The First Duty

          “Guilty.”

          The Chief Justice’s voice was smooth and clipped, the verdict immediately followed by two quick raps of his gavel. Their echoes rang throughout the room, reverberating off of the polished obsidian walls and looming, stern-faced statues. Thereafter fell a somber silence, save for the sobs of the condemned (punctuated by fervent pleas for mercy and compassion) and the quiet snores of Justice Pomponius, sinking ever lower into his swollen armchair. Finally the guards regained some sense of propriety and began to drag the fair-faced lad out of the chamber. He struggled at first, ‘til one of the men—looking bored—reached across and broke two of the boy’s fingers. Afterwards he was led meekly out, the ornate black Doors of Departure swinging smoothly shut as if to beckon the hapless victim to his fate beyond.

          Justice Hadriana kneaded her brows together and sighed. The day was not off to a promising start.

          On her left Justice Crispus coughed loudly and leaned over. “I don’t see,” he muttered, in what was clearly meant to be a conspiratorial whisper, “quite why that business was so grim. After all, it’s only a foot. We’ve all got two of them.”

          Hadriana resisted the urge to grind her teeth. “He’s a peasant, Crispus. He spends his days out in the grain fields while we sit indoors and talk about how hot the grain fields are. He needs to be able to stand upright: otherwise he can’t work, and if he can’t work he has to beg. A farm boy like that panhandling on the streets of the Capital—we might as well save some time and toss him into the canal ourselves.”

          Crispus nodded sagely and made a show of mulling over her words. Then, “I suppose if he wasn’t a peasant he could probably afford one of those…” He gestured to her seat. “What do you call them…wheeled chairs?” A smirk stole across his face. “Maybe you should see if you’ve got a spare sitting around.”

          She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t expected remarks, irritating little pissant that he was. And it was irritating. Six consecutive cases sorting through traffic violations, a double burglary conviction with a veritable mound of paperwork, their third amputation sentencing of the day, and now Crispus was trying to be funny. This was why she hated sitting on the end of the bench.

          Behind her, her slave kept shifting her weight from one sandaled foot to the other. Lengthy trials seemed to make her restless; she could feel her dark fingers drumming a poised rhythm into the wooden handles of her chair. They were sending tiny, multiplying flickers of pain through her swollen legs, but she didn’t overly mind. The throbbing helped to distract her from Crispus’s unrelenting tedium.

          “Bring in the next one,” called the Chief Justice, and Hadriana relaxed into the ebb and flow of the court.

*          *          *

          “A word, my dear?”

          Her eyes flew open. She was always the last to leave after the day’s trials. Several of her colleagues assumed she was trying to avoid the scrutiny and foot traffic of the end-of-day departure from the Hall of Order. Others, she knew, liked to theorize that—even with her condition—a woman could not stand to see any room left unclean. Hadriana let them believe what they wanted. Truthfully she enjoyed just being in the courtroom, experiencing its near-majestic stillness once the hustle and bustle of Gracian justice had died down. She had certainly never expected for someone else to be waiting with her, least of all the Chief Justice himself.

          Felix Festus was close to forty, yet (as the court criers were fond of pointing out) he didn’t look a day over thirty. His teeth, polished and crisp, could transform into a winning smile at a moment’s notice, and his lustrous black hair was pared down to the finest edge. Every part of his appearance was strictly tailored, as if he’d crawled from his mother’s womb donned in lavender silks and violet velvets.  His ascendancy from third-circuit chariot clerk to Capital Prosecutor to Chief Justice of the Republic of Gracia had been nothing short of meteoric. Though Hadriana had rarely spoken to him, she knew him to be clever, determined, and with an arresting knack for commanding the attention of the court. And there was no denying his charms either—although Hadriana, nearing fifty-three, had always considered herself beyond his notice.

          “In private, if you please,” said the Chief Justice, motioning dismissively to her slave.

          “No need,” she said at once. “I bought the girl recently. She is Mudanese, and was sold to me properly trained. Her previous master removed her tongue, and she cannot read or write.”

          “All the same,” he replied, watching the dark-skinned girl closely. “She still has ears, and my words are not meant for hers.”

          She nodded and patted her slave, who gave them each a rigid curtsy and left the room. The Chief Justice’s piercing eyes stayed fixed on a carving of paladins until she had gone, whereupon he turned back to examine Hadriana once more.

          “It is a great pleasure to speak with you at long last. I’ve wanted to meet you for some time, but…the usual affairs of justice have contrived to eclipse personal pursuits. At what foul point in history did the High Court’s duties descend into doldrums?” He did not wait for an answer. “I have long admired you, Hadriana. You share little of your secrets with the rest of the world, and to those you do not value you speak even less. In the three years since I have been elected, you have done naught but watch the innocent and the guilty trickle by. But your wisdom, shrewdness, and ambition have not gone unnoticed. Oh yes—” he continued, for here Hadriana’s eyebrows had reached their apex, “—for a woman, gout-afflicted and widowed, to be named a Justice of the Republic? That requires no small measure of resourcefulness.

          “Fortunately,” here he paused and glanced around the room, “a matter has arisen which requires an individual of your precise caliber. It must remain between us, of course. Consider it of the utmost discretion. But there is no one I would rather trust with its completion—and by doing so, you would find yourself extremely advantaged in your own endeavors. The favor of a Chief Justice is not granted lightly.”

          He extended a hand and regarded her closely. “Do we have an accord?”

          After a moment of consideration, she reached across the desk and took it. “We do. Thank you, Chief Justice.”

          He smiled warmly. “Please, call me Felix.”

*          *          *

           “Ah, Hadriana!” cried the Justice as she wheeled herself into his office. Normally she would have been content to delegate that task to the slave girl, but Julius was famous for his near-fanatical hatred of the Mudanese. They said he had lost a brother to the fighting in their country. They also said he had lost a battalion, a wife, and a son while serving there, so she didn’t take any of the rumors too seriously. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

           “Just some new business for us to go over,” she said briskly. “Recent affairs cropping up that require your attention. I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”

           Julius waved her inside impatiently. “Not at all, not at all! Just composing a speech about the national spirit of the Republic. Praise the Makers, I’m lucky enough to get all my best ideas pacing around this room.” He gestured inelegantly to the office at large.

          Hadriana had never seen a peacock, but she knew that if she did she would expect it to look like Julius. Today the man was attired in an ostentatious blue uniform with matching white gloves and a blood-red sash, festooned with his usual array of impressive medals. His silvered mustache was oiled, curled, and groomed to a minute degree. A heavy latch-and-pull crossbow occupied a rack behind his oaken desk. The walls especially were covered with trophies: skulls from creatures that she couldn’t identify, chariot-racing awards, swords and sabers and daggers of every variety. No patch of obsidian was left bare; Crispus had been there once before and deemed it “Overcompensation to the extreme.”

