Man’s Best Friend, Zombie’s Worst Enemy Part 32

A murmur of growls arose from the dozen or so dogs in the public benches of the courtroom. Stacy steadied herself and put her hand on Blas’s head to calm him, as did Ethan’s parents in the row ahead her. Princess could only be a liability here, so she was at home, no doubt still crying in the corner. Stacy had no idea what to do about her, but she pushed the thought from her mind. Somehow, even though it had been more than a month since she broke up with him, having Ethan’s dog meant they were still connected, and she felt she had to be here for his trial.

Stacy knew it was for his own protection against a courtroom full of dogs eager to tear him apart, but she still stiffened when she saw Ethan wheeled in in a plexiglass box. Seeing him there, sitting in a chair behind five air holes, no one would call Ethan healthy. His eyes sunk into his head, his skin looked gray, but he didn’t have any mold that Stacy could see, and he didn’t slump. Something in the way he carried himself, looking out into the stands with his head high, told Stacy that this was still the Ethan she knew. If only his humanity was what was on trial. 

The judge’s golden retriever followed her to the bench and lay down behind the stand. Her fluffy yellow tail poked out, wagging when the judge looked down at her. “Ok,” said the judge, “I’m Judge Hoffman.” 

She looked at the paper in front of her. “Ethan Stowe, you stand accused of knowingly spreading zombieism. As you have tested positive for the contagion, the purpose of this trial is to determine whether you face immediate execution or life in quarantine.”

Ethan looked up at her from his box and nodded. He spoke with a slow deliberation, his voice hoarse. “I understand, your honor.”

“Good. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

“Very well. Will the prosecution begin?”

Stacy had never met the Bordens in good times, and she had to assume they would seem nicer if she had. The wife looked on with grim satisfaction, no doubt convinced she was setting a criminal to rights or ridding the land of a vile abomination. The husband just looked grim, his jowly face contorted like something in his stomach disagreed with him. Their dogs – a pair of chocolate labradors – glared intently at Ethan, noses flaring. She wondered if this family would seek to have the Thinking Bear put down next. Maybe not, since Michael had clearly ceased to be sentient by then, or why would he have stood there and let the bear kill him? Maybe they watched her video and saw nothing more than the bear toppling a corpse.

The prosecution rose, young and confident. “Ethan Stowe prowled the woods at night until he came upon Michael Borden and bit him. The story is as simple as that.”

Anticipating the judge’s skepticism, he followed up, “Of course, it was almost a perfect crime. Indeed, despite the traumatic loss of their son, Mr. and Mrs. Borden had made peace with the idea that this crime would remain unsolved. Until an anonymous friend offered them an image.”

An aide wheeled in a video screen. “What Ethan didn’t know when he stalked Michael Borden was that the forest behind Romero High school is full of nature cameras, and one caught a glimpse of his misdeed.”

The camera showed Michael Borden wandering through the woods. In moments, his chocolate lab bolted forward and leapt at a shadowy figure. The public stands gasped when the figure aimed a well-timed kick at the lab’s head. When it lay sprawled on the ground, the figure advanced toward Michael and tackled him to the ground, emerging moments later with blood dripping from what little could be seen of its face.

“Cut to a photo capture from another camera five minutes later.”

A still image of Ethan, his face covered in blood, stalking through the woods. The date and time posted to the bottom right of the image were indeed just minutes after the altercation with Michael.

“The shocking footage I just showed you was all this family had to tell them what happened to their beloved son, and it wasn’t enough. For weeks they mourned, knowing the brutality to which their son was subjected and with nothing to help them bring the assailant to justice. This image was the last piece of the puzzle that they needed.” He leveled a finger at Ethan.” Please convict this man, so that the Borden family may have peace.”

The footage was intense. Ethan shook his head quietly as the judge looked from it to him. 

The judge nodded, adopting the grim expression of the plaintiffs. “Defense?” 

A stooped old man in a three-piece suit stood from a chair beside Ethan’s box. A young brown boxer-poodle mix kept to his side as he lifted a curved wooden cane and stepped forward. “Your honor, the video you just saw is real. However, there is no relationship between it and the image that the prosecution is attempting to use to tie it to Ethan. I’m sorry to introduce new evidence now, but the organization of this trial left us very little time to submit it ahead.”

With a nod from the judge, the old man pulled a USB from his breast pocket and plugged it into the display. He grumbled as he fiddled with the contraption, but soon it showed a picture that looked much the same as the incriminating one, except that Ethan’s face was clean, not covered with blood, the date was different, and Princess Penelope Blackwater Stowe padded behind him.

“Now whenever you see two pictures just a little bit different it’s always fair to ask ‘which one’s the fake?’ Let’s take another look at the prosecution’s picture.” He poked at the screen some more and got it to where he could swipe left and right to compare the two pictures. He pinched to zoom in on Princess’s fluffy coat and the empty space where she would be and swiped left and right. Stacy thought she could see the inconsistencies. One pine needle broke off at a strange angle, a pine cone looked translucent, or maybe it was just strangely lit. She wanted Ethan to be safe, but was she fooling herself?

“This was a tragic crime, and my heart goes out to the Borden family, but taking another innocent victim will solve nothing. Ethan has a history of wandering off the trail, as this photo demonstrates, but recklessness is not a crime. Your honor, my client is afflicted with a serious illness, but he’s no monster. Please acquit and let him live the rest of his life in a quarantine facility.”

The judge waved the picture display over and swiped back and forth a few times herself. The prosecution huddled with the Borden family. The huddle continued, the whole room leaning forward to overhear. The whispers grew more strained until Michael’s mother stood and shouted. “Harold, it killed our son! Who cares if some pinecone isn’t pointing the right way!? That thing in the box is already dead, just look at it!”

Everyone looked at Ethan, who stood from his seat. “I’m…” He croaked. He tried again. “I’m.” He worked his mouth, but no further words came out. He began to cough and sat back down.

Harold’s eye widened, and he mumbled something more. His wife shook her head in disgust. “Of course it’s easier when you don’t have to look them in the eye! Jesus Christ, Harold, I thought I married a man! She looked to the prosecutor. “Tell him, George. Tell him he can’t call off the trial.”

The prosecutor shook his head at Harold, who took a pained look at Ethan and his parents and fell back in his seat. His wife adopted a consoling tone.  “Think of it as protecting the community. We don’t know what else this thing is capable of.”

The judge shook her head and pushed the display away. “I’m calling it off. With this photograph in question there’s no evidence left.” 

“No!” screamed Mrs. Borden, whirling on her. Her chocolate lab barked, and the golden behind the podium spun to face her, only her head sticking out, teeth bared. 

The judge herself was in little better a mood. “You’re lucky I don’t file against you for falsification of evidence Mrs. Borden!”

Mrs. Borden shrieked, pointing at Ethan. “It killed my son! If it’s not here, it’s still out there!”

“We don’t know that.” Harold now spoke at full volume. His wife ground her teeth, then burst into tears. He took her in his arms. “I know it’s not fair, honey. I miss him, too.” 

The judge turned to Ethan’s lawyer. “Does the defendant have a quarantine facility to go to?”

“Page forty-four,” the old man answered, and the judge flipped through her folder. She banged her gavel. “I hereby release Ethan Stowe to the custody of Green Meadows Village.”

Stacy’s breath came fast, and even now she didn’t know whether to be relieved. She watched Mr. Stowe offered his wife his hand, and her accept it. They drew together as they looked at their son, but Ethan looked straight out through the plexiglass at no one, sallow face betraying nothing.

Gray Paw Print Clip Art at Clker.com - vector clip art online, royalty free  & public domain

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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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