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“Please Justice. Please, I was a confused young man. I do regret those days.”
Justice ran his dark, spotted hand across his wrinkled cheek. The long, black robe rested between a charred forefinger and the burned stub that had served as a thumb many years ago. Of course, Justice couldn’t feel it. No, the feeling in that hand had wandered off when he was fifteen, after the accident; after the attack. And now, at last, he was face-to-face with his attacker.
Justice Washington Harper grew up the son of a prostitute. Not surprisingly, Justice Washington Harper was by all means an accident. He never knew his father. And quite frankly, the boy wished he never would’ve known the woman society passed off as his mother either. That drunk, careless, pathetic tramp who had the nerve to batter him around each night. But, no one would ever uncover the horrid home-life of that helpless black boy. No one would ever credit those pulped bruises to his street-corner mother. To those around him, the countless cuts and blemishes that popped up daily were all too normal, because they helped put them there; the boys did. The hardened white kids would pry Justice from his “outside” world, hostilely dragging him into their ring of violence. He was their punching bag.
It was only fair right? After all, he was the Negro of Whitfield Preparatory Academy for Young Men. (It also didn’t help that he was the smartest) And, to slide on by with free tuition, compliments of the Academy itself, just so the administration could prove they accepted boys of all backgrounds? “Damn Negros”, that’s what all the hardened “young men” said. “Where there’s one, there’s a whole pack. And we ain’t gonna’ tolerate your kind invading.”
Justice would never forget the way those words were spat out of Marshall Stover’s sixteen year-old mouth. He would never forget that inhumane look in Marshall’s eyes; partially hidden by his slick, over-greased hair. Justice would never forget the emptiness.
“I’ve got a life out there Justice…Your Honor. I’ve got a world to live for man. Please Your Honor. Please.”
Justice’s heart was pounding. His head was throbbing; the beads of sweat only seemed to intensify the excruciating pain. Finally, it was his turn to dish out the pain. The man he was eyeing had no limit. How dare him, that selfish, naïve coward with his over-greased hair!
But, he wasn’t going to let Marshall Stover strip him of his last shard of happiness this time, not on his home turf. In fact, he was going to do all in his control to send Stover’s life up in smoke just as the man had done to him so many years before. It was time for payback. It was time for justice.
Fire was the worst.
He could deal with the punching. He could deal with the kicking. He could even tolerate the piercing and the bleeding. But the burning, that was too much for any sane fifteen year-old. Marshall thought of it.
October days were always Justice’s favorite. The way the leaves transformed from one color to the next was beyond a miracle to him. Then, they would fall, floating willingly to the earth where they would crumple up and die. The last part was always a little unsettling to Justice—the dying.
The autumn breeze was unusually chilly the day of the accident. He had been jogging alone along Whitfield Academy’s ocean blue track in a bulky sweatshirt and sweatpants with hopes of clearing his tattered mind. Maybe that’s why Justice didn’t see Marshall coming, it had happened so quickly. Before he knew what had hit him, his body tumbled onto the frozen, asphalt surface, his head throbbing. Something was pouring from the overcast, October sky.
“Rain?” Justice wondered, baffled. No, water didn’t carry that repulsive smell. But, that wasn’t important.
He couldn’t budge; whether it was from fear or the unbearable pain, he’d never know. Justice fought himself to roll his motionless eyes out of the back of his head. He wished he never would’ve seen those empty eyes staring back. Above him, stood the hazy outline of Marshall Stover; Negro hater. And then, the boy was gone.
The smell disappeared. The burning began.
The scorching heat wasn’t what bothered him at first; it was the blinding, beet red light. Justice was mystified, lost in his already overflowing thoughts. For the first time, the boy experienced true pain. Not so much physically but mentally. What was this? And when was it going to end?
To his immense gratitude, the vivid light subsided to an extent. “Fire.” That’s what this torture was, a human fireball lit by the briefest shower of reeking gasoline. But the nightmare was not through; not just yet. Justice’s hand glowed. Only then did he feel the acute pain stabbing up his arm. His fingers curled as he scrambled to find a dry patch of clothing, just one little piece to devour the eternal flame that was such a torturous sentence. Justice’s head spun viciously, and, helpless, he shot his hand through a sizzling, singed hole in his sweatpants.
Relief. Everything was still.
His senses gradually returned. Thankfully, the boy could still vaguely see, although he was disgusted by the site of the crumbling, black shreds that had just been his sweatpants. His entire torso was numb, whether from the first degree burns or the sheer state of shock, he did not know, nor did he care. The worst was yet to come; the smell. It was unfamiliar, yet unmistakably real. The scent lingered in the cold, October air, clawing its way into Justice’s blackened nostrils. It was the smell of hair, his hair, scorched as it proceeded to disintegrate into the brisk autumn breeze. The boy was repulsed by the thought of his torched scalp and vomited wildly onto his limp, burnt frame.
By now, a small crowd of “young men” had gathered. They, like Marshall, cackled and spat wretched insults at the regurgitating “worthless negro” with his hand in his scalded pants. Justice cried. He didn’t care, not about them or himself.