          “To…preserve…and protect…our great…nation’s…history…” Julius muttered to himself. Then without warning, he plopped himself into his intricately carved wooden chair and picked up a goblet of wine. “Right, then. What was it you needed taken care of?”

          Hadriana folded her hands neatly. “I have reason to believe that Justice Morlux is selling state and military secrets to foreign countries.”

          Julius nearly spilled his drink. Spluttering and coughing, he regarded her with newly wide and wary eyes. “Do you have any evidence to support this theory?”

          She shook her head.

          “Then consider it outlandish and without merit. Morlux and his office are staunch supporters of the Republic of Gracia and its military. Why, I’d say just this past year his contributions comprised about a fifth of defense spending. A whole fifth! Man like that—nay, a patriot like that—would have no reason to go supplying our nation’s enemies.”

          Hadriana chose not to argue the logic of that remark. “But you must wonder where that wealth comes from, Julius. Think about the amount that we earn every year. Think about how much Morlux is able to spend on Gracia’s armies. Something doesn’t add up.”

          He looked at her suspiciously. “Hadriana, Morlux has a great deal of friends in the financial district. And he’s careful about where he spends his money. We can’t all gallivant around buying the latest in foreign fashions, or exported scents and spices, or—”

          “—or doctors?” she finished sweetly. Julius did not respond, choosing instead to fiddle with a groove in one of his larger medals. She sighed and spun her chair around to wheel herself out. She’d laid her cards on the table, and Julius had scattered them—as she’d expected. At least the lines of battle were clearly drawn now.

          “You’ll drop this if you know what’s good for you!” he called out suddenly. Hadriana ignored him and continued to wheel into the hallway. She wasn’t in a very talkative mood (her legs were flaring up again), and she had other legal business to attend to. The rest of the burglary paperwork, a fresh stack of expired horse permits, new updates on the killer rumored to be stalking the Capital’s sewers…

          She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she nearly ran into the crooked, angular man waiting outside Julius’s office. The apology almost left her mouth before she realized who it was: Justice Morlux, attired all in a moth-eaten green, wrinkled with crags and sallow-faced. He looked down at her with an expression of utter disdain. “Excuse me, Justice,” he snapped, and stalked into Julius’s office like an oversized, moldy vulture. The door slammed shut behind him.

          It looked as if Morlux would be hearing about her inquiries even sooner than she’d thought.

*          *          *

          Lavinius had agreed to meet her in a bathhouse, of all places. The slave girl had wrinkled her nose upon approaching, undoubtedly due to the overlapping layers of sweat, dirt, and male musk that emanated from its marble exterior. Nonetheless they had pressed onward, past rising trails of steam and scores of naked patrons—most of whom were either hairy old men or children who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else. Now Hadriana sat face to face with perhaps her least favorite of the High Court’s justices. A round-bellied man of indistinguishable age, Pollux Lavinius greeted her with an insincere smile and a wet peck on the cheek. His skin was hairless and smooth, from his toes to his scalp, and he seemed to ooze a perpetual aura of greasiness in both presence and word. Here was the sort of creature who would never agree to anything unless there was something else to be gained—and that was on generous days, when one something was all he wanted.

           “I must say, my dear, I was delighted when your messenger arrived,” simpered Lavinius. He bowed almost patronizingly to her slave, on legs that seemed much too thin to support his bulk. “It seemed like so much time had passed since we last spoke, and indeed there is so much for us to talk about.” He lowered his voice and beckoned her closer. “Did you hear that someone has been investigating rumors of corruption amongst one of the Justices? Whoever could be behind such an intrepid scheme, hmm?”

           Hadriana stared daggers at Lavinius, who sniffed. “Oh, it seems I’ve touched a nerve. I merely wondered whether I might be the recipient of such attentions. Not that I have anything to hide, of course. It’s just that so much effort goes into such an affair, and I fear I have too little time for myself as it is. What with the constant demands my work entails—”

          “Your predilections are not my immediate concern, Lavinius, as you well know,” she said shortly. “Now, enough with the games. I’d rather not stay here one moment more than necessary. I have a favor to ask you.”

          His expression changed to one of delight, and he rubbed his hands together. “Wonderful, my dear, simply wonderful. And what might I be able to do for you?”

          Hadriana shrugged. “Precisely that. A favor for a favor. I haven’t decided when or where it’ll be, but I know I’m going to need one. You help me, and someday I’ll help you in return.”

          Lavinius tut-tutted and shook his head. “Oh no, my sweet, that simply won’t do, as deliciously tempting of an idea it is. One general nonspecific favor is—after all—a very tall order. I am not without a certain fondness for you, however, so I believe we can strike a bargain. Here is what I propose: answer me one question, in addition to the exchange of favors, and we have a deal—and answer it honestly, if you please.”

          She gritted her teeth. With Lavinius, a single question was no small matter…but the heat and the humidity were suffusing her legs with waves of agony. The sooner she left this accursed building, the better. “One question,” she heard herself reply.

          Lavinius smiled. “Your former husband, the…ahem…rather late Justice Aurelius…” Twenty-five years a widow and the name still lingered on. “An…associate of mine informed me that the cause of death was blunt force trauma; rather different from the cholera the criers reported at the time, yes?” She was surprised he had learned that much. She’d tried her best to keep the true nature of the disaster out of the public eye. “How exactly did your husband die, my dear? I am ever so curious.”

          She stared into the waters of the bath. “We’d been arguing about something trivial. Something to do with a tiger-skin rug, or maybe it was leopard-skin—I can’t really remember. He was angry, and he slammed his fist into the side of the wall. A Kefkian vase on the mantle above fell and struck him on the head. He was killed almost instantly.” She sniffed. “Tragic, really. Especially since the vase had broken as well…if only it had been a pot, or something less fragile.”

*          *          *

          She was alone on her balcony when Cato arrived. Dressed in a plain gray robe and leaning on his usual stick of cherry, he greeted her with a nod and sat almost immediately. She inclined her head in deference. “Justice Cato? Thank you for your presence. May I say what a pleasant surprise it is to welcome you to—”

          “I’ve noticed what you’re up to,” he said brusquely.

          For a second she considered feigning innocence, but the grim lines etched in his face quashed that impulse. “And? Do you have an opinion?”

          “I do,” he said, tapping a rhythm out on the stones and watching the birds pass. “I want no part in it. And don’t bother asking me for favors, or offering me gifts, or trying to intimidate me. I make my own choices and I stand by them.”

          “I understand,” she said, regarding him with a certain measure of curiosity. “And I had no intention of bothering you. Something I’m sure you know. So why come at all?”

