It took two months for Pritchard to maneuver through courtroom backlogs and other delays, and during that time he continued to refuse to elaborate on Dickie's benefactor. Finally, the day came that Dickie found himself sitting at the defense table. He was confident at first, but the prosecuting attorney's opening arguments deflated that feeling. Their software analysts had found 1436 different images that they could prove had been vandalized by Dickie. He sure made it easy for them. He didn't expect any of those to be seen by anybody but him and a couple friends, so he didn't bother trying to obscure his digital tracks. As the prosecutor sat down, Dickie began regretting the confidence he had placed in Pritchard.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Your Honor, the prosecution wants to charge my client for domestic terrorism because of 1436 different pictures and software code they claim corrupted attempts by individuals to sell personal items online, conduct online business, or meet others. I intend to show that the prosecution cannot prove malicious intent on my client's behalf. I also intend to show that it is not possible to prove posts corrupted by my client's code would've succeeded as the users originally wrote them. I will finally show that the only charge we can consider against my client is a single case of vandalism because of what he did to online pictures of his senior homecoming." There was an almost audible click in Dickie's brain. Since the first moment they met he thought Pritchard somehow looked familiar, but couldn't figure out why. As soon as the attorney mentioned the online homecoming picture, Dickie figured it out. He had changed the homecoming picture to show him and Emily as the king and queen. Reviewing the case with Pritchard, he had discovered Emily herself had changed it back almost right away, so very few people would've known about it and nobody involved with the prosecution had mentioned it. Dickie started looking around in the audience of the court behind him. Sitting in the back row were Big Bill and Emily. Having seen them face-to-face for the first time in several years, Dickie finally noticed clearly family traits in both Pritchard's and Big Bill's faces.
Dickie tried to pay attention to the proceedings throughout the day, but his mind kept wandering back to the people in the audience. He kept asking himself why they were here and what prompted them to arrange for Pritchard to take the case. A few things throughout the day caught Dickie's attention, but his mind kept going back to the audience. His mind was so concentrated on Big Bill and Emily that he was completely shocked when Pritchard poked him and hissed "Stand up." Dickie's attention refocused to the front of the court room as everybody stood up and watched first the jury, then the judge walk out. Dickie expected the case to take longer, but prosecution ended their material just in time for lunch. As soon as the bailiff followed the judge, Dickie spun around and tried making his way into the audience to talk to Big Bill and Emily. Pritchard, however, caught his arm and dragged him back to the table. "What's wrong with you? You've been distracted all day!"
"Yeah, I've been trying to figure out why a bully from high school would arrange for a lawyer to help me."
"Big Bill's my cousin. He begged me to take the case. He kept saying something about making amends." Pritchard kept talking, but Dickie's mind wandered back to Big Bill and Emily. By the time the lawyer stopped talking, the courtroom had emptied.
That afternoon, Pritchard spent three hours calling and recalling witnesses and software experts. His line of questioning highlighting the end result of Dickie's sabotage - websites that amused and entertained people - and argued that somebody with genuine malicious intent and Dickie's computer knowledge would have produced damaging viruses or hacked the computers and bank accounts of their targets. During closing arguments it was obvious to everybody that the prosecuting attorney felt beaten, even though he was quite eloquent. When it was Pritchard's turn to close, he simply held up the picture of Dickie and Emily that had been put on the high school homecoming page. "My client replaced the genuine image with this one. What he did was to deface somebody's hard work. For whatever reason he did it, this is the only concrete example we have of an undeniably criminal act - an act that is the electronic equivalent of vandalism. The case of domestic terrorism has absolutely no merit."
The judge charged the jury with finding justice and excused them to deliberate. After she and the jury left the court room, the prosecution wordlessly set a form on the defense table. "Guilty of vandalism, 6 months in jail plus two years probation and 5 years prohibited from internet access? My client will only accept time served, one year probation. Street vandals aren't banned from buying paint, so he shouldn't be banned from the internet." Dickie still wasn't sure what the jury would decide, so a lump formed in his throat when Pritchard turned down such a light plea deal. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, though, when the prosecuting attorney dropped his shoulders and nodded agreement.
By the time Dickie and his lawyer had filled out all of the paperwork for the plea agreement, the courthouse was quiet and nearly empty. He was hoping to get to talk with Big Bill and Emily, but he didn't even look around for them. Seeing Big Bill on a bench near the main exit surprised him. Considering their past, Dickie eyed the offered handshake less suspiciously than he thought he would. "Thank you. What do I owe you for getting me a lawyer?"
