A woman sat alone in a dark room. She was resting her chin on a table, while staring blankly into the distance. Her jet-black hair framed a face that was showing an eerily neutral expression, drawing into question if she was aware of her surroundings in any capacity. Her once striking green eyes were now swirling pits of darkness, and below them was a series of lines and wrinkles that showcased both the woman’s age and the tremendous amount of stress she had been under. This woman is Laura Bentley, age 57, and she was dead inside.
Suddenly, a rustling in the distance snapped her out of her melancholic haze, and she regained her awareness. Still keeping her chin on the table, she turned her eyes in the direction of the noise - which had transformed into a rhythmic thumping - the staircase. Although it was too dark to see the finer details, Laura could make out the vague shadow of a person as they reached the bottom of the stairs and began to make their way closer. A moment later, a clicking noise was accompanied by a flash of light. After wincing and adjusting her eyes in the face of the sudden brightness, Laura was faced with her 17 year old daughter, Jennifer.
Despite her youth, Jennifer’s face was hardly any more expressive than her mother’s. Her own striking green eyes were sunken and lifeless, and her mouth had flattened into an unbreakable straight line. Her long black hair, the occasional stray jutting out, reached down to her stomach. Laura’s eyes softened a bit in the presence of her daughter, and she began to speak in an extremely soft tone.
“Hey, honey,” she said, barely more than a whisper. Any louder, and the raspiness of her abused vocal cords would have become apparent.
“Hey,” Jennifer replied, her voice neither high nor low pitched. She herself was battling traces of raspiness, but she was too tired to care.
“How are you doing?” her mother asked, to which she shrugged.
“It’s almost six,” she replied, ignoring the question. “Should probably eat something.”
“Oh, is it?” Laura asked, finally raising her head to look at a nearby clock.
“Yeah. Time flies when you’re doing nothing in a dark room,” Jennifer replied flatly, causing Laura to let out a small, sad chuckle.
“Anyway. We need to eat. It’s important,” she continued. At that, a memory pierced Laura’s memory. A memory that had been non-stop replaying in her mind for what felt like forever.
“Are you… eating okay?”
“Not really, everything they have is pretty gross.”
At that, she teared up and brought one hand to her mouth. Jennifer slightly narrowed her eyes in concern, wondering what she had said this time.
“I never told you…” Laura whispered, her eyes widening in horror and shame.
“Huh?” Jennifer asked exasperatedly. At this point, she was fairly used to her mother randomly tearing up and saying strange things. With that being said, it still annoyed her.
“I never told you what I said to him…” Laura continued, each word piercing her heart like a javelin.
“What? Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, okay? Can we please not do this again?” Jennifer replied frustratedly, causing Laura to put her arms on the table and lower her head once more. Soon, her face was completely hidden as the remainder of that terrible memory played out in her mind.
“My card is over there. Order whatever,” came her slightly muffled voice, carrying an ocean of darkness. Jennifer let out a deep sigh.
“Fine. Pizza it is,” she muttered. “Also, that senator called me earlier today.”
Laura’s head shot upwards.
“What?!” she exclaimed. “Senator Day? The one who reopened…?”
“Yeah,” Jennifer replied plainly.
“H-How did she know your…? W-Why didn’t you tell me? What did she say?” Laura asked, thoroughly shocked.
“She wanted to apologize personally for what happened to Brian. She said that she was touched by my video. She said that she was going to do everything in her power to find out why and how Brian was framed, as well as punish everyone who was responsible,” Jennifer answered, her face and tone ever unchanging. Laura’s eyes softened somewhat.
“Oh, good…” she said softly. “That’s, um… t-that’s very nice.”
Her voice slightly broke at the end, and Jennifer immediately understood why. She was upset that Senator Day hadn’t wanted to speak with her as well.
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer murmured, lowering her eyes. “I threw you under the bus in my video yesterday. You’re already getting a lot of hate, and I made it worse. I just… I needed to say something, and I was just saying what came to mind, and-“
“Jennifer, stop that,” Laura chided. “I’m glad you made that video. People needed to know that you always believed in him. And as for me… you were just telling the truth. I… I deserve everything that’s happening to me.”
With that, her eyes darkened once more and she lowered her chin back down onto the table. Jennifer’s eyes slightly softened in sympathy, but she quickly adopted a troubled expression as she remembered something else.
