After a brief moment of reshuffling, the sea of bodies quickly returned to a school of order. The audience filled the mahogany courtroom pews like a Sunday morning church service in a rural Alabama town. They almost fearfully directed their attention to the judge, the pastor delivering a sermon of justice. Just as attentive as the audience was the jury, the choir who timidly sat in their rows of six, anticipating their cue to impassionately sing their verdict. On the floor were the two parties. On one side were four equally well-dressed and pale commoners. A couple who repelled any and all emotion within eyesight stood placidly behind the two chairs and table. The man, with a light scruff invading his lower face like a rash, wore a yellow polo, brown belt, and blue jeans as if he was trying to sell a house. The woman’s face was caked in makeup that fruitlessly tried to make her frosted face look 30 years younger, which was only enhanced by her incredibly unremarkable flowery blouse. Sitting in the chair to the left was the default lawyer: white, 5 foot 11, gray suit, shiny black tie, and slip-on dress shoes, slicked-back short brown hair, neatly trimmed face, briefcase. On the right, with his mother’s hands stroking his blonde bowl cut was a boy no younger than nine. He sat at his mahogany table with its color and faint stickiness like the maple syrup on the pancakes he ate earlier that morning. He didn’t quite know why he was there, and the event was bound to be a faint memory of going to a place similar to church on a Saturday morning. The architecture, attire, and demeanor of those around him convinced him of such.
While the left side of the courtroom’s floor drew a picture seen so commonly in the paintings, the right consisted of someone – something – that wouldn’t even make the rough sketch. A large, bright orange goldfish flopped and bounced around on the mildly dirty floor. Every passing second brought a renewed glossiness to the beady eyes that were being drained of life. It inaudibly gasped for air and tensed its body into an ellipsis to squeeze as much oxygen from its lungs as possible. Being away from home – the place that let him live – shrunk him down and made him powerless. The fish’s silent pleas for help stuck out like a mole, the eyes of the room consistently drawn to and repelled from it, but the inherent contrast to the setting looked like it was begging to be concealed.
“Order, order in the court,” the judge commanded. He sat at his podium, towering over the salt-sprinkled pews. The tens of people were cast into a deafening silence that rang of wrongdoing. The parents of the boy each took a seat; the father by the lawyer and the mother by her son. The fish continued to flail in place, the height of its hops in sync with the room’s loudness like a volume meter. Much like everyone else, the judge turned his attention to the fish. He bitterly pursed his lips and heaved from his nose. Why was this fish wasting his time? He knew exactly how this would end. He’d gone through these motions time and time again. Before the judge was even sure of it himself, the verdict was already set.
“Let’s knock this out today,” the judge sighed. “Today, we are presiding over the trial of this… fish… who has been charged with one misdemeanor charge of criminal stalking, one felony charge of false imprisonment by intimidation, and two felony charges of child endangerment. The accusers, Mrs. and Mr. Connor Baldwin, allege that the accused endangered their son, Peter, by closely following and threatening harm to him in a public space. If the accuser would like to make an opening statement, you have the floor.”
The lawyer rose from his chair and strode towards the front of the podium as if he actually had to take this seriously.
“Your honor,” the lawyer asserted, “my clients today have been not only deeply traumatized by the events that unfolded but also humbled that they survived such horror. They are seeking compensation for damages and punishment for the perpetrator not just to have some semblance of repayment for the mental anguish brought upon them but to set an example out of the committed crimes. They want others to feel the safety they so, unfortunately, were not granted. They desire for other potential offenders to, for a lack of a better term, back off and leave innocent civilians alone, fearing the justice that we strive to bring.”
His voice was persuasively cool as he waved his hands like he was conducting the flow of words from his mouth, practicing for his inevitable campaign for state attorney general. The judge, though, twirled his dark gavel on the podium with one hand and rested his head on the other.
The lawyer continued after a brief pause, letting the echoes of the courtroom ripple through the tepid jury. “We hope to give others like the Baldwin family the peace of mind that they are safe in our communities, our city, our state, and our country. Threatening our children is threatening all of us, and such heinous actions should be punished accordingly. Thank you, your honor.”
The lawyer returned to his seat by Mr. Baldwin, who clapped his back and rubbed it, grinning at him like a proud father whose kid just reeled in their first bass. The judge looked up from his gavel, which he had now been loosely flicking up and down in the air with his wrist.
