photo by Autumn Bulebush-Clouse
I was quietly sitting on a stiff oak wood bench with The Book Thief sitting in my lap, my eyes thoroughly reading each sentence. The sound of metal clanking slowly became more and more apparent. It didn’t bother me until I could no longer hear the soft, steady breaths my mom took. I considered looking up to see where the sound came from, but I decided to finish reading the last page of the chapter. It was one of those deals you make with yourself in order to stay on task.
I kept to myself and continued reading, but I had this urge to look up as the sounds became so loud that it felt as if they were right in front of me. Finally, I slowly raised my head to see a man. A man at least 6’2’’, about 230 pounds and broad shoulders. His facial expression was soft and his eyes were emotionless as he stared at the ground slowly passing beneath his feet. The dull black and white striped jumpsuit he was wearing had a faint smell of soap and copper.
He and the short police officer with her hair tied in a tight bun and left hand clutching her duty belt made the turn into the courtroom. The printing on the back of his jumpsuit stood out in bold, black letters. “
What does DUA stand for?” I whispered to my mom. She responded with a shrug without looking up from her phone. What did he do? Why didn’t he look up?
Shortly thereafter, two of the county sheriffs who were there the night of the incident came out from the courtroom where the shackled man entered minutes earlier. They motioned for us from where we were sitting on the 6th floor at the Allegheny County Courthouse. It was almost as if they were afraid to talk. One after another, the four of us got up and filed in quietly. Our landlady first sat down, then my mom, her boyfriend, and I followed. The court room looked exactly how you would see on TV, except maybe a little smaller. Everything seemed to be cluttered but in an organized way and the room looked prestigious, laid out with wooden furniture and green accents in the carpet and walls. The judge sat at the highest point of the room in a big wooden chair with two women sitting at desks a level below him. Why is his chair so big? The day looks like it goes by slow in that chair.
I saw the shackled man standing before the judge with the words “DUA ALLEGHENY COUNTY JAIL” printed on top of the black and white stripes he was wearing. He stood quiet and vulnerable, still staring at the floor.
“You’re allegedly guilty of shooting a man in the back of the head with a Glock 19, causing him to lose eyesight in his left eye” stated the Judge. He then continued to list the felonies this man was charged with, including abusing his ex-girlfriend, selling drugs, not having a license for an AK 47 in the back of his truck (which was found after being pulled over for speeding), and five minutes more worth of charges being listed. The words flowing out of the judge’s mouth so relentlessly amazed me. How is the judge showing no emotion? Why isn’t anyone showing any sign of feelings, of anything?
I was starting to feel overwhelmed, but like everyone else I kept a straight face and tried to stop my eyes from opening wider than they already were. All I could think about was this man and the next 20 years of his life. I felt bad for him. Why should I feel bad for him… he is getting what he deserves, isn’t he? I wondered what was going through his mind at that moment. I couldn’t deny how I felt and why I felt it. I wanted him to be normal. I wanted that 26-year-old man to not spend the next 15 years in jail and five more years after that trying to restart his life again. I wanted him to be normal in a way where he didn’t only know how to steal and commit crimes.
Before the judge finalized his sentence for 180 months in jail, I noticed the small, female cop. She had been standing by his side the entire trial and by the end she grabbed her own belt and the shackled man’s belt before leading him out of the room. I stared at him as he made his way through the room. I couldn’t help but do it as everyone else in the room was doing the same.
He slowed down and made eye contact with a lady. I saw him mouth the words “I’ll talk to you soon, love you”. He was trying to say something else but I couldn’t understand before he was led out of the room. The lady stood up, radiating fear and sadness. It was all you could feel in the room. You could see it in her face as she was thinking of a way to respond to him before it was too late. Was that his girlfriend. Maybe his fiancee? Could he possibly have kids? For the next hours leading to our own trial, I thought about that shackled man. How surreal it was to me.
(6 months earlier)
Friday, August 25th was a clear night. I was forcefully standing there with tense muscles as flood lights shone on us. The hush fell over the crowd as the percussion set up and we walked out onto the 50 yard line. I remember how cramped my face was from smiling non-stop. I wonder where they are sitting.
Being on a football field was completely different than being on stage. When we got into our positions I finally turned around and saw the crowd. Being on stage is easier when the lights are directly in front of you making it nearly impossible to see anyone. But when I looked up for the first time my heart dropped. I could see every single face in the crowd from the front row to the back.
I was eager to show my friends my new room after coming home from the Friday night football game. Their first night staying over at my new house and my third night sleeping in my new room. After climbing several flights of stairs to get to my room in the attic, I opened the door. Nothing but 2 pillows, a comforter and a iPhone charger plugged into the outlet next to my makeshift bed. “Sorry I don’t have a bed to sleep in but the only time the movers are available is this Sunday” I said searching my friends faces for some sort of reaction. Finally my one friend blurted out “I love it.” Around 11:30 p.m. I could hear my mom’s door close and the familiar ‘clink’ sound of her lamp being turned off. I made the final decision that I was going to bed, which is a pretty tough decision considering I’m at a sleepover. I was too tired to be able to stay up another minute so I curled up on the floor in a ball, missing my bed. The sound of my friend breathing and my other one shuffling to find a comfortable spot lead to me drifting off asleep.
