I clinch my jaw involuntarily as I listen to the call go to voicemail…again. Julie Shane was a case that Phoenix House had been building up to for close to a year, and my lawyer was running late…again. The only difference is this time it’s by normal standards rather than my own borderline obsessive compulsive tendencies. The muscles in my jaw twitch as I hear the now irritating sound of his courteous voicemail message telling me to leave a brief message after the beep.
“Avery, court starts in five minutes! We haven’t discussed any of the last minute details, and I’m wearing a twinset! Where the hell are you?!” I hissed in a hushed tone before looking back at the pale and shaking woman standing up against a wall.
Her fear fuels the fire in my belly, the kind that constantly spurs me on. So that maybe one day I can walk into a courthouse, and not remember what lead me here in the first place.
I had landed myself on my grand-parent’s doorstep when I was pregnant. I was sixteen and scared to death, but I knew I had no place else to go. My step-father decided that he didn’t want another mouth to feed so he threw me out, when he found there would have been two pregnant women in the house, not one.
I shook that off pretty quickly though. Like most teenagers, I thought the people I called friends were the ones that cared about me. I thought they were the ones that would stand by me forever. Then I went and got myself knocked up, and everything changed. I looked all around me, and began to wonder if I had been high during my entire friendship with half of these people. It didn’t take me long to answer my own question, yes I had been high, drunk, or a combination of the two.
My first night, I slept on Tarrant Vick’s couch. The place reeked of a heinous blend of weed and the smell of his four unwashed dogs (no offense to the dogs). The residue from the cocaine binge, he and some of his friends had been on the night before I showed up hadn’t been washed away. Then again, it didn’t look like much of the place had been cleaned up in, forever anyways. Otherwise, Tarrant was a sweet guy; he was also twenty-two.
I stayed at a few more places before I finally decided that the guys I had been partying with had no business looking at a sixteen-year-old girl. The alcohol and drugs had no place near my kid. I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was really going to sit back and affirm that the behavior my mother allowed me to be exposed to was acceptable? Over. My. Dead. Body.
Abortion or adoption was out, I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wandering about where my baby was or what might have been Just when I was at the end of my rope I remembered something my mother had told me, long before my real father died and she had fallen apart. She told me about my grand-parents, namely my grandmother. Mom came from a wealthy family, and when they didn’t except my lowly Gunnery Sergeant and more importantly Albanian and not Greek father the two ran away together and had me.
They lived the American dream at Fort Bragg, until a car bomb took my father from her outside a small Afghan village. The woman who I had once known as my mother died that day, her body still roamed this Earth but she was gone. After moving us back to Virginia, she found a job bartending at a sleazy strip club in Caroline County to support us. Shortly after, she started trying to fill the void my father had left behind. Her method of choice came in the form of working through a briar patch of alpha losers until she met and married Mitch. Bastard. Not only did he drink, he knocked my mother around, and on occasion me. My mom loved me, and maybe it was fear, a need for self-preservation, or the fact that she couldn’t deal with a reminder of my father that she didn’t protect me.
It wasn’t long until I started looking for a way to fill the void too, and it wasn’t long until I found it. The Junkyard Bar was run by Louis Warren, one of the toughest Sons of Bitches I had ever met. He was a big gruff man that drank Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle and always kept a mason-jar of moonshine behind the bar. So long as you had cash, he didn’t care if you had ID. He was also Vin Warren’s father.
Big and broad, like his father, and just as tough. Vin was also funny, handsome, and the grand daddy of all flirts. He also ran a very successful and less than legitimate business (that Louis tried to pretend he didn’t know about). That was a side to him everyone else saw, he saved the best of him for me. He was the first man I trusted with all my heart, when he said “I love you” for the very first time I believed him. I fell in love with Vincent Warren, with everything I had.
He was my first love and my first lover. He was my world until the night he walked away, it was over and he made sure I knew it. He didn’t even let me past the threshold. Vin had been so angry, like a rabid dog when he screamed that I was a needy little girl, a toy he liked to play with. I was to leave and never look back, it was the same night I was going to tell him I was pregnant.