          For a long while he did not speak. Then, “I have fought in three wars. One to increase the Republic’s wealth, though we were told it was to defend ourselves from the Venegalian hordes. One to feed the ambition of up-jumped consuls who wanted to carve some territory out of the Orient. And one to take the Mudanese as slaves so they could repair the damage from the last two wars. In that time, I have seen friends die in ways that I could not have envisioned in my worst nightmares. I have seen men inflict every manner of pain on men that there is to inflict, at times out of nothing more than boredom. I have seen horrors beyond counting, and in sixty-three years I have seen no evidence that there are Makers. Certainly I have seen nothing of justice.” He stared at her—no, through her. “Do you think your games matter to me? That the politics and double-dealings matter?” He spread his hands, extending to the very skies around them. “Do you think that any of this will end up mattering in the end?”

          Cato did not wait for a reply, rising from his place and stalking out the balcony door. It was the most he had ever said to her. She did not speak until her slave came to push her to bed.

*          *          *

          Hadriana was generally good at predicting how the other eight Justices would vote. Easiest of all to gauge was Balbus, who would stutter and whine and spill ink on his papers before following the Chief Justice as he always did. Crispus was a fool who would make fruitless attempts to divine the minds of his fellows, then go along with whatever the majority decided. She had nearly laughed out loud the last time he’d referred to himself as “a master manipulator.” Pomponius was rarely ever awake long enough to add his voice to the fray. But Cato…Cato was troubling. The man had little care for the opinions of the court, and would cast his votes regardless of the political consequences. If all went as planned, however, and the other meetings had been as successful as she believed, then his support would not be necessary. First, of course, they would need some form of evidence.

          “Next,” called Felix. The Doors of Departure opened, to the roar of what appeared to be quite a substantial crowd. Instantly Hadriana noticed several of her peers straighten up in their seats. A dozen guards entered, all fully armed and armored, looking much more attentive than usual. And they were flanking her very own slave, the Mudanese girl, bruised and bleeding and bound hand and foot in thick iron chains. She had not been present this morning, forcing Hadriana to send for one of the others. Now she knew why.

          The prosecutor stepped forward. “Justices of the High Court of the Republic of Gracia, this slave was discovered last night trespassing in the garden of the esteemed Justice Morlux. She was arrested carrying documents of a personal and sensitive nature, all of which were stolen from the Justice’s possession. They have been confiscated and returned. She claims that they are evidence of his corruption.” Here he laughed, and the High Court laughed with him. All but Hadriana and Felix, who shared quick looks of concern. The Chief Justice leaned forward and the hubbub of the Hall died down.

          “She ‘claims?’” said Felix. “It was my understanding that most Mudanese slaves were not only mute, but illiterate. Is she even capable of such intelligence?”     

          The prosecutor cleared his throat. “Under…duress, the girl has demonstrated the ability to write simple words. She is as intelligent as can be expected from a slave, and certainly capable of committing crimes. Furthermore,” and here he stopped for dramatic effect, “she claims to serve Justice Hadriana. Her testimony suggests that the Justice sent her there with the express purpose of uncovering Morlux’s treason.”

          The room erupted. Hadriana’s protests and Morlux’s angry shouts fell on deaf ears. It took three bangs of Felix’s gavel before the room could quiet down.

          “This matter seems to involve two Justices,” began Felix, “and in my opinion would be best settled outside of the High Court. Morlux, Hadriana, perhaps we should adjourn for a moment—”

          “Unfortunate as it seems, Chief Justice,” crooned Lavinius, “I must remind you that the law is the law. This matter has already been brought before the High Court, and thus it must be dealt with in the Hall of Order. It must be decided in plain sight, without the privacy of a secluded backroom or the secrecy of a nighttime walk. Unfortunate, yes, but—”   

          “Very well,” said the Chief Justice, seeming resigned at last to the inevitability of events. “Justices, what say you?”

          Morlux was out of his chair before Felix had even finished speaking. “This wretch was found trespassing on my property and breaking into my home, with my personal possessions on her person,” he snarled. “Perhaps she was intending to distribute them on the black market, or use them as some form of extortion. Perhaps Justice Hadriana seeks to discredit me. But I think it more likely that she is a spy sent here from Mudan, her purpose to infiltrate and undermine the noble workings of our Capital. She is cunning, deceitful, and no doubt without scruples. In short, the opposite of everything our great Republic strives to represent.” Morlux looked down his hooked nose at her and spat. “I denounce this traitor, and consider her guilty on all counts. If the rest of you have any sense you’ll do the same.”

          “Seconded!” barked Julius, making the girl jump. He appeared to be so enraged that his mustache was curling in on itself. “That a Mudanese commoner would impugn upon the honor of a Gracian citizen, and actually dare to steal from a Justice! Utterly appalling!”

          “Silence,” called Felix, and Julius fell quiet. “Morlux has not yet seated himself. Allow your peers their proper turns to speak, Julius.” The pair exchanged looks and Morlux scowled, before taking his place and shooting a vicious look across the bench at Hadriana.

          A sudden wheezing noise drew the room’s attention. Pomponius was not only awake but actively trying to rise out of his cushions. He struggled in vain for what seemed like a minute, before finally settling for a propped position against two of the larger pillows. Then, in between fits of coughing and gasping breaths, he began to speak. His voice was barely audible, however, and Balbus had to lean in to translate.

          “He’s saying sh-shameful…no respect f-for the law…d-dishonorable…guilty! H-he says guilty!” Pomponius plopped back into his seat, looking immensely satisfied, and feebly flagged down one of the servants carrying a plate of fresh olives.

          Hadriana rang the bell on her desk, and the Hall of Order fell silent. Now was the time to cast her vote. The instant she had witnessed the girl enter the courtroom, her calculations had begun: in this case, Morlux and Julius were easy assumptions. She honestly hadn’t expected Pomponius to speak up, but that was a minor setback. If they found the girl innocent, the documents would be hers by right—and Morlux would have to produce them. With Lavinius in her corner and Felix already backing her (bringing Balbus as well), that meant four to three—and Crispus, never one to be on the losing side, would join them. It wouldn’t even matter how Cato voted; the trial would come to a close, and Morlux would face swift retribution for his crimes. Simple, effective, and efficient.

          Or it would have been, if she hadn’t already seen the jaws of the trap snapping shut.

          “My fellow Justices,” Hadriana called, and this time her voice rang throughout the Hall of Order. Felix nodded encouragingly. “If you please, I wish for you to understand the full extent of my dealings with the prisoner before us. And in this way, I hope that I might regain the full extent of your trust and support.” Her gaze swept the room. “This girl, for a brief period of time, was a servant of my house. She assisted me with the day-to-day hardships of my life; she fed me, bathed me, clothed me and helped to carry out my affairs. I grew to value her and rely on her—I will admit that I trusted her. Indeed, I hoped that one day she might gain a place as a proud citizen of our beloved Republic.”