“Why,” he wondered, fighting to hold on to consciousness. “Why can’t I be an autumn leaf? Why can’t I just change colors? Why does the “worthless negro” have to suffer day after day? Why can’t I be that damn leaf and just crumple up on the ground and die too?”
The world slowly went black.
Somehow, he would live. And although Marshall Stover would serve eight months in a detention center for his act, Justice’s hand would never work again.
“I was a confused young man,” Marshall would later say. “I regret those days.”
The worst part; he was being honest.
But, Justice would never forget the pain that once was; the pain of being hated.
“Your Honor, please Your Honor, I can’t just keep talking to myself. I ain’t made out for this game.”
“A little bit longer,” Justice thought. He was going to rip Marshall Stover apart inside and out.
“I…I need to know Judge. I can’t take anymore of this silent treatment.”
“Almost,” Justice convinced himself, ready to strip the man with the grimy over-greased hair of his dignity.
“Your Honor, talk to me!”
Justice had trouble holding back his rage. “So close. You will not lose to him again Justice” he hissed in his mind. “This man made your life hell. He’s one straw away from cracking; you’re one straw away from finally winning!”
“Damnit Justice, you talk to me, you hear? I don’t care what you do with me, just do it now!”
The bailiff took an exaggerated step towards the man as if to threaten him.
Justice ran the charcoaled hand across his aged cheek. “Thank you Mr. Stover,” he whispered at last. His voice picked up, “And just why should I let you go? Why do you deserve to be set free? That poor woman couldn’t just walk freely from you could she Mr. Stover? She couldn’t escape, why should I let you?”
To Justice, this was about more than the woman. Marshall knew it.
Defendant, Marshall Stover slowly opened his mouth to reply, a puzzled look plastered on his face; in his eyes.
“Never mind that,” Judge Justice Washington Harper bellowed. “It hardly seems fair to let a man on trial for battery towards a woman who we all sense is a prostitute decide his own fate. I’m already killing two birds with one stone on this case.”
“Prostitutes. “Poor woman” prostitutes. That’s not right,” Justice thought, with regrets to ever speaking the words. “Mother was no “poor woman” that’s for sure.”
The courtroom was silent.
True, Stover had assaulted the woman. True, she was a prostitute. And even more true, he had done it with his secret weapon once again; fire. Justice cringed inside and out when he heard the details. But, that was six months ago. This payroll hearing was now and it was important. This was his chance. “I’ve changed” Stover had told the world, even his inmates, who didn’t take a liking to the brute’s soft side.
The worst part; he was still being honest.
“Payback,” Marshall Stover thought to himself. “He wants payback. Oh no.”
“Payback,” Justice declared in his mind, trumpets belting triumphant tunes of victory. “Sweet, sweet payback. Shall I lock him up for another year? No, that’s not enough, more; torture. He tortured me. He played the part of the devil, and I was his lowly beggar! Who cares if he served his time? Revenge is too sweet! Now, I can toy with his emotions. Ha! This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is justice!”
“Are you happy Mr. Stover?”
Silence. An unnoticed drop of sweat fell from Marshall’s baking head forming a curious puddle on the stilted, wooden table.
He began again, “Mr. Stover, are you a happy person?” Justice’s voice now boomed throughout the still, intimidating room once again.
Stover was perplexed. “I…I don’t know Your Honor. I…don’t.” He peered up at the judge, his eyes filled with fear. “I was Your Honor. But now…no. No Your Honor, I’m afraid not.”
“Perfect?” Justice wondered. “But unexpected. How could a man who got all he wanted growing up, a man who was looked up to by all but one “filthy” Negro be unhappy? Marshall Stover was once the most accomplished “young man” the boys at Whitfield Academy had ever seen. He never failed.” What was this?
“Very well,” Justice halfway questioned, stepping down from his mahogany stand. His handsome gavel dropped willingly to the floor. Stover’s eyes cunningly followed the judge until he stood face to face with him.
“What is he doing?” Stover worried, petrified.
“What am I doing?” the judge wondered, troubled.
Devil versus Beggar.
Predator versus Prey.
Black versus White.
The once-hunted was ready to make his move; he was ready to pounce.
“You will pay court costs Mr. Stover,” Justice’s voice cracked. He held his breath abruptly as if to take back the words which he hadn’t yet even spoken. “And, you will attend a mandatory class on respect towards yourself and others,” the judge winked almost friendlily. “It comes with the abuse my friend. And then, you will be released.”
Justice extended his dead, spotted hand; the sleeve of his robe still resting between a charred forefinger and a burned stub that had served as a thumb years ago.
He had never forgotten the pain of hatred; it was too strong, too immense, too much. And, he could never put a man through that; not an honest man at least.
Carefully, Marshall Stover raised his arm, and tenderly shook the judge’s hand, bewildered.
Justice could have sworn he felt it.
“Very well,” the judge remarked softly. Something about those eyes didn’t seem nearly as empty to him anymore. “Court dismissed.”
This was Justice.