“Origin Story” by Jamie Pederson

I waited at the back of the courtroom wearing a pastel flower print dress made of cotton-Lycra blend, my favorite because the flowers reminded me of fireworks. A scrunchie with a yellow star held my red hair off my face in a loose ponytail.

The high-backed oak benches, polyurethane wearing through to the raw wood beneath, were full. So I stood, clutching my canvas Omni Boy backpack by the top loop with both hands. I needed to pee, but I was scared that they’d call my name while I was gone, that I’d miss my chance.

Becky and Reed had seats on a bench. Becky glared at me above the edge of her phone. In the light of the struggling florescent bulbs above us I could see her slot machine app flashing in her eyes. She slouched down so that the shoulder pads in her thrift store pantsuit pressed up nearly to her ears, making her look like an angry, taupe turtle. The wool blend stretched around her thick arms so that the holes in the weave yawned wide, making the fabric resemble burlap.

Reed fidgeted beside her, hands shoved in his khaki pants, a cigarette stuck obstinately between his lips. “I’m not gonna light it!” he had yelled at the bailiff when they told him he couldn’t smoke. He’d almost been kicked out for that.

My eyes glazed over, not seeing the tongue-and-groove pine paneling on the far wall. I didn’t see anything. I could only feel the sweat on my palms, the beat of my heart, fast —pumping hot blood up to my cheeks. I could smell the faint reek of stress-sweat rising off the people on the benches. My throat closed up. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry. My lips and fingertips buzzed. I teetered, sure that I was about to fall.

“In the Matter of Saltine Jergenson v. Rebecca and Reed Jergenson.”

I blinked at my name and my vision returned.

“Saltine Jergenson,” the judge repeated. Her crease-resistant polyester robe caught on the arm of her chair, pulling the sleeve back across her brown skin to the elbow and revealing the bright cyan blue trim of her blouse. Modal. Her blouse was made of modal, my favorite fabric. I could breathe again.

“Sally,” I croaked, raising my hand. I swallowed successfully and repeated myself. “I prefer to be called Sally if you don’t mind, your honor.”

“I don’t mind, Sally. Are your parents present as well?”

Becky huffed and stood, shoving her phone into her leatherette purse. She kicked Reed’s leg and gestured for him to stand. “We’re Saltine’s parents.”

“Come forward,” said the judge.

I hurried up the aisle, along the speckled linoleum until I stood before the bench. I heard Becky’s labored breathing approach me from behind, followed by the screech of Reed’s rubber-soled boots as they dragged against the floor.

The stained, maple veneer bench loomed above me. Over its edge I could just see the judge looking down at a tablet on her desk. She swiped once, her eyes scanning rapidly. “You are seeking emancipation, Sally. How old are you?”

“Thirteen, your honor,” my hands tightened on the loop of my backpack, “and a half.”

“And a half,” she repeated. “You’re aware that state law allows for children as young as fourteen years old to petition the courts for emancipation?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“But you’re seeking emancipation early. I presume you have pressing grounds for this request.”

“I do, your honor.”

The judge turned her attention to Becky and Reed. “And do you support your child’s desire to be seen as an adult in the eyes of the law?”

“Nope,” said Becky. “We don’t. We never struck her. We’ve provided food, and clothes, and a roof, and cable television. What reason does she have to leave?”

“I’d like that question answered,” said the judge, turning back to me. “Have you been mistreated, Sally?”

I took a deep breath. This was the moment I’d been picturing for weeks. Carefully, I set down my backpack. A glossy Omni Boy stared up at me from the front flap, his fist breaking through a brick wall, his mouth open in a shout of victory.

“No, your honor,” I answered. “I haven’t been mistreated.”

“You haven’t been physically or emotionally abused?”

“No, your honor.”

“Then give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw you out of my courtroom? This is a serious room, you understand?”

I flinched. “I do, your honor.”

“This is a room that changes lives. A busy room. Do you see all these people waiting their turn today?”

I felt my panic returning, but I looked down at Omni Boy’s warped likeness curving across the front of my pack and steadied myself. “I waited too, your honor. I’ve waited for my chance to be heard.”

It might have been my imagination, but I thought I saw the judge holding back a smile.

She reclined in her chair and spread her hands. “You did wait, didn’t you? Patiently, too. Do you need to use the bathroom? I’m getting restless just watching you shuffle your feet.”

“I can wait. I’ve waited this long.”

“But you can’t wait another six months before petitioning for your emancipation?”

“No, your honor, I can’t.”

“Why?” asked the judge. “What is wrong with your parents’ home?”

Becky and Reed may not have abused me, but they didn’t love me either. Physical affection was something I’d only seen on TV and at school when the other parents picked up their kids. I hadn’t even seen that in three years, not since I’d switched to online courses. I had clothes that fit and three square meals per day, but I’d never seen a birthday present, or any kind of wrapped gift. I’d never been asked about my day. I was lonely — bitterly lonely — and so sad. That, however, was not grounds for emancipation. “Your honor, they’re after my money.”

The judge sat up and leaned forward. “Pardon me, young lady?”

“I said, they’re after my money. I’ve created a composite made of commonly trashed materials. It’s superior to, and substantially cheaper than, plywood, drywall, brick, cement, concrete, glass, foam, and sheet metal, among many others.” I leaned over and unzipped my backpack, pulling from it a thick stack of documents. “I have six months of financial documentation, here. That goes back three months prior to my first profits. I’ve also included my arrangements with the local landfill for materials, and my provisional contract with the CityUp program granting me space to conduct my fabrication.”

