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    Han Naeyung went back to the consultation room and opened his house call bag. He took a deep breath as he glanced at the lunch box next to him. He didn’t feel deserving of such care. He didn’t want to tarnish her kindness.

    He placed the lunch box on a shelf and stared at the bag with a blank expression. The tips of his white gloves were stained with dark dust. That was to be expected, as he had reached into the mailbox of a dilapidated building.


    Residence confirmed as xx City, xx District. Actual residence varies. Suspicious behavior patterns confirmed. Next contact: 7-203.


    Han Naeyung crumpled the paper. The next contact was in a week, at the mailbox of building 203. The words “suspicious behavior patterns confirmed” lingered in his mind. Someone else might be suffering, another sibling like him could be trapped in that situation.

    He wanted to hurry, but he knew that acting rashly could spell the end. It felt like his back was on fire, as if the scars he had scratched open with a knife were bleeding anew. He curled up and crossed his arms, feeling as if the healed wounds on his back were reopening. He bit his lip and endured the pain.

    ***

    “Doctor, I’m heading out. I sent a text to everyone about the temporary closure tomorrow.”

    “…Closure?”

    Han Naeyung, who had been staring blankly at a book, asked in surprise. Tomorrow wasn’t an official closure day for the animal hospital.

    “Did you forget? Are you going to ignore the fine?”

    Bundled up in a padded jacket, Lee Seolhwa pointed at the calendar on the examination table. The date was circled with a note that read “court appearance,” written in her handwriting.

    “You forgot, didn’t you?”

    She tightened her scarf, saying she expected as much.

    “I’m happy to get a day off, but you’ll have a rough time. Let me know how it goes the day after tomorrow.”

    “Okay, take care…,”

    Lee Seolhwa was out the door with a fighting pose before Han Naeyung could finish his sentence. He was always a step behind when it came to friendly gestures.

    At the beginning of the month, both of them had been surprised by the mail from the court. Han Naeyung had been randomly selected to serve as a juror in a citizen participation trial. Lee Seolhwa had commented, “People sure know how to be a nuisance.”

    Had that much time already passed?

    Han Naeyung shook off his sluggish sense of time. He then let out a brief, hollow laugh and rubbed his eyes, clearing away the ironic smile that had formed. His vision was blurry from staring at the book for so long. Life was an endless series of ironies, after all. This was just another part of that continuum.

    ***

    Han Naeyung arrived at the courthouse by 9 AM, hoping he wouldn’t be selected as a juror. However, he was chosen anyway.

    There were a total of 20 juror candidates. As one of the randomly selected ones, Han Naeyung took the third juror seat. He stared at the desk until all jurors were chosen.

    Several jurors were disqualified, so it took a while to fill all the seats. The selected jurors varied in age and gender. They only addressed each other by number, so no names were known.

    The juror in seat one took the oath, and the trial began. With no other choice, Han Naeyung planned to listen quietly.

    “The victim, Mr. Choo Youngdo, had a history of domestic violence. Additionally, he was clearly addicted to gambling and infidelity. The defendant, Mr. Choo Jinseong, has confessed and acknowledged his guilt. However, we seek a reduced sentence on the grounds that the incident occurred under diminished capacity.”

    The defendant was charged with “patricide.”

    On the surface, it was a scandalous and immoral case. The jurors, who initially viewed the defendant with stern expressions, grew confused after hearing the defense’s argument.

    The defendant, who had stabbed and killed his drunken, rampaging father, appeared dazed and out of touch. His mother and relatives testified in his favor, all labeling the deceased as a man who deserved to die.

    “Even so, the defendant could have resolved the situation by promptly reporting it instead of resorting to murder,” the prosecutor argued.

    The defense lawyer raised his voice in response, “This incident was an impulsive crime born out of extreme circumstances!”

    The fierce arguments from the morning had drained Han Naeyung mentally. He wanted to shut out the voices of both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer.