Two weeks later Mitch tossed me out on my ass and I left with a few pictures, my father’s dog tags, twenty dollars, and the clothes on my back. My last words to my mother were “What would Dad think if he were here to see this?” It was my last middle finger to her, she had chosen Mitch over me. Looking back, I think she and I both knew my father would have been disgusted.
Not long after, I started my own journey. I borrowed two hundred dollars from Donovan Cade and bought a bus ticket to Philadelphia. It was the biggest risk I had ever taken in my life. I put myself up in a cheap motel and took the bus to the address on one of my father’s old letters. My hands shook as I knocked on the door, and for the first time since I found out I was pregnant I was terrified.
I had taken beatings, I had slept with a knife so some drunken old man wouldn’t sneak into my room, and I’d sat outside a door and listened to my mother scream. Yet, facing Ambrose and Toula Eliasco terrified me. However, nothing prepared me for what would happen next as the older woman with a salt and pepper bob and a severe purple linen dress answered the door of the mammoth house and looked down at me. After a minute or two she did the one thing I hadn’t been expecting, with eyes full of tears, she hugged me.
When I think back to that day, I remember thinking “Holy shit. Ok, Alayla, back away slowly”. She told me she knew who I was, and she took me inside. As we sat on her terrace, drank coffee, and ate omelets (the first real food I’d had in days), she told me to call her Yia Yia not Mrs. Eliasco. My grandfather, Ambrose, had died several years prior, but Toula (my Yia Yia) was still kicking.
She explained that my mother had been pregnant when she ran off with my father, and she didn’t realize until she was gone that family was more important than the opinion of polite society. If she could have done it all over, she would have accepted him. My father was a good man, strong and kind. However, she made social status more important than her only daughter and it cost her dearly. Apparently, I was the spitting image of her. When she asked me about my life, I told her about what had become of my mother. Yia Yia didn’t show it, but I could tell it broke her heart. Her eyes closed, her jaw clenched, and she murmured (what I would later find out meant “Oh, my baby”) in Greek.
Then the hard part came, I told her about me and my partying. I told her about the baby, and about Vin. I knew this was the part where she was going to kick me out of the house, but before I could pick up my scuffed up backpack she stopped me.
“You don’t truly intend to leave now do you?” she asked me gently with an almost incredulous undertone. I didn’t want to be rude, so I settled for freezing with my butt half way out of the chair like an idiot. I blinked a few times before she continued. “Perhaps it is time we made up for lost time, Alayla. You, me, and the baby I think we both could use a fresh start.”
All I could do at that moment was sit and nod my head. It was insane, how did this happen? I’d never had a reason to be a big fan of God, but I looked up at the sky and silently thanked him for this miracle. It was the first time I considered the possibility that perhaps some things happen for a reason. I felt like someone was looking out for me at that moment.
Yia Yia and I lived happily after that, just her and I. She told me how much I reminded her of my mother, and she was delighted by the pictures I showed her. She taught me to cook, and I used the skills some of the guys I used to hang out with taught me. I changed her oil in record time until she caught me squatted under the hood coated in grease), and yelled at me in abject mortification as only a sixty-five year old Greek woman could pull off. Yes, life was going quite well. We were healthy, safe, and happy but not a day went by that I didn’t think about Vin.
I spoke to Donovan a few times after I settled in, but he made a point of never bringing up Cash, and I never asked. I moved on, and I let the childish dream of Vin Warren go. My baby boy was born healthy, and much to mine and my doctor’s surprise, his twin sister followed him. I named them Dritan Ambrose Lamaj, for the man who gave me life, and Toula Eve Lamaj for the woman saved it. A changed woman, I studied hard for my GED, and even learned Greek. I left my past behind me, but like cancer the past has a way of crawling back.
People often talk about that one moment, that one memory that will stay with you forever. You could be on your deathbed and still be able to describe what the room smelled like. For me, it was a rainy April day…
My grandmother and I had been discussing nursery plans, when the sound of her entirely too long doorbell rang throughout the house. We knew that it was a stranger because everyone else that knew us knocked. She used to joke that she would have changed the thing years ago, but she had neither the time nor inclination to do so. As I got up to answer it, I felt a contraction hit me. I’d been having a few false alarms over the last few weeks, but I was due any day now. As I opened the door, I was greeted by two police officers. Both of them looked somewhere between stern and grim and it made my feet begin to tingle as the old instinct to run like hell hit me, but I hadn’t done anything (that the statute of limitations hadn’t passed on anyways).
