he could hear the spectators murmuring beneath the sounds of the cameras. A woman broke out in sobs, heaving for air between her cries.
“Order in the court!” Judge Carlos Zamora banged his gavel, the room falling near silent. Judge Zamora sat at his elevated bench, his pudgy, light brown skin well hidden by his draped, black robe. The bright lights of the courtroom gleamed off his bald head as he stared at Jeremy from behind thick-framed glasses with empowering eyes that froze the mass murderer in place.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I understand the nature of this trial, but please remember this is still a court of law and rules will be enforced in this courtroom.” The judge’s voice boomed throughout the room, demanding an instant respect. He looked down and sifted through documents as the room hung in dead silence and anticipation.
Jeremy sat next to the lucky public defender assigned to him, Jenna Lane. She had stopped by late Saturday afternoon to introduce herself to Jeremy and informed him that his parents were looking into an attorney who specialized in mental health, but for the meantime she would get him through the preliminary hearing. Jeremy hadn’t spoken one word to her, acting dazed and staring into space as she spoke.
Seeing Jenna for the second time, Jeremy wondered if the look of fear on her pale face was permanent or a mere reflex of his own presence next to her. She had looked terrified from the first time she visited him in jail and tried to speak with him. He remained silent and watched her scratch her black hair in frustration every time he ignored her.
“Mr. Heston,” Judge Zamora said. “You are accused of committing thirteen murders, along with twenty-two counts of attempted murder. Due to the nature of the charges there will be no bail posted and you shall remain detained through the duration of your trial. Today is Monday the 14th of March, we will reconvene in one week for the formal charges against you. During that time you may have no visitors other than Ms. Lane, her staff, or any other counsel that she may consult with. Do you understand your rights?”
Jeremy stared in the judge’s direction but avoided eye contact as he rocked back and forth in his seat.
“Mr. Heston, do you understand your rights?” Judge Zamora asked.
“We understand, your Honor,” Jenna said, standing slender and tall from her seat.
“Very well. Next week we’ll also lay ground rules for media coverage in the courtroom moving forward. Court is adjourned.” Judge Zamora banged his gavel, stood, and exited through his private door.
Chatter instantly erupted along with the resuming shutter of cameras. Jeremy looked down to his twiddling thumbs and felt Jenna staring at him.
Poor Jenna drew the short stick on this one, he thought. Jeremy presumed every single person tied to his case would always hold the case close in their memories. History in the making, he thought, and fought off a grin.
The bond hearing had lasted only seven minutes, but Jeremy felt like he had been in court for eight hours. The two officers returned to escort him back to his lovely jail cell where cold, gray walls and his single toilet waited for him. As he dragged his chains on the way out of the courtroom, he could feel hundreds of eyes burning into the back of his head, wanting so desperately for him to turn around. He kept his head down and wondered if his parents had been in the audience.
Monday, March 14, 2016
Robert Heston sat at his kitchen table and reread the typed letter for the sixth time. He tugged on his necktie, still snug on his collar. He hated wearing a tie, but having sat in the front row in court, all eyes on him and his son, he’d had no choice. He only hoped his stubby beard and dark rings appeared natural on his exhausted face.
Where had they gone so horribly wrong as parents?
His wife, Arlene, had been in bed since Friday night when the news started spreading about Jeremy’s killing spree, refusing to get out for anything aside from using the bathroom; she nibbled on snacks here and there but mostly hadn’t been able to eat.
The phone hadn’t stopped ringing the entire first day, so they left the landline off the hook and turned off their cell phones. The silence was better than the incessant ringing, but it allowed Robert’s mind to wander. The TV was worse, his son’s psychotic mugshot splattered across every news station.
The bundles of cash looked like something out of a movie. The bills were crisp, the white and mustard strap that held them together immaculate. Benjamin Franklin’s expression looked extra stoic. Robert had never seen $200,000 in person before.
The typed note included in the large manila envelope was short and to the point:
Dear Heston family,
I’m sure this has all been very hard to digest, but don’t give up. There is still hope to spare your son’s life.
He’ll never have a chance with a public defender, so I’ve included $200,000 as a gift for you to use toward a defense team. Your best bet is to contact Linda Kennedy from the Dobbs, Kennedy, and Irvine law firm. She’s a well-established criminal defense attorney and has been known to perform miracles.
Solid sleep had been hard to come by, but Robert was certain this was no dream. He thumbed through the bills, the slight breeze they made cooling his flushed face.
“Arlene, we really need to talk!” he shouted hopelessly down the hallway toward their bedroom. They had a discussion the night before regarding his wife’s refusal to go to Jeremy’s first court appearance; she lacked the energy and courage to face the world. Ever since they’d received word that her only child had slain over a dozen of his coworkers, shock and depression had taken hold of her emotions and left her useless.