“Provisional upon your emancipation?”

“Yes, your honor.”

I stepped forward and offered the judge my papers. She took them, reading slowly over the cover page I’d prepared for her, then leafing through several more pages before rubbing her eyes with a sigh.

“How much have you made with your business so far?” asked the judge.

“Just over twelve thousand dollars,” I said.

“That’s not enough to—”

“But, pardon me, your honor, I’ve just agreed to a deal with the city to provide materials for civic construction that will net in excess of three-hundred thousand,” I waved a hand behind me where murmurs filled the packed benches. “My product is set to be used in the restoration of the facade for this very courthouse later in the year — again, contingent upon my emancipation.”

“Is that true?”

“Page forty-six,” I said, pointing to the papers in her hands.

She riffled through the documents until she found the agreement I’d finalized with the city days before. Her eyes widened momentarily, but when she looked back at me her gaze was hard.

“What about school?” she asked.

“GED. Page ninety-one.”

“Residence? Wait, let me guess, you have a provisional lease agreement in here as well?”

“I do, your honor, page eighty-four.”

“I struggle to believe you’ve done this all on your own, Sally.”

My face flushed hot. “I do everything on my own!” I shouted before I could stop myself.

The judge let the full command of her voice ring off the walls. “You. Will. Not raise your voice in my courtroom!”

Everyone fell silent. No one moved. No one even breathed.

The judge spoke softly, her voice like a ripple in a still pond. “Do you understand me, Sally?”

“Yes, your honor,” I whispered.

She nodded and adjusted herself in her seat, cleared her throat, and pushed back her sleeves. Hints of cyan Modal peeked out from beneath her robes at each forearm. She turned to Becky.

“Did your daughter do all of this on her own?”

Becky shook her head and shrugged hopelessly. “I could carry that girl a mile on my back and she’d say she ran it.”

I gritted my teeth until I could hear them grinding. I kept my mouth shut.

“That’s not what I asked, Mrs. Jergenson. I asked you if your daughter did all of this —” the judge held up my stack of papers, “on her own.”

“No. Nope. I mean, not on her own.” Becky’s fingers picked at the bad stitching along the hem of her suit. Her eyes flicked towards me for a moment and then down. “She helped a lot. I’m proud of her.”

That was the first time I ever heard Becky, my mother, say those words, and it was all a lie. I realized there were tears on my face.

“Can you prove to me that you did this alone?” the judge asked me.

I nodded and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “I can, your honor.”

“Then proceed in doing so now.”

I hesitated, looking around the courtroom at the dozens of people sitting in silence, all of them staring at me. “I can’t do it here.”

“Then I’m afraid that I’ll have to —”

“Please!” I said, too loud. I couldn’t let it end like this. I was capable, I was right, and I was desperate. “I can show you how I do it, just not in front of all these people.”

“I’m already indulging you further than I should, Sally.”

“It will only take a moment, your honor.”

She paused.

“Just one moment,” I pressed on. “Thirty seconds. If I don’t convince you within thirty seconds, I’ll withdraw my request for emancipation and re-file in six months.”

The judge stared at me, then reached into her robes and produced a gold pocket watch. I smiled.

She stood and descended from the bench, gesturing to a door at the back of the room. “You’ve got thirty seconds.”

I grabbed my backpack and hurried ahead of her through the door and into a well-lit stairwell. A green EXIT sign hung over a door at the foot of the stairs. Beside the door lay a concrete walled trash can with a low-density polyethylene liner in it. Perfect.

The judge followed behind me into the stairway and placed her hands on her hips. She was my height. For a moment, all I could do was stare.

“Well?” she said. “You have twenty seconds.”

Plenty of time. I ran to the trashcan and pulled the liner out of it. About two-and-a-half pounds of refuse hung in its bottom.

“Sally, I’m sorry, I think you’re troubled, child. You are clearly very bright. There’s no need for you to —”

She broke off as I disintegrated the molecules of the bag and the trash within it. They spun into a chaos of energy. Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt a psychic abacus tallying and re-tallying the building blocks of creation, reorganizing them into the thing my mind desired, a gray board: two feet, by two feet, by one inch thick.

The judge’s mouth hung open.

I handed her the board and she took it. She tried to bend it, tapped it with a finger, banged it lightly against the floor.

“Okay, I’m convinced,” she said.

I jumped in the air and whooped. I nearly wet myself when I landed. I really needed to pee.

“But,” she added, “I still have concerns about allowing a thirteen-and-a-half-year-old to wander this city without adult protection. Even if you can do — whatever it is you just did.”

I lifted the concrete trashcan over my head.

“Any other concerns?” I asked.

I couldn’t read her face, but I could feel her reading mine. I set the trashcan down, careful not to damage it, and picked up my backpack. I held it in both arms, like a shield against her eyes.

“Just one more question. If you answer one more question we will walk back into that courtroom and I’ll give you what you want.”

I nodded.

“Do you have any friends, Sally?”

I hugged my backpack tighter. I knew the answer I had for her wasn’t the answer she was looking for. She wanted to know that I would be supported, that I wouldn’t be all alone. I opened my mouth to lie, I had to lie, but I couldn’t do it. My loneliness stuck in my throat like a solid mass, unwilling to let me deny its existence.

I swallowed. “Yes, your honor. I have friends. I just haven’t met them yet.”

She held out her hand. “You’ve met one.”

 

Jamie Pederson is a professional actor who has pivoted to writing in search of greater avenues for storytelling. But Pederson’s main job these days is being Dad to two young children, and he loves his job.