“Are you Alayla Lamaj?” The older of the two asked as he looked at my stomach. “Shit.” I couldn’t help but think, but my worries were soon dashed as I felt Dritan move within me.
“Yes, I’m Alayla.” I responded as I fought back “who wants to know?”
“May we come in?” The younger of the two added, looking quite uncomfortable as he removed his hat with the older man following suit.
“Yea, uh, sure” I muttered with a shrug as I stepped out of the way “right this way”. If they were going to arrest me, they would have been reading me my rights by now.
I could tell Yia Yia was thinking the same thing I was as she gave me a questioning look. My only answer came in the form of an “it wasn’t me” look as I threw my hands up before turning my attention to the two police officers.
“Uh, Officers” I began awkwardly “This is my Yi-Grandmother, Toula Eliasco”
“Gentlemen, please sit down” Yia-yia murmured softly as she gestured toward two overstuffed armchairs as she switched into hostess mode as only my Yia Yia could “May I offer you something to drink?”
“No ma’am, Mrs. Eliasco.” The younger of the two answered as he took his seat, shifting awkwardly as we followed suit sitting across from both men.
“Mrs. Eliasco, Miss Lamaj, we’re here in reference to Mila Lamaj-Morand” The older and more uncomfortable of the two stated gently as he tapped his index and forefinger on the brim of the wide-brimmed he was holding.
My mother, fuck, it didn’t take me long to realize what they were about to tell me. I’d seen it before. Another contraction hit me “Oh God, Dritan, give Mama just a little bit more time!” I thought as I waited for the inevitable.
“It pains me to tell you this,” The older man murmured, but I didn’t hear much else.
It was then that a strange sense of numb came over me. It was as if I had been snatched out of my own body, and forced to watch the two policemen tell Yia Yia and I what I already knew. My mother finally got some sense and ran with my baby brother in tow. She had managed to keep them safe for a while, but Mitch wasn’t as much of a dumbass as I thought he was. No, he was just crazy. He shot my mother, smothered my brother, and finally turned the gun on himself. My baby brother was just a few months older than my son. The same son who brought me back to reality as another, much sharper contraction ripped through me causing me to cry out. Oh God, this was NOT in the books!
The two policemen rose to their feet to help me, but Yia-Yia and I knew it was time. We looked into each others eyes, and knew that we would have to save our grief for another time. We received a police escort to Lakenau Medical Center, and as the storm that had been hanging in the air all day broke Dritan Lamaj entered the world at 7:00 pm.
As the sun rose, I nursed my baby boy and looked out the window. I thought of my mother and wondered what it would have been like if she were here, not the woman I left behind, but the woman my father married. I thought of my six month-old half-brother, and wondered what it would have been like to watch them grow together. It sounded cold and callous, but up until this point I never considered him. I always felt like if my mother had chosen to stay than the dumb bitch deserved what she got.
I was so angry with her for choosing Mitch over me, but as I looked down at my son and than over at my sleeping Yia-Yia I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she was looking for a second chance too. Perhaps in those last moments she was the woman my father fell in love with again, my mom. I found the pain that I had been reeling in for the last ten hours settle in, but for some reason the thought of a fresh start stayed with me even as I grieved for my mother and brother. I couldn’t bring my mother back, but I could make it possible for someone else to have a second chance. Maybe then losing them wouldn’t be in vain…
The sound of my phone pulled me out of my reverie, Avery! Thank God!
“Avery, you better be bleeding! Court starts in five minutes!” I Ground out harshly as I watched people begin to file in.
“First off,” My old friend began before clearing his throat “Lose the attitude, If you would have checked your inbox you would know that Ava went into labor last night and I called in a colleague of mine for help.”
Oh. My. God. If it were physically possible, I would kick my own ass. Avery’s wife Ava was having twins and had been having a difficult pregnancy. In fact, we had all been on pins and needles waiting for the big day.
“Oh no, Avery-” I stammered, but Avery beat me to it.