“Oh, and she also told me… she told me to keep an eye on the news,” she started. “She told me it was really important, like some big announcement is coming. She wouldn’t tell me what it is, and she sounded kinda weird about it. Like… apologetic, almost.”
“Oh?” Laura asked, narrowing her eyes. “Well, it must be important. Go turn the television on, so we don’t miss anything.”
“Right,” Jennifer affirmed, before moving to grab the credit card. Once it was in hand, she pulled out her phone and began to make her way into the living room. Just before she left, though, her mother spoke up.
“Oh, honey,” she called out, causing Jennifer to pause and turn back towards her.
“Did you take your medication today?” she asked concernedly, to which Jennifer groaned.
“Oh, come on…” she whined. “I really don’t like it. It makes my head all… fuzzy. I don’t need it. I’m not going to get bad again, I promise.”
“I know you don’t like it, but you have to,” Laura replied earnestly. “You’re under a lot of stress right now, probably the most since Brian’s arrest. You can’t promise that it won’t make things worse again, so we have to be cautious, okay? Please take it.”
After a small silence, Jennifer closed her eyes and let out a resigned sigh.
“Fine, I’ll do it after dinner,” she grumbled.
“Thank you, honey. I know it’s hard,” Laura replied appreciatively, before remembering something else. “Oh, don’t forget that your birthday is in a few days, too. Think about what you want, okay?”
Jennifer’s eyes widened slightly in realization. After a moment of contemplation, though, her face fell. The energy in her body evaporated, and tears formed in her eyes.
“I… I just want my brother back,” she whispered, trying not to break down. Laura opened her mouth to try and comfort her, but no words came out. She felt just as broken as her daughter, but she knew that she was in no position to say anything about her son. A dreadful silence overtook the room, and Laura took a moment to reflect on just how damaged her family was. She then took a moment to reflect on how most of it was her fault, and it made her want to crawl into a hole.
Jennifer recovered from her brief lapse in stoicism, and finally made her way into the living room. Laura was alone once more, kept company only by her unbearable feelings of guilt and shame.
Some time had passed. Jennifer ordered pizza, and ate in front of the television. Laura was in no condition to eat, so she simply put some in the fridge for later. Afterwards, Jennifer continued to watch the news intently, soaking up every small development of the investigation into why her brother, Brian Bentley, had been framed for the murder of a child.
One day prior, in a development that threw the country into chaos, Brian’s innocence had been proven to the world. He was mercilessly persecuted, thrown in jail, then “re-sentenced” to death via the Shrink Penalty, and none of it was deserved. Nobody knew how to react in the face of such a shocking and heartbreaking revelation, and serious questions were being raised about the state of the country’s criminal justice system as a result.
Jennifer, having believed in his innocence the entire time, was obviously happy that the truth was finally uncovered. However, that happiness was immediately undone by the fact that she had never stated so publicly, and her brother had died believing she hated him. Her brother, the person who she loved more than anything in the universe, had died an unimaginably gruesome death at the hands of a sadistic psychopath, believing that his baby sister had given up on him. Every time that thought reentered her mind, an overwhelming flood of guilt obliterated her heart all over again. She was kept lucid only by her equally overwhelming anger- an anger that was intensified by the words of the newsman she was watching.
“The Silver Strip is still refusing to release the details of Brian Bentley’s execution, including the name of his Chevalier. This is despite their promise to cooperate with the investigation, leading some to question if-”
“I’ll kill her,” Jennifer growled, her face darkening in pure hatred. At that moment, her green eyes might as well have been crimson.
“Whoever touched you, I’ll kill her,” she whispered, clenching her fists as she began to tremble with rage. “I’ll kill her… whoever h-hurt you… I’ll…”
Suddenly, her anger transformed into a deep, refined sadness, and she buried her face in her hands.
“What am I saying…” she whimpered. “I hurt you, too… I’m so sorry, Bean… I’m so sorry…”
At that, her mind shut down as she began to silently cry. She lost count of how many times she had cried in the last 48 hours, but she knew that it rivalled the time when Brian was first convicted. She was completely, absolutely, utterly, and overwhelmingly devastated. She silently called out for her brother to comfort her, but she knew that it was impossible. Even if it was, she knew that she didn’t deserve it.