At first, as the calls and texts started to come in, she was convinced she was the butt of a big prank. Her sweet Jer-Bear wouldn’t harm a fly, and he had never mentioned buying a gun, so the messages all sounded like bullshit as far as she was concerned.
When she turned on the TV half an hour later and found every station covering the shooting at Jeremy’s office, she still couldn’t believe her son was the shooter, and her heart sank in fear that he might be injured. They must have the story confused, she thought of her friends’ messages. Jeremy must have been hurt in the attack if everyone had reached out to her, so she started to call his cell phone, pacing around the living room. Three tries with no answer and sweat started to puddle under her arms.
Then the TV showed her son’s face, an innocent, smiling face she had seen on his Facebook page at one point in time that always showed his close resemblance to Robert.
“The alleged shooter is Jeremy Heston,” the reporter announced. “Jeremy, a former psychology student at Denver State University, is employed by Open Hands and is believed to have opened fire on his coworkers shortly before the lunch hour. He is currently in police custody and we will provide updates as soon as we receive them.”
The announcer’s voice faded into the background as Arlene felt the room spin around her. This isn’t happening. Impossible, she thought.
As the facts were slowly released over the rest of the evening, Arlene felt her soul starting to numb. She had the urge to cry, but was frozen. All she wanted was to rewind the last day and go back to life the way it was the day before. Jeremy was over for dinner, they were all laughing and sharing stories, and life was normal.
But if everything the news said was true, normal was a long-gone concept, and would be for the rest of her life. How could she ever feel normal knowing her son had killed all those innocent people? She felt responsible, though she’d had no idea of Jeremy’s violent urges.
Arlene had gone to bed to lie down, unable to keep up with her own racing mind, and ended up staying there for the next three days. She played through as many memories of Jeremy’s childhood as she could remember, searching for anything that might suggest his recent actions. She felt weak, unable even to try to move around the house.
When she heard Robert shout for her from the down the hall, she heard a difference in his tone. It almost sounded like it had hope in it, though she wasn’t sure what the hell he could be hopeful about. Robert had spoken to her multiple times since the news broke, but she’d found it difficult to focus on his words. Life had become a dream. She thought she could see herself from above at times.
Maybe it was time to get out of bed. Even getting dressed and brushing her teeth would be a big accomplishment. Her joints cracked and popped in protest as she swung her bony legs over the edge of the bed, feet dangling as they searched for the ground. When she stood, the room spun. She leaned against the wall to catch her balance.
The blinds and curtains were closed, leaving a soft glow as the only light. The stench of body odor filled the room, from her sweat-stained bedsheets. She had to brush back her brown hair that clung to the sides of her face.
Look at yourself, Arlene. This isn’t you, she told herself. Just like killing people isn’t Jeremy, she added. She slid her feet into a pair of slippers and dragged them out of the room and down the hall. The light in the living room sent a piercing pain through her retinas, making the back of her head throb in anger. She squinted while her eyes adjusted, and found Robert sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of money.
“Rob?” she asked, blinking rapidly to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. “What the hell is that?”
Her husband looked up at her. The last few days had taken a toll on his face, and heavy bags drooped below his eyes.
“Arlene, are you okay? I didn’t think you’d actually get out of bed.”
“I’m fine. What the hell is that?”
Robert looked from his wife to the pile of money. “It’s $200,000.”
“Where did it come from? What’s going on?” Her voice had a slight accusatory tone.
“It was in this envelope in our mailbox,” he said, patting the envelope next to the money. “With a note saying we should use the money to hire a defense attorney for Jeremy. The note is typed, no return address, no name.”
“Is it real?”
“It’s very real. I’ve counted it, and flipped to random bills and held them to the light. They all have the watermarks.” Robert shook his head as he spoke, apparently still unable to believe it himself.
“Who would do this?” Arlene asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve been trying to think of anyone in our life that would even have this kind of money.” Robert started to stack the bills in neat towers next to each other. “I can’t think of anyone, can you?”
Arlene shook her head slowly. “So what are we gonna do with it?” she asked. “Should we tell someone?”
“Tell who? There’s nothing to tell. We received a gift, that’s all. I’m going to take this to the bank and deposit it before something happens to it, then I’m gonna call the lawyer in the note.”
“Maybe she’ll know something about it?”
“Doubt it. This is very much anonymous. Something’s going on, but I’m not gonna sit back and watch Jeremy get sentenced to death.”
Tears streamed from Arlene’s eyes. She hadn’t even let herself think ahead to the trial, where a group of strangers would decide their son’s fate. Robert stood and embraced his wife, and felt her body soften as she gave in and started sobbing.
“It’s going to be okay, honey,” he said in a strong voice. “Apparently someone is on our side.”