          She paused to allow the gasps and whispers to die down. “But the actions I have witnessed today do not inspire trust. And they do not inspire pride. I have nothing but gratitude for Justice Morlux for opening my eyes to this treachery. My goodwill has been met with nothing but base savagery from this…this foreign mudder.” She took a deep breath, steadied her aching legs—and rose, to the general astonishment of the room. “I see no alternative but to declare her unequivocally and irrevocably guilty. I strip her of any connection to my house. May the Makers have mercy on her twisted, blackened soul.” She collapsed back into her chair, breathing heavily, and—for a long moment—no one dared to speak.

          What followed was nothing short of chaos. Roars of approval from the mob of surging onlookers were met by the banging and clattering of spears as the courtroom guards called for order. The clerks were frantically bustling amongst themselves, while a few were wildly scribbling on scrolls of parchment. Julius was banging his fist on the desk and calling for a full-scale invasion of Mudan. One of the servants had dropped a pile of grapes, and now dozens of tiny spheres were being scattered along the bench to leave reddish stains on the floor tiles. The stenographer had knocked over a flailing Pomponius in his rush to record her speech, and Balbus appeared to have fainted. Crispus merely gaped at her, slack-jawed, and Lavinius looked like he’d just taken a blow to the head. Even the slave girl was shouting, screaming curses without words and struggling against her bonds to reach the woman who had condemned her. But Hadriana only had eyes for Felix, and the expression of ugly anger etched on his face. He wore a look of absolute fury that only confirmed her suspicions: Morlux had merely been the bait. It seemed the trap was not meant for him after all.

*          *          *

          Once order had been restored in the Hall, the verdict was all but decided. Lavinius had recovered quickly enough from the shock and added his voice to hers (“A favor for a favor,” he had been quick to remind her afterwards). Julius had stamped his foot and urged the court to serve traditional Gracian justice. And Felix had voted guilty—as she had known he would—prompting Balbus and Crispus to follow suit. In the end only Cato voted for innocence, though whether for merciful or contrarian reasons he did not say. The girl had flung herself before the Chief Justice after the sentencing, and the guards had been forced to drag her from the courtroom kicking and wailing. Hadriana had not thought that a girl with no tongue could make so much noise, yet she could not fault her for trying. The punishment for stealing was merely death, but the punishment for stealing from a Justice? Not that she faulted her for the betrayal, either. Truthfully, it was hard to cast blame on anyone once the Doors of Departure had closed on them.

          “Impressive,” came the voice, and this time she knew he was telling the truth. The Chief Justice was standing taut before her, hands tightly gripping the desk, gleaming teeth locked in a rictus of rage. “Disappointing, but impressive all the same. I almost admire your abilities. If it wasn’t for your illness and…defects, Justice, I might even respect you.”

          She raised an eyebrow. “Am I to understand that we are no longer on a first name basis?”

          He ignored this. “You should know that I offered her freedom. No coins or jewels or meaningless trinkets, just a chance to start over: that was all she wished for when I asked her to plant that evidence in Morlux’s garden. She was going to work a ship, to ride the waves and smell the salt, and return to Mudan again. She wanted to see the ocean.”

          Hadriana laughed. “And you would have honored your agreement by throwing her in the canal.”

          He ignored this as well. “When did you know?”

          “From the first. Morlux’s dealings are no secret to the court, and acting as if they were was foolish. Perhaps if you’d been here a bit longer you might have realized that.” There it was, marvelous: she could just make out a single vein, pulsing splendidly in his sculpted brow. Felix leaned closer and lowered his voice to a barely audible growl.

          “Do you really consider this to be a victory? I am the Chief Justice of the Republic, in case you’ve forgotten, and I have half the court on my side and the other half in my pocket. Whereas you…you’re an aging, decrepit piece of Gracia’s past, from a foolish time when old men would let whatever crippled cow they were bedding have a place on the bench. You are a relic, as much a disease as the gout riddling your infirm body.”

          “And you’re afraid, Felix” she murmured back, equally soft. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have put all this time and effort into dragging my name through the muck. Which is exactly what would have happened if Lavinius and I had joined Cato, and voted to release her.” She favored him with a rare smile. “Although no doubt you had Lavinius ‘in your pocket’ as well. It’s what I would have done. But I understand your fears, and believe me, I sympathize.” For some reason Felix’s face kept morphing into her husband’s right at the moment of his passing, frozen in a mask of anguish and terror. “Sometimes I scare myself too.”

          She examined her fingernails, just as clean and manicured as the Chief Justice’s bared teeth. A lock of his dark hair was falling out of place. “I believe that concludes our discussion, Felix. It’s best you depart with some dignity. We wouldn’t want a piece of Kafkian pottery to fall on your head, would we?” She locked eyes with him, blue to pale blue. “It does seem to be a rather common occurrence.”

          The look on his face was almost worth her momentary lapse of restraint. Felix turned on his heel and swept out furiously, smoothing his hair back as he went. The Doors of Departure swung shut behind him, and Hadriana found herself once again in the tranquil silence of the remnants of the High Court. Alone, save for her ambitions and her doubts. Alone once again. And she realized rather suddenly that she did not find that to be a troubling feeling.

Pride

Let the games begin.

Hi Dad.

Pretty good. How are you?

That looks like a nice hunk of meat right there. Very juicy. The keepers really must have shelled out for that. Weather’s looking grand too, what with all those clouds. Should be some nice shady spots around two o’ clock. And wow, is your mane styled differently today? It’s flashier, combed neater. They must have given it a decent grooming today.

No, not that it normally doesn’t look good. I only meant…

Never mind. Geez. Forget I said anything. 

Look, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I know it’s your feeding time. I’ve just had something on my mind for a while, and I’m kinda anxious to talk to you about it. Really need to get it off my chest.

Chest, belly, stomach, whatever. Not the point, Dad. I’m not worrying about semantics right now. Can you stop stuffing your face and just listen to me for a second?

Thanks.

I didn’t really know the right way to bring this up. Privacy isn’t really a concept here, what with the people circling and staring and taking pictures every minute of every day. Not that we ever seem to be in one place anymore. I mean, think about it: the cave renovations, the keeper cleanings, the new round of vaccinations, those jerkoff “educational” sessions they drag you to that the humans seem to like so much... Oh, and let’s not forget that sleep cycle crap you pulled last week.

You know what I’m talking about, Dad. You said that the reason we never get to hang out is because younger and older animals have different sleeping patterns? I got up six hours early just to make sure I could catch you awake, and when I asked if we could wrestle what did you say? You said you needed to take a second nap outside, and that I should go roll around in the mud with the other cubs—

Look, I’m not saying you don’t work hard! I know you have long days and you get tired. I wasn’t trying to imply that—

I’m not babbling! Just… just gimme a second. Please.

