You are, of course, one of the most respected attorneys in this county; you've always had a reputation for entering the sleek concrete confines of the City Hall with the best of intentions and the sharpest of judgements. No wonder they put you on this particular case. It's... well... on every level, you've rarely been so ruffled by a crime. Murders... worse... you've seen justice through with a level head many times before, without the antics or prejudices of many a modern man or woman in your job. But this... this case is the one you rather hoped you would never have to handle. After all... once you get out of the city round these parts, the backwoods and their skinny trees swallow you whole right away.
The first thing you do is check in, of course; they can't let just anyone come into the Piney County Juvenile Correction Centre! The receptionist recognises you immediately, with a friendly, "hello there, Mr Steel!" You, as always, smile at her. She nods, smiling back, never one for overly many words.
The two of you exchange some paltry pleasantries, delaying the inevitable, and then... you almost flinch back as the warden holds the huge double doors open... but then, you have a duty. No matter how awful the person, no matter how terrible their reputation, you pride yourself on never, ever taking up a case until you have conversed with the accused persons yourself. And this case... the perpetrator... she's a child, for goodness sake! She's sixteen! But... you know it's not just that.
This girl, the mousy little pale, dark haired thing being lead in with manacles on her hands and wrists, has now got the reputation that means even you don't like what you see.
But still! Formalities! Politeness!
"Hello." You say, standing up from your chair. You certainly intended it well; you meant it entirely... but the girl just looks at the floor, her eyes constantly darting this way and that. She looks guilty, but she's trying to avoid your eyes. She's a mere slip of a thing, with a mouse's twitching, round little nose and small dark eyes... but you've seen criminals who look just as shy as her. You start to wonder whether you should call in a guard, and then stop yourself. The girl is already restrained; calling in more guards just for her would be overkill. There's already been more than enough overkill here; after all, it was none other than the Sheriff she committed such an atrocity against... or, rather, the thing the Sheriff once held most dear.
One of the wardens begins to speak, "Mr Steel, we'll take our leave. We'll be watching the interview thoroughly, though, okay?"
"Yes, of course . Thank you." You have no idea how this girls' family could ever afford your services... you may or may not have taken a hefty cut to your usual rates to help such downtrodden folk... but this interview is something that verges on morbidity rather than profession, and you hate it. You hate hearing the wardens shackle the girl to the interviewing table. You hate hearing them shut the door with a soft but resounding thump. And then you're all alone in a room with the infamous Annabelle Trotter.
You clear your throat, a sound that startles the frail girl, and offer, "So... I'm Jeffery Steel; your parents asked me to be your attorney in the coming trial. Hmmm. How... are you holding out alright?" You question is met with a blank stare, as you had expected. The girl remains silent.
"Do... you want something to drink?" There's a water cooler in the corner of the cell; obviously it's well out of reach of the inmates... but again Annabelle just shakes her head, a soft jerk. "Alright, well..." You pull out your notepad and pen, before asking, "Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Again, you absolutely expected this silence; what you didn't expect, though, was the terrified tremor of the girls' hands as she gripped the edge of the table; other than that, not one part of her is moving. She just... she stares. You can't make out her eyes behind those filthy tresses, but you can't look away. The rumors... the lurid, awful things she supposedly did... She... she almost looks regretful. Almost. You're not sure; she's so utterly frozen that...
And then she barely whispers, "I... I don't want to."
You've seen all the variations of this before; some defendants will sit in surly silence, refusing to acknowledge your existence, while others will violently protest their innocence. So you know just what to say. "Annabelle... the only way I can help you is if you tell me the truth of the matter. It needn't be told to anyone else by me. If discretion is what you require, then I can promise not to tell anyone. But please... your life may even depend on it; the victim was a very popular girl, after all, and her father could well make it that your prison life would be a living hell. I don't believe that's what you deserve. I believe you, as would any other child given the particulars of the case, deserve to have your side of the story told at least once. You were treated terribly! I..." You stun yourself when you say, completely sincere, "I'm very sorry you had to suffer such bullying from Maddison Trent."