    The morning session ended without a conclusion, and the jurors gathered in the cafeteria. While they chatted and called each other by their juror numbers, Han Naeyung quietly ate his lukewarm soup.

    “When I first got the mail from the court, I thought it was a lawsuit, and I was so scared,” complained Juror No. 1, who looked to be in his forties.

    “Same here. I didn’t even know such a system existed,” another juror added.

    Since discussing the trial was prohibited, they exchanged small talk instead.

    “But Juror No. 3, you seem very quiet,” remarked Juror No. 5.

    “Well, with such a heavy atmosphere in the courtroom, it’s no wonder. Even someone as bold as me gets nervous,” someone else replied, not giving Han Naeyung a chance to respond.

    It had been a long time since Han Naeyung had visited a courtroom. Despite the years that had passed, he remembered that day as vividly as if it were yesterday, as though some parts of his memory had been snipped away like a cut film.

    Han Naeyung forced himself to think of something else. He recalled the victim’s wife, who had also testified. She was the defendant’s mother and looked like a crude statue made of sand. She wanted leniency for her son but also grieved for her husband.

    But why should someone be punished for killing a person who deserved to die, as others had said?

    “Let’s move to the deliberation room,” an attendant informed the jurors. Han Naeyung quickly snapped out of his thoughts and straightened his slightly crooked tie.

    He spent the time until the afternoon session in the deliberation room, quietly listening to the jurors’ conversations. Thankfully, they talked a lot. If they had all been silent, he would have been swept away by his memories.

    The trial resumed at 10 AM and continued until nearly 6 PM, when deliberations and verdict discussions began. The jurors, led by the foreperson, debated fiercely between sentencing the defendant to prison and granting a suspended sentence.

    “He’s a murderer who took a life. Even if he’s a minor, he must serve time,” argued one juror.

    “Do you really think the victim didn’t go too far? He was a serial domestic abuser and a cheater. The boy was subjected to violence all his life. The records show his hospital visits for broken bones and other injuries. This was a crime committed to protect himself and his mother,” another juror countered.

    “I agree with Juror No. 2,” someone else chimed in.

    “Juror No. 2 has a point, but if we go by that logic, then all criminals might as well be killed. Our legal system isn’t Hammurabi’s Code. Crimes must be punished accordingly,” another voice reasoned.

    “And what about the victim, who was a domestic abuser? If this hadn’t happened, he’d have gotten another slap on the wrist and walked free.”

    “Let’s not speculate on what didn’t happen. We’re discussing a murder case here.”

    “Alright, Solomon,” someone muttered sarcastically.

    “That’s going too far,” another retorted.

    “Imagine living 17 years of daily abuse. Even if it weren’t impulsive, I’d constantly have murderous thoughts,” another juror vented.

    Just when the discussion was getting too heated, Juror No. 7, who hadn’t said much either, looked at Han Naeyung.

    “You seem really tired, Juror No. 3.”

    “…I’m fine.”

    “You’ve been quiet this whole time. What’s on your mind?”

    “…”

    Han Naeyung brushed his pale face with a hand that even looked tired in its white glove, which he hadn’t removed since morning. He wanted to escape this room, where everyone sat in a tight circle, breathing each other’s air.

    Watching the jurors argue over the justification of the murder, anger slowly rose within him. The defendant had been robbed of his soul while still alive, and the victim had his body stolen by murder.

    The jurors asked which side they should support. Han Naeyung finally raised his hand in agreement with one side only at the last moment.

    The trial, which had lasted a full 12 hours, concluded with the judge’s decision mirroring the majority opinion of the jurors.

    “We sentence defendant Choo Jinseong to three years in prison. However, considering his exemplary behavior and the support from his family, classmates, and teachers, we suspend the sentence for four years. This concludes the trial.”

    The jury had favored a suspended sentence by a vote of 5 to 3. Three years in prison with a four-year suspension might have seemed lenient for a murder conviction. For a while, sighs of relief and murmurs of dissatisfaction mixed together.