Okay. Right. Here goes.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, Dad, and I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to live in a habitat anymore. I’m going back to the wild.

Stop laughing! Do I look like I’m joking here?

What do you mean, why? Dad, we live in a prison. It’s a nice-looking prison, but it’s a prison all the same. They feed us processed protein twice a day and hose us down with pressurized water. There are literally bars around the outside of our exhibit.

Yeah right, Dad. Go leap over that moat without falling twenty feet and breaking your legs, and then tell me again how free we are.

No, I don’t think I could either. What’s your point?

I don’t know, I’ll find another way! The keepers come in whenever they want, right? So they must be able to get out whenever they want, too.

They’re our jailers, Dad! How can it be wrong to—

When did I say I was going to attack a keeper? I only meant—

Oh, like your frigging morals are so much better than—

Shit, he was already losing. Maybe he needed to come at it from a different angle…

You don’t get it, Dad, you wouldn’t get it unless you were my age. Things are different now then they were ten years ago, look at all these people walking around with laptops and smartphones and iPads and Google Goggles—

Google Goggles, Google Glass, whatever the hell they’re called. We’re cats, Dad; we’re not even supposed to know technology stuff. That’s a primate thing. Stop changing the subject.

The point, Dad, is that you’re content. You’re contained. You don’t care about any of it. Not like me; my soul is out there in the savannah, roaming nature, chasing down herds of wildebeest and antelope and battling packs of hyenas and angry elephants. Yours is here, munching on an overfed pork chop and taking a piss on trees that don’t even look African. You’ve never dreamed of the wild.

So what if I haven’t been there? It’s a spiritual thing. You wouldn’t understand.

Of course I have! Their exhibit’s just two down from ours. Just because I’ve never hunted one before—

Oh, you don’t think I could? You’re so full of it. You’ve never supported me, not in anything. You know what? I’m gonna prove you wrong. I’m gonna show you what I can do, and then you’ll see, you’ll be sorry you ever doubted me, I don’t care if the keepers skin me and make me into a rug, I’m gonna show you—

Wow, okay, went a little too far there. Scratch, rewind, pause scene. Breathe in and out, nice and slow, focus on the stillness of the watering hole (if you could even call it that). Just make it about the animals. All about the animals.

Time for a different approach.

Look, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I know it’s your feeding time. I’ve just had something on my mind for a while, and I’m kinda anxious to talk to you about it. Really need to get it off my chest.

Blah blah blah, Dad, screw the choice of synonyms. We did this part already. Just bear with me here and skip ahead a little bit.

Thanks.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, Dad, and I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life basing it on your opinions. I’m joining the circus.

You’re not laughing. Why aren’t you laughing?

No, it’s not a joke! I just…you don’t think it’s weird? You’re not angry or upset or anything? You’re not gonna tell me I’m wasting my life, or that you’re disappointed in me, or that I need a real job for when I get out of the zoo, or that circus work isn’t very stable and doesn’t pay well, or…

You’re not worried about me at all?

Yeah, right. Like you would ever be okay with me jumping through flaming hoops and putting people’s heads in my mouth. Like you’re really, all of a sudden, just gonna accept this kind of thing. What’s your deal?

Well I didn’t know I wanted to then, but I know now, don’t I! One day can make a lot of difference. Anyway, stop sidetracking me, Dad. Why don’t you care that I’m basically throwing my life away—

Wait. That’s it. That’s it exactly. You don’t care. It doesn’t matter to you if I end up dead on the streets, begging for table scraps, or mounted on some psycho’s wall. You just want me out of your mane for good. I bet it doesn’t even matter if I do what you want, and follow in your frigging footsteps—oh come on, I know that’s what you want, Dad, that’s what you’ve always wanted, don’t try to deny it!

Don’t you give me that look! See now, that’s it, that’s it right there: that look that tells people what you’re really thinking, the one that tears them up inside. You never had to tell me what you wanted, Dad, because that one look says it all for you. Spells everything out, plain as day. Well I don’t care what you want! I need something more out of life, something besides lying on these stupid rocks all day while people point and laugh at how big my fangs are and how much weight I’m putting on—

I am not being ridiculous! Either I’m a success story for you to be wildly proud of, or I’m a washed-up burnout that you can use as a cautionary tale. Just so long as you have something to tell the world, right Dad?

Because I know you don’t care! You’ve never cared about me. You’ve never even seen me, not really. To you I’m just the same dumb little one-year old, the kid who can’t stop screwing up, who’s never going to make anything of himself, who just wants to finally do something that will make his Dad p—

Damn it! Damn it. Shut up, brain, shut up. This was pathetic; he couldn’t even carry on an argument in his own head. Maybe he should just cut his losses and move on over to the zebra pen (or something easier, like the goats in the petting zoo).

No. He could do this. He had to keep trying. For Pete’s sake, he’d tried it enough when it was with people instead of animals.

This was the only way he could win.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, Dad, and I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to stay in your shadow, and I don’t care if you’re the oldest male in a fifteen-mile radius. Layla and I are getting hitched.

I know lions don’t technically get married, Dad. It’s just an expression. We’ve been talking for a while now and we’ve decided we’re in love. I know it’s sudden, but I just feel like I get her on this whole different level…and I know that you’ve probably gotten her on a similar level because we’re all animals here, let’s be frank, but I don’t care. I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

Dad, she’s my future now! That’s the whole point! How am I wasting my life by devoting it to her? To raising a family?

Oh, so just because I haven’t known her that long you think it’s meaningless? This is so like you, Dad, to just disregard what I’m saying and chalk it up to me being young and naïve. You might as well be penned up with the rhinos, you’re so frigging stubborn, with your “I’m always right, I know what’s best for you, listen to what I say, as long as you’re in this house you’ll abide by my rules—”

I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, Dad, and I’ve made up my mind. I want to finally tell you the truth, and I don’t care if it hurts to hear. I’m going to just come out and say it: Dad, I’m gay.

I am. I’m completely serious.

I don’t care whether you believe me or not. I don’t need your acceptance or your pity or whatever it is you think I’m asking for right now! This is just a truth you’re going to have to learn to live with, Dad.

So what you’ve never seen me with a guy? There’s a first time for everything. You going to make some dumb joke about me being a virgin now?