You don't know how it happens. How you manage to breathe life into an utterly lifeless being who only moments before had terrified you to your very core. But it does. Annabelle... sniffles? It's just one sniffle of a tear, but she quickly wipes it away... and then she nods. It's time for the questions... the questions to a case you wish you never, ever had to relive from the media storm.
"So... what is the situation of your family? Am I right this lead to the torment you suffered from your classmate Maddison Trent."
"Shhh. Just tell me what happened. Please. It's all right. I can't judge you if I don't even know the truth!"
She sighs, resigned, and begins, "My folks... we're the Trotter family. We run a farm."
"A pig farm, yes? Out in the forest?"
"Yes, Sir," she says timidly. "It's a ways up on the Hayseed Hills, out in the pines."
"And does your family run the stall called Trotters' Hogs every Sunday at the little market?"
You nod; it's as you'd heard, so far. "And tell me, Annabelle... how do you enjoy life out there in the woods, and on the farm?"
"I dunno, Sir. It's alright."
"You don't like the city?"
"No." That was an immediate reply; she shudders. "I don't like the school. I like the pigs."
"Ah, yes. Your family's business. They're quite a lot of work, aren't they? Sometimes animals can be a handful, though. How were yours?"
"They were alright." Annabelle's shrug is almost heartbreaking, it's abundantly clear how much she's underselling her love of the family livelihood. "I got to feed the piglets; that was my... hmmm... my jurisdiction, I s'pose. Sir, a piglet is a magical animal. It loves you. It loves cuddles. It'll trust you so much it'll fall asleep in your lap. Ehehe! It's cute, Sir. I loved it."
"Hmm. That's... rather surprising. I heard the farming life was a tough one, a dirty one."
"For sure it is, Sir. But... it's life. It's home. I love the barns; our house barns are as old as the Roanoke colony, that's what Ma told me. I believe it."
You're not sure if you believe it yourself, but still... you change the subject. "So... it was your love of pigs and farming that earned you a reputation at school, was it?" She nods, clearly still ashamed underneath it all. You try narrowing it down. "Tell me about Maddison. Is this her?"
Rifling through your briefcase, cursing a little at your inherent disheveledness in organizing, you finally offer Annabelle a photo of a girl, a girl with thick waves of blond hair, the figure of a classical statue and the golden, lively eyes of a fox.
Annabelle looks, tilting her head. She's quiet for a while, before shrugging. "Sir, I don't know who that is..." You sigh, irritated... but that's when Annabelle finishes her sentence, and your blood runs deeply cold. "That's not the Maddison I know now." You stare at the photo in disbelief, trying to remember your own years at high school, your friends there, your fights, your sweetheart... but nothing you encountered comes close to the horrific end that befell Maddison Trent.
You force yourself to ask, "What was she like? What did the other kids think of her?"
Annabelle shrugs again. "She was alright, Sir; or so folks said. I mean, she was pretty popular. I think I had one or two friends in common with her, but..."
"But looks... they can trick you, Sir. She was... she..." The whole table judders as the frail girl trembles; it's less a fearful tic than it is a veritable seizure. You... you think you understand; Maddison must've ruled over Annabelle with an iron fist. You gently sooth and shush Annabelle back to some semblance of calm, albeit her jittery, furtive kind.
"I'll ask you about each of the things she supposedly did to you, and you can just nod or shake your head, if that makes it easier. But Annabelle; I must know the full, honest truth if I am to plead your case. Okay?" You get a tiny, tiny nod of assent. "Alright then. What about the names she called you, for example? Names such as "Miss Piggy" and "Bacon Butt" and "The Frigging Sow"... is this true?"
A quick nod. "I heard... something like that."
"And did that hurt your feelings, Annabelle?"
She swiftly shakes her head from side to side. "No, Sir."
"You can speak as freely as you want; Maddison can't hurt you now..." You shudder when you realize just how true that is. You sigh; this isn't going to be easy at all. "And what about the physical attacks. Did Maddison lay a hand on you?"
"She once pushed me to the ground hard, Sir. And then she... no... I don't think she did."
"Sir, she grabbed my hair and held me so I couldn't scream. She pressed her fist against my throat, real hard."
That's a serious accusation.