I woke up. My dog was shaking in my arms. My two friends lay still on each side of me sleeping. I looked down at my dog and immediately I knew something was wrong with her. I’ve never seen such violent shaking come from any animal even as small as this little Chihuahua. My room was pitch black except for the light on in the hallway outside my fully opened door. After she ran into my room my eyes followed the path she took leading to the door. A black silhouette of a person stood outside my bedroom door, staring at me. Who is that? I am dreaming…. Am I Dreaming?…. This isn’t a dream.
I sat there, frozen. Every muscle in my body was tense. I couldn’t move. My throat went dry. “Give me the dog” the figure hissed. “Excuse me?” I said. I was realizing this figure was a woman. “Who are you?” I asked. She repeated herself again but this time more harshly, “Give me the dog.” In one swift movement she ran across my room with a jolt in her body as she lunged for the dog in my arms. I remember the sharp pain I felt in my hand but it was interrupted by the adrenaline I was gaining by the second.
My heart was like a train frantically pounding down the tracks. With my dog in her hands she ran down the first spiral flight of steps approaching my mom’s room. The commotion must have woke her up because the door of my mom’s room came flying open. I could see the blood drain from her face and her eyes were wide as if she saw a ghost. She immediately tried to grab her dog from the stranger’s tight grip. “I’M CALLING THE COPS,” she screamed. The women looked at her then back at me as my friends were rushing down the stairs. Before my mom could say anything else, the burglar was already on her way out the once locked door.
“911. What is your emergency?” My mom was sobbing into the phone explaining what had just happened. Her boyfriend came out from her room barely awake with drooping eyes. He has no idea what is happening right now. I don’t know what is happening right now.
“Oh my god! Your hand is covered in blood!” My one friend said with a voice I have never heard her use before. For the first time since waking up I was finally becoming aware of my surroundings and glanced down at my hand. My fingers on my left hand had red blood slowly running down my palm . Was it from my dog? Maybe she accidentally bit me while the lady was trying to grab her. I walked into the bathroom next to my mom’s room and wadded up toilet paper. As I non strategically placed it on my fingers I glanced at myself in the mirror. I was wearing gray sweatpants, an over sized sweatshirt and my hair was pulled back into a low messy bun.
After my mom informed me the police were now on their way, she asked if our two other small dogs were upstairs hiding. She was still crying when she asked but she seemed to have collected herself. I turned around and realized that this was my friends’ first night staying here. I didn’t have the words to tell them how sorry I was for this to happen. They somehow understood what I was thinking by my narrowed eyebrows and glossy eyes looking back and forth between them. “It’s okay, this wasn’t your fault” they said and paused for a moment before continuing, “Let’s go find the other dogs”.
Under the bed, in the closet, behind furniture, we looked everywhere repeatedly screaming their names. I ran downstairs with a pit in my stomach. I could barely get these next words up without choking, “Mom, they’re gone.”
(6 months later)
The woman who had once stood in the door frame of my bedroom at 3:15 am was now standing before the judge. It was nearly an hour and forty-five minutes since the shackled man was standing in the same spot. The judge called for any final statements and her lawyer responded,“Yes, your honor.”
She began to speak with a soft voice, nowhere near the voice she used the night that caused us to be here in the first place.
“I am a good person. I do good things. I have two daughters of my own and as a mother I understand how terrifying this type of situation to occur would be. I never had any intent for that night to turn out the way it did.”
Her voice began to shake as she turned around and looked directly at my mom then me.
“I’m sorry, so, so sorry for the trauma I have caused for you and your daughter.” Tears were beginning to form in her eyes. I looked over at my mom expecting to see her forgiving face. Instead, I was surprised with her clenched jaw and tensed expression not allowing herself to take an eye off the woman. The judge then proceeded to state her punishment, which included five years of probation, multiple fines, and community service.
“Do you feel bad for her?” I asked my mom on our way home.
“Why would I?” she responded.
“I don’t know, I guess I just feel bad that this is happening to her. I understand she deserved it, but imagine what she is feeling right now,” I quietly said.
She’s just like that man in the shackles. I wish this way of life wasn’t all she knew. My mom continued “As I grow older, I get more and more tired of people getting away with things. Once I was your age and I had an overwhelming amount of innocence when it came to things like this. You have barely scraped the ice of what this world is actually like and you will quickly find out soon.”
I processed what she had said along with the real-world experiences I was exposed to today. I never did find out what DUA meant either.