Well maybe I just haven’t found the right guy yet. How would you know? It’s not like you understand me, like you’ve ever paid attention to who I am or what I really want. You can’t even say “I love you” without me dragging it out of you, like I’m ripping your jagged teeth out of my own fucking mouth—

I’ve been talking to my friends, and I’m converting to Islam—

Liar, there he went, lying again—

I’ve decided I’m an atheist, and I don’t care if it pisses you off—

Yes he did, that was the whole point—

I know that you don’t want me—

He knew less than that, less than nothing— 

I don’t think our lives have meaning—

Begging for help, pleading to be noticed—

I’m sick of trying to set an example for them—

Proving how easy hypocrisy was—

I’m going to live at home for the rest of my life, or at least until you’re d—

That stupid lump in his throat, why wouldn’t it go away—

I think I’m depressed—

He wouldn’t want to hear about that, nobody would—

I hate you—

No he didn’t—

How could I ever hate you—

SHUT UP! Shut up, shut up, stop it, too close to the meaning, to the reason, to the truth, he couldn’t say it, not to the world and not to himself, no matter what kind of animal his father was, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t give him the satisfaction of hearing, of understanding, of knowing—

I want you to be proud of me.

Why can’t you just be proud of me?”

I want you to care about me. I want to talk to you about my life and know that you’re going to listen. I want you to ruffle my hair when I succeed and hug me when I fail. I want you to already be at the table, waiting for me to get home, and laugh when I tell you all the little tedious details that make up the days. I want you to take the weights off my shoulders: all the “it’s your faults” and the “you can do betters” and the “you’re not good enoughs” that you taught me how to make for myself. I want you to watch me treading water, out in the deep, and instead of pulling me back I want you to applaud as I swim to shore. I want to catch you beaming at me, so you have to hide your smile—but not too fast, just gentle enough that I can catch a glimpse of it at the end. I want you to take me off the shelf, the one you put me on years ago when I was shiny and new and brimming with praise and you didn’t count on all the dust I’d end up collecting. I want you to look at me with the eyes of a father loving his son. I want to know that you’re proud of me.

“Isn’t that enough?”

 Silence.

No answer. Not that he’d expected one, but…well, multiple personality disorder might have been a welcome relief at this point. Either way, he’d tried. He’d done his best, as un-therapeutic as his efforts might have been. Time to go. He could see Dad waiting.

The lion lying near the edge of the moat, the big guy, was sniffing the cub. He supposed he didn’t know whether the two were actually father and son. Hell, he didn’t even know whether the little one was male. He’d never taken a class in cat genitalia before.

The lion wasn’t paying attention to the cub anymore. It was looking right at him. He wasn’t next to anyone, so it had to be looking at him. It was standing off of the ground, legs slightly bent and paws curled around the rocks, as if poised to leap out of the prison and pounce on him. It was staring him down, unperturbed and unmoving, yellow pupils boring into him and past him and through him all at once. He felt fear, and discomfort, and a strange sense of familiarity as well. Its expression wasn’t softening at all—its eyes spoke of hunger, and anger too—but it was almost as if he could sense something behind the glare. Past the creature’s confusion, past his own insecurities and doubts, there was something connecting them. Maybe, on some level, a basic form of understanding?

Or the possibility, however slim it might be, of acceptance.

The lion blinked a few times and the moment was gone. It spun on its heel and padded gracefully off, undoubtedly heading towards one of the more expansive (and shady) trees. He considered a moment before turning and leaving as well. Back towards the world of regular conversations and normal animals. Back to his Dad.

He didn’t know why, but it felt like some of the weights on his shoulders were gone. He shrugged, and smiled to himself. Perhaps the two of them would have something to chat about after all.

Limbo

            “The world is not quite the world,” she said, in a lilting, playful tone that seemed to imply he was being let in on a long-kept inside joke.  

            He blinked rapidly for a few seconds and scratched his head. He had no idea where or what or who she was replying to. She’d just plopped herself down on the bench next to him; he honestly didn’t think that he’d done anything to attract her attention. But there wasn’t anyone else nearby, so she had to be talking to him...right? He cleared his throat, hoping quietly that the woman—she looks and smells vaguely homeless—would leave him alone so he could pretend to keep staring at the big granite guy in chains on the raised pedestal.

            “You don’t listen very well, do you?”

            He inwardly cursed his luck, and met the gaze—whoa, what color eyes are those? grey? green? silver? variations on a theme: hazel—of said disheveled hobo. Her brow was crooked, her hands hung loosely off the edge of her seat, and she was smirking at him under faint wisps of mustache hairs. She was regarding him with the gentle apathy and casual ridicule that heralds a close friend. Yet he didn’t think he’d ever seen her before. Maybe she’d been stalking him through the park.

            “Sorry?” he said, praying again for the lady to take a hint and learn the definition of personal space. Her clothes—more like rags, if rags had the consistency of wet sponges, Jesus—were ratty, tattered, and saturated with grime. There was a long, half-unraveled scarf around her neck that might once have been called blue. That is, before being caked in layers upon layers of thick, claying dirt. Her nails were long and faintly yellowed, he could pick out one or two grey hairs amidst the rest of the dark, wiry tangle, and there was a mole adorning the bottom of her chin. She grinned, and he could see through her mud-stained teeth that she was chewing some kind of thin green leaf. Once you got past the whole getup, she was actually kind of pretty. He found himself idly wondering whether there were curves somewhere under all the mess.

            “I’m sorry,” he began, “I don’t think I heard you—“

            “Oh, you hear fine,” she continued, chuckling to herself. “You just don’t listen. There’s a difference. We can fix that, though.”

            Now he wasn’t sure whether to be cautious or confused. “We?” he said, glancing quickly over his shoulder—nobody there, so maybe I won’t get mugged in a group but nobody’ll be here to help me if I do—to scan the grass. She clucked her tongue off of the roof of her mouth and rolled her eyes again.

            “Not really the relevant question right now, is it?” she said, shaking her head as if to give him the response. “A better line of inquiry would be, ‘What exactly are you talking about?’ or ‘What world are you referring to?’ or ‘Are you a recovering alcoholic?’ and ‘If not, can I buy you a drink?’ or ‘Do you consider yourself mentally unstable?’ or ‘Are you considered by others to be mentally unstable?’ or ‘Where is the treasure buried?’ or ‘How many elephants does it take to change a lightbulb?’ or even ‘Who are you, some kind of crazy hobo?’ I would have accepted any of those answers.”

            “Don’t you mean questions?”

            She shrugged. “Same difference, really.” She seemed to be waiting for a response.

            He supposed he might as well oblige. “Alright, then, who are you?”

            “Name’s Hare. Don’t worry, I won’t ask to shake hands. Pleased to meetcha. I mean, I know aBOUT you of course, or OF you I guess, but I’ve never actually MET you. This is the first chance I’m really getting to pick your brain, find out what makes you tick. I wish it were under better circumstances, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. See what I did there? Reminds me of the time that—“

            “Do you mean Hare like the rabbit?” he interrupted, more baffled than ever.

