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SHE FELT LIKE A BRIDE walking into the courtroom. Certainly, her wedding was the last time—the only time—that a roomful of people had fallen silent and turned to stare as she entered. If it weren’t for the variety in hair color and the snippets of whispers in English as she walked down the aisle—“Look, the owners,” “The daughter was in a coma for months, poor thing,” “He’s paralyzed, so awful”—she might have thought she was still in Korea.
The small courtroom even looked like an old church, with creaky wooden pews on both sides of the aisle. She kept her head down, just as she had at her wedding twenty years ago; she wasn’t usually the focus of attention, and it felt wrong. Modesty, blending in, invisibility: those were the virtues of wives, not notoriety and gaudiness. Wasn’t that why brides wore veils—to protect them from stares, to mute the redness of their cheeks? She glanced to the sides. On the right, behind the prosecution, she glimpsed familiar faces, those of their patients’ families.
The patients had all gathered together only once: last July, at the orientation outside the barn. Her husband had opened the doors to show the freshly painted blue chamber. “This,” Pak said, looking proud, “is Miracle Submarine. Pure oxygen. Deep pressure. Healing. Together.” Everyone clapped. Mothers cried. And now, here were the same people, somber, the hope of miracle gone from their faces, replaced by the curiosity of people reaching for tabloids in supermarket lines. That and pity—for her or themselves, she didn’t know. She’d expected anger, but they smiled as she walked by, and she had to remind herself that she was a victim here. She was not the defendant, not the one they blamed for the explosion that killed two patients. She told herself what Pak told her every day—their absence from the barn that night didn’t cause the fire, and he couldn’t have prevented the explosion even if he’d stayed with the patients—and tried to smile back. Their support was a good thing. She knew that. But it felt undeserved, wrong, like a prize won by cheating, and instead of buoying her, it weighed her down with worry that God would see and correct the injustice, make her pay for her lies some other way.
When Young reached the wooden railing, she fought her impulse to hop across and sit at the defense table. She sat with her family behind the prosecutor, next to Matt and Teresa, two of the people trapped in Miracle Submarine that night. She hadn’t seen them in a long time, not since the hospital. But no one said hi. They all looked down. They were the victims.
* * *
THE COURTHOUSE WAS in Pineburg, the town next to Miracle Creek. It was strange, the names—the opposite of what you’d expect. Miracle Creek didn’t look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom. The “Miracle” name and its marketing possibilities (plus cheap land) had drawn them there despite there being no other Asians—no immigrants at all, probably. It was only an hour from Washington, D.C., an easy drive from dense concentrations of modernity such as Dulles Airport, but it had the isolated feel of a village hours from civilization, an entirely different world. Dirt trails instead of concrete sidewalks. Cows rather than cars. Decrepit wooden barns, not steel-and-glass high-rises. Like stepping into a grainy black-and-white film. It had that feel of being used and discarded; the first time Young saw it, she had an impulse to find every bit of trash in her pockets and throw it as far as she could.
Pineburg, despite its plain name and proximity to Miracle Creek, was charming, its narrow cobblestone streets lined with chalet-style shops, each painted a different bright color. Looking at Main Street’s row of shops reminded Young of her favorite market in Seoul, its legendary produce row—spinach green, pepper red, beet purple, persimmon orange. From its description, she would’ve thought it garish, but it was the opposite—as if putting the brash colors together subdued each one, so the overall feel was elegant and lovely.
The courthouse was at the base of a knoll, flanked by grapevines planted in straight lines up the hill. The geometric precision provided a measured calm, and it seemed fitting that a building of justice would stand amid the ordered rows of vines.
That morning, gazing at the courthouse, its tall white columns, Young had thought how this was the closest she’d been to the America she’d expected. In Korea, after Pak decided she should move to Baltimore with Mary, she’d gone to bookstores and looked through pictures of America—the Capitol, Manhattan skyscrapers, Inner Harbor. In her five years in America, she hadn’t seen any of those sights. For the first four years, she’d worked in a grocery store two miles from Inner Harbor, but in a neighborhood people called the “ghetto,” houses boarded up and broken bottles everywhere. A tiny vault of bulletproof glass: that had been America for her.
It was funny how desperate she’d been to escape that gritty world, and yet she missed it now. Miracle Creek was insular, with longtime residents (going back generations, they said). She thought they might be slow to warm, so she focused on befriending one family nearby who’d seemed especially nice. But over time, she realized: they weren’t nice; they were politely unfriendly. Young knew the type. Her own mother had belonged to this breed of people who used manners to cover up unfriendliness the way people used perfume to cover up body odor—the worse it was, the more they used. Their stiff hyperpoliteness—the wife’s perpetual closed-lip smile, the husband’s ma’am at the beginning or end of every sentence—kept Young at a distance and reinforced her status as a stranger. Although her most frequent customers in Baltimore had been cantankerous, cursing and complaining about everything from the prices being too high to the sodas too warm and deli meats too thin, there was an honesty to their rudeness, a comfortable intimacy to their yelling. Like bickering siblings. Nothing to cover up.
After Pak joined them in America last year, they’d looked for housing in Annandale, the D.C. area’s Koreatown—a manageable drive from Miracle Creek. The fire had stopped all that, and they were still in their “temporary” housing. A crumbling shack in a crumbling town far from anything pictured in the books. To this day, the fanciest place Young had been in America was the hospital where Pak and Mary had lain for months after the explosion.