“Save it, ok? This is a big one, and this job means a lot to me too. The guy I called has been working along side me during this entire case, and frankly, the man’s a beast. He takes these cases seriously, vicious to the core.” Avery said with an air of reverence in his voice that filled me with hope.
Avery Duncan was feared among lawyers, like a skinny white Johnny Cochran. However, this mystery colleague wasn’t any use to me if he wasn’t here. Although I wasn’t going to tell Avery that on the basis that I could tell I knew I was already trying his patience. His father was a multi-millionaire with a taste for tequila and a bad temper. Needless to say, he was as passionate about what we did as I was. I knew better than to not trust his judgment.
“Ok, Avery…” I breathed out as I turned around to see a large man in a grey suit. Talking to Julie I couldn’t see his face, but he was tall and broad. I began to walk over to them, but I quickly caught Julie’s eye and she nodded letting me know it was ok before turning my attention back to Avery.
“He called me twenty minutes ago, Al, he’s there. He’s a big guy; he knows what Julie looks like. I gave her the heads up, and again check your inbox.”
“Yea, I think I see him” I trailed off, tucking a stray lock of hair behind my ear as I watched the large man escort Julie inside the courtroom. I let out a deep breath, realizing that Avery had indeed covered his all of his bases, and I had a bit of a caper on my hands. I already had a pint-sized prime suspect.
“Good, he won’t let you down Alayla.” Avery stated with confidence.
“I believe you, Avery. Now go to your wife!” I ordered playfully before we said our good-byes. For once, Avery had absolutely perfect timing.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I entered the court room and looked over to my left while I took my seat behind where Julie and “Mr. Vicious to the Core” sat. Her soon-to-be ex-husband sat comfortably next to his legal team each man wearing a suit that had couldn’t have cost even a penny less than four grand.
When the average person thinks of a wife-beater, the image that typically comes to mind is some trailer park hick with a whopping total of six teeth, and intellectual signs that he was clearly the product of incest. No one wants to believe that someone like the man Julie married would really beat his wife within an inch of her life, even if they had to have known deep down it was happening. Well, not until said wife ends up dead. Greg Shane was a golden boy in his community: philanthropist, businessman, and a major league prick. However, before I could continue my mental slap fest the bailiff called the court to order.
Watching his lawyers work filled me with anticipation praying that this guy was as good as Avery claimed he was. If anything came close to the joy I felt watching the women I worked with get a fresh start, it was watching these fuckers go down. It was all about power to guys like Greg, he got off on it. He tried to look somber and reserved, but I didn’t need to see his face to know that glint in his eyes was there. On the inside he’s grinning because he thinks he’s won before the hearing even starts.
Greg’s legal team’s defense was predictable, disgustingly so. He played to the dutiful and disgruntled husband, while he told the court about his wife’s fragile psyche. She suffered severe anxiety and depression coupled with an alcohol and drug dependency. The bruises on her body that triggered the initial complaint she filed against him were the result of Greg trying to restrain his wife when he found her stash of drugs.
With each word, I became angrier and more filled with anticipation as I turned my attention to Julie. He didn’t know we’d had her pissing in a cup since one of my contacts at Pennsylvania Hospital offered to get her out after the last time he beat her. I was no lawyer, but even I could smell the blood in the water. This was going to be good, but I knew Julie didn’t feel as confident as I did.
Greg Shane beat the kind of fear into her that kills all hope, and even now Julie still felt it. I was painful to watch her stare down at her laced fingers as she sat beside “Mr. Vicious, Esq”. She was visibly shaking, and it only fueled my rage. My first instinct was to comfort her, but I knew it wasn’t the time or the place. To show emotional weakness would only prove Greg’s point. Then again, if I had lived in fear of my ribs being broken because I didn’t cook a steak long enough I’d be depressed too. However, before my fingers could begin to twitch Mr. Vicious, esq. wrapped his large hand around Julie’s smaller ones as his head slid slightly closer to hers. After a moment I watched as Julie’s lips turned up slightly, and she allowed herself the smallest of nods before Mr. Vicious rose from his seat holding a thick black file folder. In Greg’s case that was a weapon more dangerous than even the hardest kick to the junk I could have doled out.
“Mr. Shane, your wife filed her complaint citing domestic abuse against you in October before filing for divorce in December correct?” Vicious asked coolly as he stood in front of Greg.