“Thank you for your statement,” the judge nodded towards the table to the left. He shifted his head to the lonelier one on the right. “As the accused, would you like to respond?”
The fish’s bouncing stopped as its energy evaporated. Its blacked-out eyes and increasingly shallow and panicked breathing screamed a rebuttal declaring innocence. However, the fish’s right to remain silent only incriminated it even more.
“…no?” The judge asked after a pause that was just short enough to feel rushed. “Alright then. Now we can get onto the evidence. The accuser has the floor.”
The lawyer returned to his floor. “The reason we are gathered here today is because of the acts that the fish committed. As you said, the fish has been justly charged with criminal stalking, false imprisonment, and child endangerment, and this should not change. The fish trailed the boy, despite being contained in the restaurant tank. The boy’s intrigue of the tank swiftly morphed into terror as the fish approached him. The poor child, stricken with fear, briskly walked away from the intimidating fish, only to be followed. God bless his parents, such caring people, who rescued their threatened and horrified son. Had the fish been given another minute, it could’ve been deadly. For this reason, all charges speak for themselves and don’t warrant any necessary justification. The child was clearly endangered, stalked, and psychologically imprisoned until he was saved.”
The lawyer went back to the deeply flattered parents and the boy, who was completely confused. He had barely even remembered what led up to his mother’s shrieks: all he could recall was the glass’s comforting chilliness as he peered into the seafood restaurant’s fish tank while awaiting his chicken fingers and hushpuppies. Having grown bored of the handful of goldfishes’ splotchy orange and white patterns, he was returning to his table when his mother screamed bloody murder and dragged him away from the tank. It was all a whirlwind from there: police cars, sirens, caution tape, broken glass, water, and mumblings of a “payout.”
He looked over to his left. He saw the fish’s life hanging into balance. The hard rim of its agape mouth protruded like a pouty child as its eyes begged like a puppy. It limply flopped while its gills attempted to ensnare whatever oxygen it could. The boy knew he could not give the fish mercy. He knew his words, his urging that the fish did nothing wrong, his pleadings to let it be free, his cries to just go home, would be acknowledged as much as the fish had been in the courtroom.
“Thank you again for the wonderful statement,” the judge directed to the boy’s table. “Now, if the accused would like to bring their defense, they have the floor.”
Like before, the fish had nothing substantial. The only defense it could provide was the vulnerability of its faint wheezing synchronized with the curving of its body.
“…I see you don’t have much of a case,” the judge remarked sardonically. The fish disagreed. The judge thought that this could be a new record for the quickest trial of his.
The judge then looked straight to his left. “I can’t imagine it will take very long to reach a verdict,” he said snidely at the jury.
The twelve unwilling volunteers, during the trial, looked among each other and came to a nonverbal mutual understanding of their final decision. However, it was during this pause that one of them stood up.
“Do you not see that it can’t breathe?” the young woman questioned the judge. “It’s about to die.”
The judge glared back at the rogue. “Do you not see that I’m doing my job? Don’t question me, miss. Sit down.”
“You soon won’t have anyone to convict, though.”
“And you soon won’t have a clean criminal record as I hold you in contempt of court.”
The woman’s face blazed red as she sheepishly sat back down.
The judge heaved an irritated sigh. “My deepest apologies for that, everyone. Now, have we reached a verdict?”
The jury nodded their heads together as they all turned in their decisions for the case. The Baldwin parents could barely contain their sly grins of satisfaction. The stoic and impervious lawyer was proud of himself for another job well done; his eventual attorney general campaign was going swimmingly. The audience was reactionless and apathetic, having built up an immunity to the scenes played out in front of them. The boy was even more puzzled than he was before. He still had a long way to go before he could find all of the pieces and put them together.
The fish’s grip on life was slipping. Its lungs seared and ached. Its throat was completely gagged. It struggled with all of its might to eek out breath after breath. Its eyes began to fog.
The judge unrolled the sheet of paper handed to him. He pushed up his thin metal-rodded glasses and began to read aloud, skipping all of the legal jargon.
“It is to my understanding that, on the behalf of this court, this fish has been found guilty of all four charges against it, including child endangerment, false imprisonment by intimidation, and criminal stalking. To repay for the crimes you have committed, you have been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.”
The fish released one final exhalation of life. Its curved body slowly decompressed as it went limp.