Her mother wasn’t any better. Unlike Jennifer, whose crime was not speaking up, Laura Bentley’s crime was that she never stopped speaking up. Over and over, repeatedly and repeatedly, time and time again, she publicly distanced herself from her convicted son, using the harshest of language. It was impossible for Brian not to have heard about it in prison, but she knew that it didn’t even matter. She had made her views very clear the first and only time she visited him in prison.
Unlike publicly, where she could hide behind the excuse that she was only doing it to protect herself and her daughter, her words to Brian in prison were motivated only by spite and cruelty. Her dreams were haunted by the memory of her son being dragged away screaming, begging her to believe him. Once she realized he was telling the truth, her soul was ravished by guilt. There were no words to describe how monstrous she felt. However, despite the fact that she could hardly carry a lucid thought without tearing up, a single line kept replaying in her mind. At this point, it had probably echoed throughout her consciousness thousands of times.
He needed his mother, she thought.
He was alone, and scared. He needed his mother. He needed me.
At that, just like her daughter, her mind shut down as she began to quietly cry. The house was overtaken by silence once more. The only inhabitants were a broken sister and a broken mother, as they were repeatedly destroyed by the knowledge that they failed the one person who had needed them the most.
“MOM!!!” Jennifer screamed, suddenly cutting through the silence. Laura’s mind was shocked into awareness, and she instinctively rose from her seated position and sprinted out of the room. Reaching the living room, she saw that Jennifer was hysterically crying as she held both hands to her mouth. Her eyes were wider than Laura had ever seen them.
“What is it?!” she exclaimed. Jennifer saw her, and frantically pointed at the television. She was too emotional to form any actual words. Laura hurriedly turned her gaze to the television, and what she saw stopped her heart.
On one side of the screen was a news anchor, his eyes wild as he hurriedly read from a set of papers in front of him. On the other side was a still image of a man, although Laura was too focused on the bottom third of the screen to notice. There, plastered in humongous letters that would draw the attention of anybody, were four simple words. Four simple words that completely changed the world.
BRIAN BENTLEY IS ALIVE
Laura was completely frozen. She was intensely scrutinizing every word, every letter, every pixel on the television in front of her, desperately trying to make sure that her eyes weren’t deceiving her, or she wasn’t misinterpreting what she was seeing. She was too shocked to move, as her brain had imploded in the face of such an unexpected development.
Jennifer, on the other hand, felt like she was about to go insane. Her consciousness was being pulled in too many directions at once, although the primary direction was complete confusion. As such, all she could do was continue to hysterically cry, as her brain tried to make sense of what she was reading. However, a moment later, the screen changed. What Jennifer was then faced with instantly shocked her into silence. She felt like her heart was about to explode.
There, on the screen, was Brian Bentley. It looked like a recorded video that the news was replaying, as he was clearly being filmed while standing on some unfamiliar terrain. Jennifer took in his features, and she quickly realized that this was not the loving dork of a brother that she was used to. His messy black hair was slightly longer than she remembered, and his striking green eyes were steeled over. His expression was completely serious, not allowing a single hint of emotion to shine through. He was slightly pale, but surprisingly fit. Jennifer remembered her brother as skinny and awkward, but the young man she was met with was toned and muscular. Although he was clothed, wearing a green shirt and black pants, it was clear to anyone watching that he took good care of himself. However, there was something off about his appearance. Jennifer couldn’t quite make out what it was, but something about the way he was being filmed in relation to his surroundings made him look a little odd. Jennifer was much too shocked to care, though. Before she could completely adjust to his new appearance, he began to speak.
“Hello,” he said plainly, his voice neither high nor low pitched. Regardless, it caused both Jennifer and Laura to flinch, as it was their first time hearing it in over three years.
“My name is Brian Bentley,” he continued, “and, um…”
He spread his arms.
“I’m an innocent man.”
By this point, nearly everybody in the country was watching him speak. They were hanging onto every word, although nobody more so than his mother and sister. Still he continued.
“This wasn’t recorded a long time ago, by the way,” he said. “This was filmed today. As in, one day after my innocence was proven to the world. So yes, I’m alive. Like, actually alive. I was ‘re-sentenced’ and all, and I was sent to a Chevalier, but, well… it didn’t take. Surprise.”
