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Tom checked his tie, taking care to stay in shot. It only took a minute of being away from the webcam’s eye to be deemed in contempt of court.
Abigail looked beautiful as she testified, her eyes wide and demeanour humble. Sometimes the allegations made Tom second-guess himself. Was noting her prettiness the same thing as admiring her sexually? No, he’d conclude. So there was no trace of sexual desire at all? Perhaps, he might concede, but an iota, the merest flicker. Ageing a little or becoming a father doesn’t blind one to these things. Biology told him she was attractive and decidedly a woman now, even if the law didn’t yet agree. But, no, although not immune to such forbidden thoughts, he paid them little heed. His affection for her was innocent.
He shifted in his seat then berated himself for the awkward body language.
“At first my friends said it was weird,” Abigail said. “They’d come up to me in breaks and ask why Donna’s dad was always appearing on my timeline. Then they got nasty, singing songs about us, putting insults on Facebook. They stuck photos of him in my bag.”
Tom had never meant for any of this. He traced his finger over the audience list, letting it rest on his daughter’s name, knowing Donna would be watching the trial from her room.
He remembered his actions were being analysed and withdrew.
Could a man really help his dreams? They weren’t even sexual. Donna would bring Abigail over most nights after school and he and Marie would rustle up some dinner. It soon became clear she wasn’t having a good time at home, pressured to achieve greatness through all the gymnastics training, piano lessons and so on. She’d come over whenever she could get away and it seemed like the only place she could relax. His heart went out to her, both of theirs did.
Tom looked back at the screen. The prosecution was showing his dream of the school gymnastics, in which he watched Abi run across the beam, struck by the contrast between her fluidity and the arduous discipline that lay behind it. “What if you were free, truly free?” his dream-self whispered, and then she was – tumbling gracefully along a fallen tree, the two of them weaving through the autumn woods. He walked on and she followed, somersaulting across the dry leaves, a soft crunch recording every footfall. He wanted to take her hand but she was moving too fast, and if he broke the rhythm of her freedom dance she would be back to how she felt before, when she was with her parents…
The video finished and Tom could still feel that pang of yearning – but it probably wasn’t even about her. The subconscious picks ciphers from anywhere to tell its stories. And anyway, you saw someone that often, of course they came up in your dreams. It’s just your brain processing the events of the day.
He tried to explain but the judge hushed him with what was becoming a well-worn phrase – “If you speak you may mislead.” Tom remembered reading about this; social networks and taxicab recordings show what someone thinks so letting the accused speak was said to add no value.
Even outside the court, no one would listen. Marie moved out shortly after it all began, and Donna wouldn’t speak to him unless she needed food or money. None of his friends seemed pleased to see him. He stopped bothering them.
PC Young gave his account next, his manner matter-of-fact, his execution of the law unbending and impersonal.
“I was already observing the situation when the third dream appeared on Miss Morris’s profile,” he said. “It was obvious that the young lady was in distress, but more pressingly, it’s been proven that three dreams within two weeks make sexual crime twice as likely. We had to intervene before that happened, so I began the interception that led to this trial.”
They broke for sentencing. Tom thought how quickly he and his friends had slipped into this; their dreams recorded, tagged and uploaded, the joking that would result. He didn’t even request Abi’s friendship – the site did that automatically as she often checked in to the house.
The judge’s face appeared on-screen. “Mr. Thomas Lanyard,” he began.
Tom swallowed. Time slowed.
“You have been found guilty of thoughts consonant with the future possibility of statutory rape. You will receive a preventative sentence of offline confinement, for ten years to life, during which you must not make contact with Abigail Morris.”
A ghost in the physical realm, for at least a decade. Tom’s tweetstream spat outrage, but, in that moment, he cared only about Abi’s gymnastic clips on YouTube; her leaps and flips across the balance beam, her strong thighs facilitating her daring, the elation he sensed and shared in. Abi’s poise made him feel prayerful. All of this was now locked from his view.
“Your sentence begins now,” said the judge. The transmission was cut.