    Some jurors left the courtroom with those who shared their views. Han Naeyung waited until everyone had left before he slowly stood up.

    A long time ago, he had stood on that witness stand himself. The defense lawyer had crushed his young body with an intimidating gaze, and the prosecutor had demanded rational testimony from a child of barely nine years. He had never once looked at the defendant’s seat out of fear.

    But his courage came from his brother’s death, and he believed in people, not in gods. That was why the trembling, pale child had been able to chatter away on the witness stand, despite the fear of having his tongue cut out.

    He had asked the judge on the day of the verdict:

    “Why aren’t those people dying?”

    The judge couldn’t answer. So he asked again,

    “My brother is dead… Why aren’t those people dying?”

    “The law is like that.”

    He despaired. The judge, filled with remorse, tried to comfort him by holding his hand. His small body had shuddered violently, screaming. His and his brother’s salvation lay in the death of those men. His back, soaked with blood from the screams, stained the white shirt that the adults had put on him.

    Han Naeyung leaned his increasingly heated back against the hallway wall. Like that day, he slid down until he sat collapsed. Asking him to deliver a verdict felt like a cruel joke. His gloves were damp, and lacking a spare pair, he covered his face with the clammy fabric.

    “Are you feeling unwell?” a voice asked. Black shoes appeared in his view through his fingers.

    Han Naeyung shook his head at the person in front of him. He didn’t want anyone to approach him now. When he forced himself to stand, he saw a man giving him a concerned smile.

    “I thought white gloves were the latest trend,” the man joked, his worry evident as he looked at Han Naeyung.

    “But what brings you here?” The man, recognizing the jury number on Han Naeyung’s chest, quickly understood. He pulled out a handkerchief from his suit and offered it, holding it by one corner.

    Feeling that the man wouldn’t retract the offer, Han Naeyung weakly thanked him and took the handkerchief. His forehead was covered in cold sweat. He couldn’t even properly wipe his sweat, just catching his breath.

    “You look very unwell. Are you sure you’re okay?”

    “…Yes,” he managed, feeling a surge of nausea. He covered his mouth with the handkerchief and looked at the man. The scent of fabric softener filled his senses. The man stood back, waiting silently for Han Naeyung to calm down.

    Despite the late hour, there were still people passing by in the hallway. The man led Han Naeyung to a restricted area nearby, gesturing for him to follow.

    Han Naeyung clutched the handkerchief and followed him. Inside, the man closed the door, plunging them into darkness until he found and flipped the light switch. The space was filled with machinery hums and looked like a maintenance room with long pipes running through it.

    “Feeling better now?”

    Han Naeyung nodded slightly. It was more bearable here than in the crowded hallway. After a while, the convulsions and cold sweat subsided, and his usual composure returned. He had been managing well for a while, underestimating the toll today would take.

    “Actually, I saw you from the end of the hallway, and I was surprised when you suddenly collapsed. I have good eyesight, so I recognized you right away, Dr.Han.”

    “I see…”

    “I was even more surprised because you were in front of the criminal courtroom.”

    “…”

    “Fortunately, you were there as a juror.”

    He pointed to his chest and watched as Han Naeyung gradually regained his composure before asking, “Did you drive here by any chance?”

    “…No.”

    “Let me give you a ride. In your current state, you might collapse on the bus.”

    “I’m fine—”

    “You saved Nari, so please let me do at least this much.”

    “Really, I’m fine. I just want to walk a bit.”

    Han Naeyung looked down at the handkerchief. “I’ll return this to you next time.”

    He ended with a damp voice. Han Naeyung opened the door and left, walking faster than usual out of the courtroom. He returned his juror badge at the entrance and then gathered his belongings, which consisted of a single handbag. Once he was outside, the cool air made it easier to breathe. Thanks to that man, he had managed to regain his senses.