            “Nope!” she replied, cheerfully. Her eyebrows waggled when she smiled.

            He kneaded his forehead between his hands and sighed, wondering how much spare change it was going to take to make her go away. Maybe he could just buy her a bar of soap—lemon-scented antibacterial, for all the good it’ll do her—and some flea powder. Or some lice repellent. Or both.

            “Okay, so…what exactly are you talking about?”

            She let out a long-suffering hiss of exasperated air. “Hey, not like that, come on now! Spoon-feeding, spoon-feeding. You need to be more specific. Use your meat slab, call on the power of human critical thinking, write me a dissertation if you have to. String some basic thoughts together at least. Come on, show me how much mileage you can get out of that college education!”

               He ground his teeth together. “Fine. Are you saying that the world we know isn’t really the world that we exist in? Is it almost the same, but with a few minor differences and unknowns? Or is the world not what it used to be? Something about time marching on, progress eroding tradition, oh the times they are a-changing? Maybe you think that there’s some kind of underground layer to the world, and that only conspiracy nuts like you have a clue about it? Or is it the statue’s world you’re talking about, that his world is separate from our own because he’s going to be in chains forever? Unless you’re saying that he perceives time differently? That for him there is no world because for him, time is always frozen? Do you mean that every person experiences the world differently, and that none of those individual experiences can ever be reconciled with each other? And does that imply that there are billions of different parallel worlds, all existing at the same time and in the same moment? Or are you just high as a hot-air balloon and feel a pressing urge to spout your little half-baked, cobbled-together philosophies?”

            She stared. “Like I said. You don’t listen very well.” He was astonished, and slightly mortified—why should I care, she’s a side-of-the-street straggler, a stranger, not like I’m going to see her again—to see a profound sadness reflected back at him.

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“

            “You ever read that one Charles Dickens book? It’s a big-type traditional thing over here. The one about the grouchy old guy, loses all his friends and lives a lonely life, dragging his feet on death’s doorstep, then three spirits come to visit him and he learns the true meaning of Christmas?”

            He swallowed and looked away. “Um...I’ve seen the movie?”

            “Well, this is going to be a lot like that. Minus the Christmas part.”

            When he turned back to ask what she meant, she was gone.

            There was a Ziploc bag full of bread in the space she’d left behind. He supposed she’d brought it to the park—as if she couldn’t have been any more of a caricature, what kind of a name is Hare anyway—to feed the birds. He realized that he didn’t really have anybody around to talk to, or anything to do, or anywhere else to be, so he reached his hand into the bag and threw out a handful of dry crusts. A solitary pigeon alighted onto the paved path, silently inspecting the offerings before fixating its gaze upon him.

            “Go for it, little guy,” he said, with a tone that he hoped was encouraging. “Eat on up. You probably don’t get fed a lot, do you? Not that you’d be able to tell from looking, am I right?” He allowed himself a genial smile.

            “Fuck off,” said the pigeon.

            Silence. Then, “Excuse me?”

            “You really are a dumb motherfucker,” said the pigeon.

He nearly fell off the bench. this is impossible this is all a dream right this has to be a dream I don’t understand what the hell is going on what the fuck? what the fuck! what the FUCK FUCK FUCK

            “I’ll take steak if you have it,” said the pigeon. “Pittsburgh rare is best, but honestly I’m not too picky.”

            Somewhere deep down, in a place that felt like it hadn’t been used in a while, he discovered his voice. “You’re…you’re a talking pigeon. A bird. I’m talking to a bird.”

            “You wouldn’t even be giving a shit if I was a parrot,” said the pigeon. “Must be nice being a constant and colossal fuckup, huh?”

            “Stop swearing!” he yelled, digging his fingers into his palms as if the pain could will away the vision before him. “This is a contact high. That’s all it is. That lady was on some seriously messed up shit, and some of it rubbed off on me. You’re not real, and she was a wackjob, and—”

            “Listen,” said the pigeon, “you talk about her in a disrespectful manner again and I will eat your eyeballs. I wouldn’t even be here if not for Krishna. She and I go way back. I’m doing this little gig as a favor to her.”

            “Her real name is Krishna?” he said, baffled. “Isn’t that from Hinduism? You cannot expect me to believe that she was Indian, she didn’t even look—”

            The pigeon perched on the seat next to him—is that blood on its feet? what the hell kind of fever dream is this—and the rest of the sentence crawled away to die in his mouth. It didn’t seem overly concerned with him, however, choosing instead to preen out a few flecks of filth from its feathers.

            “Got a light?” asked the pigeon.

            He shook his head. The pigeon click-clacked its beak irritably and pecked at the railing a few times, sending jolting vibrations up and down the bench. After a while it cocked its head sideways, regarding him with what he assumed to be quiet disdain.

            “Right, then,” said the pigeon. “I am here to tell you that blah-blah the end is fast approaching blah, blah-blah-blah stop being such a massive asshole, change your ways and mend your soul and blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah. Basically you need to get your shit together because you, my friend, are on your way out. Am I making any sense?”

            He gaped for a moment or two. “I’m an asshole?”

            “Don’t take it personally,” said the pigeon. “Practically everybody is.”

All he could do was stare at the ground, the only sound the pigeon’s occasional shift from one foot to the other. A light mist had begun to descend over the park. Finally he found—implying I’ve ever had it in the first place—his courage. “Are you going to take me back through the past now and show me all the mistakes I’ve made?”

“What do I look like, your fucking spirit guide?” said the pigeon. “Figure ‘em out for yourself.” It shook its plumage, gave a lazy flap of its wings, and took off. In seconds it had vanished into the distance.

A sudden panic struck him, and he began to sweep his gaze across the fields and trees—they couldn’t have given me any kind of warning?—for the glimpse of a watching figure, the hint of an approaching noise, any sign of a person or a ghost or a talking cricket or whatever. He just needed some way to prepare himself, fortify himself against the insanity that was taking over his life. If he could just have a moment to collect his thoughts, gather his wits about him, nothing would be able to surprise him.

When he looked back to the path, just for a moment, he lost his mind.

There was a massive shadowy something undulating in the mist before him. It was like a gaping void in the air, darker than dark, shapeless and formless and roiling in on itself like the eye of a hurricane. He realized that every second it was growing larger, manifesting from nothing and creating itself and replacing the very molecules and sucking away the light and wrapping itself over the park bench and coiling inside him and through him and around him and part of him until there was nothing but the gloom, nothing but the indistinct and the murky and the lack of possibility, and he knew that this—this is it, this is the end, this is how I die

When it spoke, the world trembled.