"Did it hurt, Annabelle?" You ask again, more seriously; she nods fiercely. "And what about the time she covered your chair with hay, and loudly told everyone that "a good pig needs a good sty". And then she posted this on her social media accounts for all to laugh at. Is that true as well?"
Annabelle nods again, tears forming hard around her eyes. "Yes. She did that."
You're silent for a little while.
"Why? Why did she do that?" Your voice is hoarse, nearly raw from the turmoil of simply not knowing what to think. "I... I don't know! Sir. I swear, I don't!" "Would it be the same reasons as the Harvest Festival incident?"
At the mention of this, Annabelle locks absolutely rigid. Her eyes widen to nearly twice their size, and she stares down at her hands in front of her. "She... yes. She fed me that doped drink, and those laxatives. She... she... she filmed it for everyone, Sir. She said... she wrote a caption... "Petting Zoo mood; big old pigs rolling in the muck"; that's what she said! I was rolling in my own muck, trying to stand up... but... but..."
You murmur something to the general effect that it's all okay, but it isn't. It's so, so far from that. Annabelle sobs, and you're at a loss of what to do. You desperately try to think of something, anything to pull her out of this. She's a terribly traumatized girl... she's a terrible, terrible person... she's... you don't know, anymore. You try to take a deep breath, and you exhale shakily. "We'll get through this, Annabelle. We'll fix it."
She shakes her head, a single little shake.
"What did your family do about all this, after these couple of years? Did they report it to the school, or maybe to the Sheriff?"
"The Sheriff... heh. That was a mistake, going to him first. He's her pa, Sir, and he's a protective one. He said... he... he said he'd confiscate every hog we've got and make sure we never get another market stall, if we got Maddison's reputation down. And my folks... they need the pigs, Sir. They need them!" She hiccups something between a sob and a little, eerie note of laughter. "And Maddison always said, "I'll get you back really good, Miss Piggy"... and she did, Sir. She got right into the worst place she could... my folks."
You feel yourself blanche at these words, the ultimate level of depravity reached by Maddison Trent. "When you say your family, does this refer to Maddison's... intimate relations with your older brother, Josiah Trotter?" You ask, dread creeping into your stomach with every word.
Annabelle nods, shuddering at the very thought of that monster touching her brother. "I... I walked into my room one afternoon and they... they were... and I... I..." Annabelle begins sobbing again, curling up into a ball and rocking herself back and forth. "I told on them, Sir. I just... Josiah is my big brother; he's been my hero, always! He's kind! He's calm! He's... he... he was my best friend. And then Maddison, she... she poisoned him against me. Right there in my room, on my bedroom floor, they... they did it. I tried to stop them! But they wouldn't listen. They wouldn't listen!"
You exhale shakily. This was... was beyond comprehension. "Annabelle, please tell me this much. Why would Maddison go so far out of her way to hurt you? Why was she so... I suppose the word is "cruel"?"
Annabelle stares at you with red, puffy eyes. The tears still drip down her face, and she rocks back and forth, hiccups wracking her body, as if she's sobbing, but also laughing at the same time. "She... she never told me. And that's the truth, Sir; there was no reason! She... she's wicked!"
Wicked... the word that Annabelle keeps repeating. Cruel... it makes so much sense now. It was all so obvious, and you're stupid for not seeing it before. Sheriff Trent has always been a polarizing figure for his tough approaches to tasks of law. It seems this toughness runs in his family, only amplified as time goes on. You remember how he and his brother were sadists who enjoyed tormenting the box turtles crossing the road. What sort of person could do such things, you wonder, even if they did somewhat clean up their act with age? And now... now, there's no delaying it anymore. You have to ask Annabelle... you have to ask her not about what Maddison did, but what she herself did. The stories... the awful, awful things... it can't all be true! No! You half want to think that Sheriff Trent trumped up the charges... but the police body cam footage... your investigation... it was bound to be bad. Every new detail, it seems, points to the fact that Annabelle's vengeance was so much more twisted than any murder.
"Annabelle. Tell me how you kidnapped Maddison."
"I don't know what you mean, Sir."
"You... you know what I'm talking about! You know who kidnapped whom. You waited until she'd come to your property to be intimate with your brother, yes?"
A single, tiny nod.