    But ‘thanks,’ he thought…

    Han Naeyung wondered as he put the handkerchief in his pocket. Even if he had gone into a room without people, Jin had been with him. Normally, he would still feel uncomfortable. However, the tremors subsided just as when he was alone. Come to think of it, even when they had a meal together last time.

    Han Naeyung stopped his thoughts as he sensed someone behind him. When he stopped walking, the person behind him also stopped at a certain distance. He turned around to see Jin awkwardly scratching the back of his neck.

    “Um… we seem to be heading in the same direction. Shall we walk together?”

    Han Naeyung started walking without a word. Since they were going in the same direction, he had no right to stop Jin. The sidewalk was a place for everyone to walk.

    Jin, feeling a silent permission, walked at a distance. They crossed the intersection and walked for about ten more minutes before Jin spoke first.

    “What case did you serve as a juror for?”

    Since there was no reason to avoid answering, Han Naeyung opened his mouth. “Parricide.”

    On the dark night road, his breath turned white.

    “Ah, is it the case where the defendant is a minor?”

    “Yes.”

    Jin put his hands in his pockets and glanced up at the sky. “It’s a bitter case.”

    Han Naeyung was slightly surprised that he knew about the case and looked at him walking beside him.

    “I was the one who handled the initial investigation. By the way, isn’t the defense attorney for that case quite remarkable?”

    He recalled the female lawyer who had cornered the male prosecutor with short hair. Indeed, her momentum was impressive.

    “Yes, she is.”

    “She’s quite famous in the field of human rights advocacy. She selectively takes on cases.”

    “…She’s a good person.”

    “Well, it’s a tricky issue. She might be good for the defendant, but not for the victim. Around this time last year, I was a trial prosecutor. I faced that lawyer in court and since then, I prefer not to go up against her. When she corners you, it feels like getting scolded by your mother.”

    Jin smiled. His attempt to ease the tension made Han Naeyung force a small smile. It was a faint smile, like the one he had when playing ball with Nari.

    “What time did the trial start?”

    “At 10 o’clock.”

    “You must have been exhausted enough to collapse.”

    Even if it wasn’t a memory that messed with his head, it was still a tough time, just as he said.

    “Still, if you think of it as a unique experience, it might be easier to handle.”

    Jin felt sorry that an ordinary person like Han Naeyung had to serve as a juror in a parricide trial. The jury system generally deals with serious crimes, so any trial would have been difficult.

    “I’m going this way.”

    Han Naeyung stood at the intersection and pointed towards the animal hospital.

    “From here, it’s the opposite direction.”

    “Thank you for today.”

    “Doctor Han Naeyung.”

    Jin called out to Han Naeyung, who had turned to leave after saying goodbye.

    “Can I ask what verdict you voted for?”

    “…Why are you curious about that?”

    “I thought it might lessen your guilt, even if just a little.”

    Han Naeyung tilted his head slightly. White breath still escaped from his parted lips. The streetlight illuminated his eyes filled with curiosity.

    Guilt…? Han Naeyung murmured.

    Jin couldn’t take his eyes off the white breath. When he first spotted Han Naeyung in the courthouse hallway, he had doubted his own eyes for a moment. The reason he hadn’t approached Han Naeyung, who had collapsed, was because he looked so pained.

    Since he attended the trial as a juror, Jin thought that pain might be due to the doubt caused by the verdict. He had purposely kept a distance without helping Han Naeyung up, and he was relieved to see Han Naeyung’s color return in the confined space Jin had guided him to. At least Han Naeyung didn’t treat him as a complete stranger.

    Han Naeyung, who had been looking at the changed traffic signal, soon turned to Jin and answered.

    “Suspended sentence.”

    Translator’s Note:

    Patricide: the killing of one’s father or parricide, which is killing one’s parents.

    Code of Hammurabi: features a code of law from ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia. The Code consisted of 282 laws, with punishments that varied based on social status (slaves, free men, and property owners).

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