“Yes,” Greg answered with a solemn nod as he looked up at Vicious.
“I bet that was quite a Christmas present wasn’t it, Mr. Shane?” Vicious asked in a biting tone I would have recognized even if I was comatose. However, just as realization began setting in denial hit me even harder. It was laughable, but before I could unleash so much as a chuckle the judge turned to tide.
“Mr. Warren, I’ll remind you to remain professional. Present your case, ask your questions, and be on with it.” The judge ordered sternly. Coincidence, it has to be!
“My apologies, Your Honor, however I did want to confirm my times. You see, Mr. Shane claims that the initial conflict came about after Mr. Shane allegedly found Mrs. Shane’s pills and tried to wrestle them away from her which caused the wounds that resulted from Mr. Shane trying to restrain her. That is what happened, Mr. Shane, correct?” Mr. Vicious, esq. answered as he turned around to face the rest of the courtroom.
It was then that my jaw went slack and my mouth went dry. Standing in front of the witness stand stood Vin Warren in a three-piece suit and perfectly cropped hair. He looked older and larger, but his eyes were just as sapphire blue as they were eight years ago. They were the same eyes I looked into every night as I tucked my kids into bed.
All thoughts of Julie and Greg flew from my head as the air left my lungs. I flew up from my seat, remembering myself long enough to make sure my heels didn’t tap too loudly as I made my way out of the courtroom. As soon as the thick mahogany doors shut behind me I escaped to the ladies’ room and hid in the nearest stall, and throwing myself on top of the toilet. I had to keep breathing, it had always worked before. I fingered the hem of my tweed pencil skirt and stared at my burgundy pumps, trying to process the nuclear bomb that life had just dropped on me.
For what felt like hours, I sat in that sterile black stall. In the span of only a few heartbeats I was back in Caroline County sitting on a rickety dock eating greasy tacos and drinking cheap beer, I was laying on a patchwork quilt in the bed of his pick-up truck listening to Vin’s heartbeat in sync with mine, and I was shaking on his front porch when he told me it had all been a lie.
I had to get a hold of myself and I had to prioritize; I promised Julie almost a year ago that I would be there for her, the same promise I made Dritan. My word was one of the few things I was born owning outright, and I intended to keep it, and after a few more deep breaths I stood up, adjusted my now loose French twist, straightened my burgundy twinset and walked back to the doors of the courtroom. Vin was still speaking.
“Along with the monthly drug tests that Mrs. Shane has voluntarily submitted to through a court approved laboratory, I would like to submit a psychological evaluation from a court-approved Psychologist. You’ll notice the test results state that aside from the symptoms of abuse, Mrs. Shane is psychologically sound. Her drug tests are clean, and there are no signs of clinical anxiety, depression, or other mental illness.” Cash stated as the judge looked at the documents in the file folder.
I stood in the back of the room, and did my best to focus on Greg and his legal team in order to keep my focus. They didn’t look so confident now; we had the element of surprise on our side. Greg had been outsmarted and he didn’t like it. He was expecting Julie to still be as weak and alone as she had been when she was under his thumb, but she wasn’t. Normally his poorly maintained poker face and shaking fists would fill me with smug satisfaction, but I was too busy trying to keep my focus off of Vin. I was doing a bang-up job of it until the judge’s words broke through my focus.
“In light of this new evidence, I have no choice but to rule in favor of Mrs. Shane. I award her all requested assets.” The judge stated with finality.
I didn’t bother to stick around for the post-court festivities, promise kept, I could go (or in this case run like hell.) Technically, I made it until the end of the trial which meant that technically I wasn’t a coward. I had crossed through the threshold of the courthouse and let out a deep sigh. For all intents and purposes, I was home free. Julie won her case, and I could go home to a cool bottle of Pinot Grigio and forget the last two hours ever happened. Just as I was fishing my keys out of my purse and contemplating picking up a movie for the kids to go with Friday Night Pizza, I felt a shadow settle over me. Before I could turn and apologize, I was met by a pair of sapphire blue eyes.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Cash trailed off, swallowing hard as his lips turned up into a grin that I still dreamed about “Hello, Gorgeous, I thought that was you.”