"And you, terrified, wishing for anything but the torment you had to live, finally realized just what you felt you needed in your life, yes?"
"Please, Annabelle. I need to know what happened."
A pause. She pauses, locked still, her breathing stopped. The whole cell is now totally and utterly silent, but for the slight humming of the air conditioning.
Finally, sighing long and hard, the frail girl says, "It took a lot to bludgeon her with that stake. I... I... how could I do that? Why would I do that? But... but how could I not? I've... I've had so many horrible thoughts, so many bad dreams. I had to stop myself from killing her. But she wanted me to, Sir. She... she begged me to."
"But you didn't. You dragged her down to the basement of one of the barns, didn't you? Where you... you tied her to that pole."
You can barely believe that this terrified, traumatized wisp of a girl sitting before you did all these things... nor the things that followed. The perverse, perversely just things...
"I couldn't take another day of school, Sir. I couldn't live with it all. Not knowing what she'd do next... what way she'd make everyone laugh at me... even my folks... I was so desperate. I... I couldn't take it anymore, Sir. I wanted to do something. It... it... I left her there for three days, no food or water. Sometimes, I'd just go and watch. I'd ask her how it felt, if she was still tough and all, and still... she still mocked me. I was always "Miss Piggy" to her... so... I had to stop her, sir."
"Is this around the time that disease swept through your family pigs?"
"Yes, Sir. They started dying two months ago. I knew it was... must've been the work of demons. My father was sickened too, like with the headaches and backaches."
"And that's what gave you the idea, isn't it? The... the..." You just about want to retch at the memory of the body camera footage from the police raid. There's no glee in the soft, scared way Annabelle remembers her crime; she states it all as though running off a list of necessary errands.
"It all started when I gave Maddison some gruel at last; I... I didn't want her to die, Sir. And she... she fell on that food. It was in a bucket, and she demolished it, both hands in the pail, shovelling gruel all over her face as she ate it. And that's when... that's when I decided what should happen here. Maddison's true self... she had no appeal, before that. But watching her demolish that meal..." For the first time, a note of excitement enters Annabelle's voice as she recites her twisted logic. "She was so starved by then that she barely even blinked in her food-coma. I went up to her and said to her, she could have as many of those buckets as she liked... there'd be food in all of them... but she had to eat it just like that."
"For a few days, she did as she was told. Watching her filthying herself... it was a scary sight, Sir. And funny too, in a way. She grew so fat that her skin crackled whenever she moved. But then she started calling me names again... so I stopped that. I took away all the food until she learned to be quiet. She was sobbing for a bit, Sir. And then... then, one day, she made this amazing noise! A noise I'd never heard before from a human. I knew that she was capable of it. It was beautiful, Sir. It made my heart go happy!"Annabelle's face has become whimsical, looking at the past as she tells you of it. But her eyes are fixated on the horrid, horrid memories.
"And what sound was this?" You ask.
"You know how when pigs have all the food they could ever want, and they shovel it down their throats too fast to breathe, they make that noise? That squealing, choking, happy noise?"
"I suppose," you reply, feeling very, very sick. While you've heard the noise that she describes, it's not from pigs. It's from people. And it was in the body camera footage.
Annabelle goes quiet, but her eyes are still fixated on the floor. "I told her to make that sound again, then held her head under in a bucket of gruel. She ate her fill, Sir; she ate beyond her fill! She was so big after that. But I knew she'd over-indulged on that one meal. It was just so delicious to her, Sir. So then I told her straight; I said that if she ever spoke again, she would get no food. She would starve and starve, as I'd made her do before. But... if she made that noise...then she could have all the food she wanted! It would be hers to enjoy, all she had to do was make that noise, and I'd give it to her. So she was happy to do that, Sir, because she loved to make that noise! Soon enough, she was making that noise in her sleep, curled up in the straw!"
You feel sick. Extremely, utterly sick. "Did she...?" You can't bring yourself to say the words.