WHEN THE SECOND SON RETURNED TO HIS FATHER’S HOUSE HE WAS DESTITUTE. HE HAD SQUANDERED HIS FORTUNE IN A DISTANT LAND. HE HAD BEGGED WITH PIGS IN THE FIELDS. HE HAD SLEPT IN THE STABLES FOR MONTHS ON END.  HE HAD THRICE GONE MAD WITH HUNGER. HE SOUGHT ONLY TO SURVIVE. TO FEED HIMSELF. AND SO IT WAS THAT HE TOLD HIS FATHER OF HIS SINS. HE WAS SELFISH. HE WAS DISHONEST. HE WAS SLOTHFUL. HE WAS WEAK. HE WAS BROKEN.

please this isn’t real none of it is real please

YET THE FATHER TOOK PITY ON HIS WAYWARD CHILD. HE BATHED HIM. HE CLOTHED HIM. HE OFFERED HIM HIS RING. HE BUTCHERED THE FATTEST CALF. HIS HOUSEHOLD CELEBRATED TO SEE THE BOY’S RETURN. AND ALL THE WHILE THE SECOND SON WAS BLIND. HE THOUGHT ONLY OF HIS GOOD FORTUNE. HE HAD LEARNED NOTHING.

            I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m

NOW THE FIRST SON RETURNED TO THE HOUSE. AND HE ASKED HIS FATHER WHETHER HIS BROTHER DESERVED SUCH TREATMENT. THE FATHER REPLIED THAT HIS SECOND SON DESERVED MERCY. NO MORE THAN THAT. NOT ENLIGHTENMENT. NOT TRIUMPH. NOT BIRTHRIGHT. NOT HONOR OR LOVE OR HOPE OR FREEDOM.

ONLY MERCY.

            The thing was gone, then, but the void left in its absence still ached. And he could feel the cold shame of sin—a thousand thousand tiny sins, all the little lies and fuckups and second guesses and do-overs—oozing tarlike out of every pore in his body. He wanted to throw up, but was terrified of what might come out of his mouth. He didn’t want to feel anymore, he wanted not to be, to fade away, to find some escape from the nightmarish morass he was living in—

Someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Mind if I sit?”

He nodded wordlessly, mouth dry, and the figure took a spot evenly spaced away on the bench. He stared, desperate and unflinching, into his own face.

There was a dense fog now, hanging over the rest of the park. He couldn’t remember if the sun had been there to begin with.

“So…hi.”

“Hi.”

“This is a little awkward.”

“I don’t understand. You’re me?”

“Mostly. Surprise.”

“How is any of this possible? How can this even be real?”

“Well, strictly speaking it’s not. This is all in your head.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“Your body’s gone, it’s just waiting for the rest of your mind to catch up.”

“You mean…”

“I mean. Yeah.”

“No chance of revival, or just being in a coma, or…”

“None. I’m sorry.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“With the logic of it, kinda. It’s all still a little hazy. No pun intended.”

“How did it happen?”

“It wouldn’t make you feel better to know. Trust me. Trust yourself, I guess.”

“So then what is this place?”

“It’s where you’re waiting. I don’t know why it looks like a park.”
            “Shouldn’t you know, though? Being me?”

“Don’t make this any more confusing than it already is, please.”

“And you’re here…”

“To help you, yes. Move on. Cliché, I know. Because it’s time.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s over. Because other people need this place. Because we’re ready.”

“What was it all for, then? What was the point?”

“You mean of life?”

“Yeah. Life in general, I guess.”

“How should we know? It happened and we’re here and that’s that.”

“Huh.”

“All we can do now is—“

“—try to make the best of it?”

“There you go.”

“I think I get it now.”

“All of it?”

“I don’t know. Are we going to have time to figure it out?”

“I don’t know.”

“I get the statue though.”

“Ha. Small mercies.”

“I’m scared. I’m so so scared. And I’m sorry.”

“I am too.”

“Does that matter, in the end?”

“…I’d like to think so.”

“When does it…?”

“We have until we stand up.”

He waited there, for a long while—how will I know when I’m ready? how does anyone know?—listening to the silence.            

             

How to Bleach a Friendship

You turned around quickly, professionally

And

Stabbed me with your silent laughter

And

As you walked away, you said, None Of Your Business

And

Oh-so-casually ground my murmur into graveyard dust

And

You carefully, calmly, cruelly, closed yourself off

And

Rattled my eardrums with the inevitable tick-tock of a swinging door

And

You didn’t know, but I could feel you roll your eyes through the wall

And

Shrug off the fragments you’d collected on your jacket

 

When you tore up my question.

 

The rest was dirty windows, shuddering tires, jostling strangers, rhythmic tapping

Crop circle text, invisible strings, chokeholds and staredowns and blood vessels

Refusing the alcohol, faking the cigarettes, refilling the water

Kicking the brick wall over and over and over, brass section blaring in my ears and screaming WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF until the pain ran up my legs to the scrape on my knee, a dull ache from a tumble on freshly mown grass—

 

What’s the point, says the tightness in my chest?

 

Trust pouring out of me like sand from an hourglass, what’s one more stain?

 

I wonder if you truly heard me, understood me, after you’d given up?

 Were you able to translate all those profoundly long pauses?

(I was holding back the urge to scream into the receiver)

Just know that I’m languishing in the machine you built

And I’d rather you aired me out, folded me up

Next to your T-shirts, and your jeans, and your blue scarf, and your shrunken socks

Instead of leaving me spinning

With the rest of the loose change.

Success Story

Catalogue of evidence found in Room 123, Dulles Greene Apartments, Herndon VA 20710. Please note that all items have been bagged and stored, and may only be retrieved by investigators specifically assigned to the case of Thomas Trigger. Requisition forms A4, C10-C12, and F7 required for viewing.

 

-Buffalo chicken, bleu cheese, and habanero pepper sandwich from Joey’s Sandwich Shoppe four miles away. Half-finished and several days stale. Apparently a common order for the suspect.

-Boggle board game, set up on the floor of the suspect’s room next to a list of words. Highest scoring word was “squandered."

-Thirteen identical button-down shirts: pressed, ironed, and hung in the suspect’s closet.

-Samsung Galaxy phone, dark blue case, found on the floor behind the suspect’s dresser. Location, angle, and damage to the screen and casing indicate the phone was thrown. Analysts were able to retrieve some data from the device, including its last call to one Mary Williams. Ms. Williams lives about fourteen miles from Mr. Trigger’s place of residence.

-Copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, dog-eared and coffee-stained.

-Map of Washington D.C., marked in red with the route of Senator *******’s limousine.

-Series of handwritten and unfinished letters addressed to one Austin Trigger, brother of the suspect. Mr. Trigger currently resides in Colorado and is employed at a ski lodge. He appears to have little to no connection to his brother’s case.

-A single ammunition box matching the caliber of the murder weapon’s bullets. Found underneath the suspect’s bed. Empty