Big Bill shook the man's hand with all the warmth and respect he'd held back in high school. "There's no bill. I talked Harry into doing it because I felt horrible for the person I was in high school. I read about the things they'd charged you with and I felt like I was maybe at least partly to blame." Dickie was stunned. He'd never thought of Big Bill as a person with depth enough to notice the consequences of his actions. He felt a little less resentful and a little more understanding toward Emily. "I waited here for you because I wanted to let you know that I regret the things I did back then. The newspaper article said you were delivering a pizza when they arrested you, even though you have a degree in computers. I feel like I helped you fall so low, and I want to help you back up. I own my own car dealership these days, and I sure could use your help. Other dealers have fancy, clean websites that can search for cars. My website is just a picture of me throwing a toy car like a football. I want to offer you a job."
Dickie couldn't believe his ears. Somebody who once pushed him around was now going out of his way to help. "You'd trust me online, after all I did?"
"Well, about that, I hope you won't be offended, but not at first. Fool me once, shame on you,..." Dickie and Big Bill ended the phrase together. "What I'd expect is that you would show me every single line of code you write before posting it. That would kinda suck because I’m kinda stupid when it comes to computers, so you’d need to explain what each line does. You'd be working at first on a computer not connected to the internet on a desk in my office, but I think it's reasonable to say after an unofficial probation we could set you up with your own little office and a connected computer. What do you think?"
Dickie thought back to the prospects he was facing before Pritchard walked into his life and then considered Big Bill's offer. "I just... Well, it seems... There isn't... Ok." As the men turned and headed for the exit, Dickie quietly thought about the other things he could've said. How stupid would I be to turn you down? What kind of miracle fell out of the sky? Am I dreaming? Did I die? Are you God?
Three months later, Dickie sat in a sparse office at the dealership. The criminal probation was still being enforced, but Big Bill had ended his oversight just a few days earlier. Dickie genuinely appreciated the trust Big Bill had in him, so he put in a full day at the office and kept his nose clean. The evening salesmen were just about to start locking up, so Dickie ended his MMORPG just before shutting down servers and databases.
"Hi, Richard, do you remember me?" Dickie looked up from his computer and saw the outline of a person. He squinted through the glare of the sunset behind her, trying to make out her face. "Probably not. I was a couple years behind you. You were always keeping a lookout for bullies, so you probably missed seeing me. You even ran right into me one time trying to get away from Big Bill. I'm sure you don't remember, but he stopped chasing you that day because he was helping me pick up what I dropped. I always felt bad about what he and the others put you through, so I used to go to chess team practices and tournaments to cheer you on. But I was too scared to cheer and break your concentration, so I just held my breath and kept my fingers crossed."
Vague memories of a freckled redhead began to come back. "Melody... something. Melody, Melody,..."
"Mickler. You probably remember my sister Sandy. Hell, everybody remembers Sandy. She was a cheerleader."
Dickie snorted. "Sandy Mickler wasn't a cheerleader. She was the cheerleader. Captain of the squad, Miss Popular, the whole nine yards. I remember during senior year the cheerleader lunch table had one person that didn't look like she quite belonged. Not on the squad, all advanced ed classes, skipped sophomore year. Was that you?" The redhead blushed a little, but of course Richard couldn't see with the sunset in his eyes.
A soft voice crept out from behind the red curls that cascaded down her face as she looked at her feet. "Yeah, my parents always said I deserved to be more than just a wallflower, so they had Sandy drag me along with her friends for a while. They started liking me when they figured out I was a patient tutor." Remembering the experience of being pulled into the in crowd, Melody's voice slowly strengthened as she looked up. "I kept a close eye on the case, and I was really glad to see how it turned out. I'm visiting Sandy and her boyfriend, and I thought I'd come by and see if I could buy you dinner."
Dickie looked at the picture frame that he had smashed to the ground two days before being arrested. It once held a picture from homecoming, but now had a picture of the bride and groom from the Fefferman-Williams wedding. "I'm just closing up, but let me make one phone call before leaving." Big Bill had told him earlier that week to stop saying thank you. As he reached for the phone, Dickie thought that Big Bill would hear it one more time.
- I once got paid to spend the summer telling lies to little kids. I ran a mountain man program at a district Boy Scout camp. I told my guests I was born in my log cabin and I traded for everything I had. Late evenings I shot muzzleloader rifles with campers and then told ghost stories around the fire. Oh, how I wish that would pay enough to be my career instead of just a one-time summer job.