* * *
THE COURTROOM WAS LOUD. Not the people—the victims, lawyers, journalists, and who knew who else—but the two old-fashioned window-unit air conditioners on opposite sides behind the judge. They sputtered like lawn mowers when they switched on and off, which, because they weren’t synchronized, happened at different times—one, then the other, then back again, like some strange mechanical beasts’ mating calls. When the units ran, they rattled and hummed, each at a slightly different pitch, making Young’s eardrums itch. She wanted to stick her pinkie deep inside her ear into her brain and scratch.
The lobby plaque said the courthouse was a 250-year-old historical landmark and asked for donations to the Pineburg Courthouse Preservation Society. Young had shaken her head at the thought of this society, an entire group whose sole purpose was to prevent this building from becoming modern. Americans were so proud of things being a few hundred years old, as if things being old were a value in and of itself. (Of course, this philosophy did not extend to people.) They didn’t seem to realize that the world valued America precisely because it was not old, but modern and new. Koreans were the opposite. In Seoul, there would be a Modernization Society dedicated to replacing this courthouse’s “antique” hardwood floors and pine tables with marble and sleek steel.
“All rise. Skyline County Criminal Court now in session, the Honorable Frederick Carleton III presiding,” the bailiff said, and everyone stood. Except Pak. His hands clenched his wheelchair’s armrests, the green veins on his hands and wrists popping up as if willing his arms to support his body’s weight. Young started to help, but she stopped herself, knowing that needing help for something basic like standing would be worse for him than not standing at all. Pak cared so much about appearances, conforming to rules and expectations—the quintessentially Korean things she’d strangely never cared about (because her family’s wealth afforded her the luxury of being immune to them, Pak would say). Still, she understood his frustration, being the lone sitting figure in this towering crowd. It made him vulnerable, like a child, and she had to fight the urge to cloak his body with her arms and hide his shame.
“The court will now come to order. Docket number 49621, Commonwealth of Virginia versus Elizabeth Ward,” the judge said, and banged the gavel. As if by plan, both air conditioners were off, and the sound of wood striking wood reverberated off the slanted ceilings and lingered in the silence.
It was official: Elizabeth was the defendant. Young felt a tingle inside her chest, like some dormant cell of relief and hope had burst and was spreading sparks of electricity throughout her body, zapping away the fear that had hijacked her life. Even though almost a year had passed since Pak was cleared and Elizabeth arrested, Young hadn’t quite believed it, had wondered if this was a trick, and if today, as the trial started, they’d announce her and Pak as the real targets. But now the waiting was over, and after several days of evidence—“overwhelming evidence,” the prosecutor said—Elizabeth would be found guilty, and they’d get their insurance money and rebuild their lives. No more living in stasis.
The jurors filed in. Young gazed at them, these people—all twelve, seven men and five women—who believed in capital punishment and swore they were willing to vote for death by lethal injection. Young had learned this last week. The prosecutor had been in a particularly good mood, and when she asked why, he’d explained that the potential jurors most likely to be sympathetic to Elizabeth had been dismissed because they were anti-death-penalty.
“Death penalty? Like hanging?” she’d said.
Her alarm and revulsion must have shown, because Abe stopped smiling. “No, by injection, drugs in an IV. It’s painless.”
He’d explained that Elizabeth wouldn’t necessarily get death, it was just a possibility, but still, she’d dreaded seeing Elizabeth here, the terror that would surely be on her face, confronting the people with the power to end her life.
Now, Young forced herself to look at Elizabeth, at the defense table. She looked like a lawyer herself, her blond hair twisted into a bun, dark green suit, pearls, pumps. Young had almost looked past her, she looked so different from before—messy ponytail, wrinkled sweats, unmatched socks.
It was ironic—of all the parents of their patients, Elizabeth had been the most disheveled, and yet she’d had by far the most manageable child. Henry, her only child, had been a well-mannered boy who, unlike many other patients, could walk, talk, was toilet-trained, and didn’t have tantrums. During orientation, when the mother of twins with autism and epilepsy asked Elizabeth, “Sorry, but what’s Henry here for? He seems so normal,” she’d frowned as if offended. She recited a list—OCD, ADHD, sensory and autism spectrum disorders, anxiety—then said how hard it was, spending all her days researching experimental treatments. She seemed to have no clue how she sounded complaining while surrounded by kids with wheelchairs and feeding tubes.
Judge Carleton asked Elizabeth to stand. She expected Elizabeth to cry as he read the charges, or at least blush, her eyes down. But Elizabeth looked straight at the jury, her cheeks unflushed, eyes unblinking. She studied Elizabeth’s face, so empty of expression, wondering if she was numb, in shock. But instead of looking vacant, Elizabeth looked serene. Almost happy. Perhaps it was because she was so used to Elizabeth’s worried frowns that their absence made Elizabeth look contented.
Or perhaps the newspapers were right. Perhaps Elizabeth had been desperate to get rid of her son, and now that he was dead, she finally had a measure of peace. Perhaps she had been a monster all along.
Copyright © 2019 by Angela Suyeon Kim