by Megan Wildhood
When Bird was afraid, he hugged his arms against his ribs and held his elbows so tight while he rocked slightly that he would sometimes have fingerprint bruises near his funny bones. He’d done this since he was a kid. It looked like he was feeling nauseous when he did it and the bigger kids would point that out. Bigger, as in it would take two of Bird to make one of them. This was pointed out, too; by the end of third grade, ‘light as a feather’ became ‘why don’t you flap those arms and fly away to save yourself instead of hugging at your carcass, light-y.’ It was just all too convenient that his actual name was Burt.
Eleven other people around this table have been waiting to go home for over three hours now. This had been going on every day for a week. If he would only just agree with them, then justice could be rendered and there would be an end to the long, circular deliberations. Just think of how you’d feel, they’d each taken their turns saying, if you lost your six-year-old to a crazy gunman. Or your spouse. Your teammate. Your teacher. There were 14 options for empathizing, surely one of the relations would catch his breath.
“I would be spacey with rage and grief,” Bird had said. “And I wouldn’t confuse those feelings of vengeance with justice.”
“You do realize that justice is a relative term, yes?” The youngest juror said, picking at the nail polish on her thumb.
“Relative to what?” One of the two undecided jurors looked at her and the focus shifted away from Bird again. In the end, Bird was the reason the murderer was spared the death penalty and the jurors could all get back to their lives. On their way out, several jurors who were sure from the beginning that ‘the guy needs to fry’ spat at him.
“You’re probably one of those people who couldn’t shoot a man threatening to kill his own wife.”
“Mercy is cowardice.”
“Your daddy on death row?”
It was none of those things. He had never married, he had been hugging his ribs because he was afraid of the jurors, not justice, and his dad had died the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator of one, when Bird was nine.
Bird said nothing. He walked to his old, brown Crown Victoria, clutching his elbows when he heard footsteps behind him. He stopped and the steps behind him did, too. He did not turn around as he hunted for his keys. When he started walking again, the footsteps started, too. When he slowed, they slowed. He smashed his key into the door’s lock and dove into the car once he got the door open. It wasn’t until he had his belt buckled, doors locked and foot on the gas that he looked up. He didn’t see anyone around.
Several of the jurors have given interviews to the press. They are outraged at this miscarriage of justice. In between these red-faced exclamations and bitter eulogies to the justice system are cuts of victim statements that were filmed live from the courtroom after it was clear that the shooter’s life would be saved.
“How do you feel about being given something you took away from so many?” the mom of the youngest of his victims asked. She didn’t bother moving her hair out of her face, letting her tears slide down its greasy strings and sputter electrically into the microphone on the podium a few feet in front of the shooter. Bird couldn’t keep from jumping every time. The jurors in his row glared at him each time he shook their bench in the juror’s box. The juror on either side of Bird was each wearing sports-jersey T-shirts with traffic-cone-orange stripes down the sleeves. The orange was the same color as the vest the guards flanking the shooter were wearing. Bird had not remembered the reading of the sentence until he saw it replayed on the news. The court has found Mr. Jones guilty of all 125 counts against him. Because the jury could not come to a unanimous decision, which as we know is required to render capital punishment, he will receive two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Bird clicked off the TV and tossed the remote onto the other cushion. He stood, stretched, and went for a walk. It had been nearly a week since the sentencing and he had only wavered in his conviction once. It was not because of the three veiled death threats he had received, which he had tried to report to the police but didn’t have enough information for them to move forward. It was the victim statement of a son who had lost his father in Mr. Jones’ rampage that made Bird pause briefly. But he knew – because he had learned from his father – the difference between retribution and justice and so would not have changed his mind even if he could have at that point. Whatever ends the cycle of violence, that’s justice, he heard his dad say and whispered along.
It didn’t look like it would ever overtake the spouts of sun, night waddled so slowly into the sky. Bird squinted into the doomed light. He didn’t hear the footsteps this time. The last thing he saw was soft, ferric black. He felt only the first hit, a cold root diving down his spine, that beat the beauty right out of him.