"No, Sir. But she was close; she almost started acting up again. I know it, I saw it in her eyes. The spark, the glimmer of something wicked. I nearly killed her then and there, but... instead... I made her crawl. I... I remembered every awful thing she'd done to me, and made her scrabble on all fours; if she didn't, I called her a filthy, filthy pig! I beat it into her, Sir, with that stake. And then... then something changed. I... eheh... I said one day that, as a person, she was an absolute disgrace. I spat on her, Sir. Then I poked her in the chest with my finger, saying how she disgusted me, as a person, Sir. But... as something not human... she wasn't so bad. Some things are supposed to be dirty. Some things are supposed to be big and bloated. Some things are supposed to leak filth all over their legs as they crawl about. As a human, she was always a disgrace; I told her that everyday. But as something less civilized... as a beast, she was passable."
There is genuine vomit rising in your throat now. You just barely gag out, "You... what did you do to her?"
"What she had to have done, Sir! All it took was a few little nudges in the right direction, and then she was really nailing the little things. She began to root at the floor; I praised her for that a whole lot! I gave her... I gave her a little more food. I let her have water whenever she wanted it. I even... I even gave her a few of her favorite scratches behind the ears, Sir! She loved those things! She would make these grateful little squealing sounds, and she would roll over onto her back to expose her stomach. It was like music to me!"
She's barely even moving anymore; maybe she realizes how insane she truly is?
"Of course," Annabelle continues, "It wasn't always easy. Sometimes, she would get really big, really fast. It took a lot of work to keep her down to a manageable size again. But with enough effort, I could easily make sure she didn't grow bigger than this. And then she would get really thin, Sir. I would have to put so much work into her again, but it was always worth it. She began... she began making the noise again. Only now, she made it all the time. Sometimes she would do this thing where she would turn her head to one side and stifle a little laugh. I knew she wanted me to hear it, so I would make it stop. I would hit her. I... I don't know why, Sir. I hit her, she would make that beautiful sound even more, and then I would be even kinder to her. I would let her eat more. I would give her water whenever she wanted. I would try to wash her, Sir, but she was so dirty. I would try to give her affection, Sir, but she only wanted me to feed her and scratch her ears and praise her for squealing or grunting or rolling in her filth for me... But I knew she worked so hard, Sir. So I would reward her with a little extra food if she did something good. And then I really hit her with the stake when she did something bad. That's how Maddison Trent stopped existing. Folks were looking high and low for her, but no. It was too late. That girl... she was long gone. After a couple of months, crawling about in my basement was something I could actually love, like all the little piglets that died... I s'pose that's why I went the extra mile with her, cosmetically. After a few tragic months, I decided that she really wasn't worth keeping around. So I put her out of her misery. I did it all the time in the end, Sir. I was a monster. Like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If the world sees her the way I do, then she'll be happy enough nowadays."
You can't help it; your composure has cracked, "Annabelle! She was not happy when they finally found her!"
"But I made her look like the her she saw in her head, by now. It was a little painful, I'm sure, but she was a good creature. I knocked her out. And then... there were plenty of carcasses to pick and choose from, Sir. The ears... the tail... the..."
"But why, Sir? She woke up and she was delighted! She had no idea what I did to her; that's how good she was by now. She just squealed and pranced and tucked right back into gruel after gruel at my prompting."
"I don't want to hear anymore. I don't want to hear about any more horrors! I want you to tell me... you..." But that's it. The memories of the body camera footage from the police raid on the Trotter Farm; it's all too clear again.
"Oh God..." you say, and turn away.
Annabelle simply sighs, "I'm so sorry, Sir. I wish Maddison could've been any good, as a human."
As a human...
Those ugly words...
The thing the police saw in the basement, shuffling about on all-mangled fours, the lower halves of each limb amputated... the snout ribboned with thick drool... the bristly head buried deep in a bucket of swill, blissful but utterly stupid and bestial... You want to vomit. Because in that moment of the body camera footage, the filthy thing covered in stitches looked up, and its eyes... its gaze was utterly blank, as dumb as the confused grunting of a pig, but filled with... not malice, nor loneliness, but an utter disinterest. You can't get rid of the image. It's all you've been seeing in your dreams. The horrible, hateful, disgusting images that have been ousting all rational thought from your mind. Because those docile eyes stitched into that almost-pig face... the eyes that, when shown images of Sheriff Trent or the popular cliques of the school, showed nothing but the desire to dig right back into the pig bin again... those were human eyes.