Jennifer drew one hand to her mouth again, as silent tears continued to stream down her face. Laura was still completely frozen, but she soon began to tremble.
“Thanks for proving my innocence, by the way!” Brian said sarcastically, conveying through his tone that he was not happy.
“I’m not immune to the irony that I was sentenced only two days after being arrested, and it only took two days of real investigation to clear my name. But oh well, the past is the past. That’s not what I’m here to talk about,” he continued, letting out a huff of annoyance. At that, the camera slightly shifted, as if the person holding it was preparing to do something.
“I might not have died, but I didn’t get off scot-free,” he said, before nodding in the direction of the camera. Suddenly, the camera pulled away, giving a wider view of Brian’s surroundings. Both Jennifer and Laura gasped in horror.
Brian was standing on what looked like an enormous kitchen counter, and he was surrounded by a few items. One was a quarter, one was a banana, and one was a pencil. However, in comparison to him, they were gigantic. The quarter was nearly the same size as him, and the other two items appeared comically large. However, everyone watching immediately knew the truth. Those items weren’t large. Brian was small.
“I’m one-inch tall,” he said casually, before vaguely gesturing to the items around him. “Like I said, I definitely got the SP. Although the ‘dead’ part might not have taken, the ‘shrink’ part most certainly did. That’s what I’m here to talk about, people.”
He took a breath.
“I’m now permanently one-inch tall for a crime that I didn’t commit. There was absolutely no evidence that justified my ‘re-sentencing,’ because there was never any evidence to begin with. I was only given the Shrink Penalty because the public, as in you all, wanted it, and because it would have prevented me from ever being able to tell my story. Well, it didn’t work. You all know the truth, now. Of course, the benefit of knowing my truth is that it leads you right into the next truth, as well. And, that truth is…”
He gestured for the camera to come a little closer, which it then did. His face was as cold as ice.
“It’s time for the Shrink Penalty to end,” he said firmly. “It’s a broken, corrupt system, and I am living evidence of that fact. It happened to me, which means it can happen again. Most likely, it’s happened an unthinkable amount of times already.”
He paused, letting that thought hang in the air.
“The Shrink Penalty is the worst punishment imaginable,” he said softly. “You’ve all read the stories of what Chevaliers do to convicts. I can personally tell you that those stories are just the tip of the iceberg. We only accept such a cruel system because we believe it is perfect. Well, it isn’t. It just isn’t. As such, it can’t be allowed to exist. Even if it’s too late for me, I can at least make sure that there will never be another me in the future. To that end, I need your help. I don’t want your guilt, I don’t want your pity, and I don’t want your apologies. This is how you can make it up to me- by helping to bring down the system that failed me. And… that’s pretty much it. For now. I know you have questions, so you’ll be hearing from me again soon. Until next time.”
Just like that, he was done. The entire country was dead silent. However, before the video ended, Brian’s eyes slightly widened in realization.
“Oh, and if you’re wondering about my clothes, they’re homemade.”
Then, with a wink, he was gone, his visage replaced by a stunned newsman. He started to talk, but Laura Bentley did not hear a single word. The world around her was a blur, and she felt like she was going to collapse. However, after a moment, a vague noise got through to her. Looking to her left, what she saw instantly snapped her out of it. It was Jennifer. She had resumed her hysterical crying, holding her head in her hands as she hyperventilated. She looked completely overwhelmed, like she had no idea what to do or what to think. Once again, her mind was being pulled in too many directions simultaneously.
She was unbelievably happy, as her brother was alive.
She was unbelievably horrified, as her brother was the size of a bug.
She was unbelievably hurt, as her brother had not reached out to her yet.
As such, she simply continued to cry, her young brain not being able to sort through her conflicting emotions. Eventually, her legs gave out, and she fell backwards onto the couch. Laura sat down next to her, and leaned over to wrap her up in a firm embrace. This was all she could manage to do, as she herself was barely keeping it together. Jennifer’s crying mixed with the noise of the television, creating a disjointed cacophony of noise that perfectly aligned with their shattered mental states. Just like that, they were living in a brand new world.
Brian Bentley was innocent. Brian Bentley was alive. And now, everybody knew. Nothing was ever going to be the same.