Before they had arrived, Aniya realized it was buttoned improperly, but upon fixing it, the wrinkles wouldn’t leave. If she went up there with uneven buttons, wrinkled all over...she could feel the judging stares already.
Look credible. Look reliable. Look...professional.
Was it wrong of her to feel offended at the constant reminder? She wasn’t an idiot. Aniya knew to look professional without always being told. Her lawyer had looked at her, said “very good;” validating fears that weren’t there and making her feel like some kind of pet, without autonomy of her own.
She caught herself in her own line of thinking and shivered at being thought of as a pet.
Now that she looked at the blazer, she realized it was too big. Too baggy, maybe that was why it wrinkled? Her nose scrunched in frustration; none of her friends knew the right sizes for her. Really, no one but her mother (and herself) knew...and dear God, if she thought about her mother again, she would spiral.
...As if she wasn’t already spiraling.
For the umpteenth time that day, she fiddled with her hair. Pulled up into a bun that was a bit too tight; a normal mistake, yet today, it felt suffocating. Her fingers itched to fix it, though logically she knew it would only make the situation worse. In fact, her fingers itched in general. She itched, longing for time to pass by more quickly, longing for someone sitting beside her at this moment. Every part of her seemed to itch in fear and anticipation, so she clasped her hands together a bit too much, pressed her knees together a bit too tightly. Aniya could only pray these actions worked long enough to quell the indescribable sensation building in her stomach – far past butterflies, it felt more like fire and smoke rising, threatening to make her choke. Her brothers would be here soon. Make it until then, she told herself.
The bun was gone a minute later.
Nicolás was even worse than Héctor when it came to comfort. He was the oldest, a bit burly; he had a tough guy image in high school that he loved to upkeep. That was how Aniya had known him for years.
But in the midst of this chaos, despite some slip-ups, he was trying just as hard as Héctor. And he knew when his own methods were useless.
Sitting on either side of her, the two seemed to form a protective bubble. Nicolás held her hand, kept her grounded. Héctor fixed her hair, which now carefully cradled her shoulders.
“Do you need anything?” Héctor mumbled, finally sitting down and holding her other hand. “I have plenty of distraction worthy topics.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” She responded, somewhat too curtly, before adding, “I just need...more time. I wish I had more time.” They both gave her glances, thankfully not filled with pity, and a silence filled the air.
“Okay. Okay, Aniya: if this is the one thing that comes out of my running mouth that you listen to, then I’ll be happy.” She and Nicolás looked at him once he said it, intrigued. “Whatever happens here, whether you – we – get what we all want or...not. We’re both proud of you for doing this. For making it this far – for, for surviving this and doing this. Whether you change one or no person’s mind, Aniya, I want you to hold your head high. No regrets. Because you are better than every single ugly, old, wrinkled guy in there, whether they believe you or not.”
Nicolás nodded along, but she could only sit there in shock. Aniya forced herself to not spill any tears. Not yet. Her mascara would be ruined otherwise, and she couldn’t walk in there with running mascara, looking a mess of a girl.
She mustered a smile at her brother, her own thoughts racing. Aniya would cry. She had cried many times before this, and she could see herself crying many times after. However, no one would get the benefit of seeing her become a mess. If her mascara ran, she would wipe it clean again. If she began to blubber, she would clear her throat and start again. If she was miserable, it would be away from all the prying eyes in there.
Hold your head high, she repeated in her head, squeezing both of the hands she held. A mantra; it didn’t stop the fire in her belly, no, it fueled it, but the fire and smoke simply served to elevate the words within rather than choke her.
Her stomach still did somersaults and her hands still sweat for every second that ticked by. And when the dreaded last second came, her name was called and her hands were all too suddenly free. Vaguely, Aniya could hear the two whisper to her, words of encouragement, she assumed, as she crossed the threshold, the bailiffs immediately instilling a brand new anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Her lawyer met with her at the door, giving what was meant to be a comforting pat.
Aniya lifted her chin in time to see her brothers find their seats.
“...tell the truth...and nothing but the...”
Every eye in that courtroom was on her – she felt an itch all over once more, especially as her eyes landed on him, talking with his own lawyer. Was he avoiding her? Tuning out every word around him like she was?
No, she decided, because he didn’t need to. This thought made her sick, so in the few moments before her testimony, her stares were pointed at him. At the sweat forming on his forehead, betraying his still expression.
“My name is Aniya Herrera,” she began, a living oxymoron – her voice was steady, while her hands shook. “I’d like the court to know, I didn’t want to be here today. But I feel it is my duty to inform those who it may concern...after thinking it over, I don’t think I could go on with myself without speaking of my experiences with Mr. Stanton.”
Her lawyer nodded, and she tried to accept it as support rather than patronization. Aniya took a breath, letting the weight of her words wash over the courtroom.
“Because two years ago, I was sexually assaulted by him, in his office – after a year of working for him and being inappropriately pursued. And given the circumstances, I think it is best you all take my words into account.”
Despite seeming like a suggestion, or maybe a plea, Aniya needed the whole courtroom to know that it was an order.