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Justice

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It was her first day, and she was naturally a curious person. When she saw him sitting at a Social Justice Booth, running his hand over his pointedly long hair and gesturing wildly to a couple of equally fresh college freshmen, it was only natural that she went over to see what he was talking about.

Two applications and a current-member interview later, she joined up. Every Thursday, 3 o’clock, on the dot. It was pretty sweet. Technically, they were there to combat the injustice of today’s society, but she liked to imagine that all 353 of them were really there to hear him talk. Four weeks into the semester, and she knew more about what he thought than she did her professors. It was a class in itself, she thought, giggling to no one. The thought floated in the air: Cute Boy 101. It was even more funny when she realized she still hadn’t had the courage to ask for his name yet, but she didn’t worry about that. She had time.
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Two months later, and her small frame racked in self-disgust. Her cowardice--her inability to even approach Mr. No Name--felt like muddy water in her shoes; she grimaced as she walked to club meetings when even the burning September sun couldn’t dry her of the feeling. She could just imagine her prim and love-hardened mother, whose nails were manicured only by years of hard labor and clawing her way into a new age aristocracy, recoil in shame. She did not raise a coward; she raised a warrior. It was her seasoned mother, whose tactics were self-tested, that taught her the bloody war of romance. Her daughter was a heavy-duty munitions officer armed with the only weapons her mother believed she’d ever need: her body, and her face, and she was taught how to properly clean and arm both. It was her mother that lived a comfortable, secure life, and it was her mother whom she resented with all of the force of an eighteen year-old body.

And yet, despite the tsunami of their final confrontation, it was her mother’s face she saw then, leaning on her engorged husband’s shoulder, who told her to be brave. She told herself that it was her own, and set out to find Mr. Cute Boy. Her mother had given her what she had, but she refused to give her anything back.

It took about five or six tries to “accidently” knock his books out of his hands, and another ten to do it a second time. What a coincidence, he said. He called her Clumsy whenever he saw her then, but the thrill of being recognized pumped her full of enough adrenaline to steroid the butterflies in her stomach. And when she (finally) made a good point in Social Justice, it was almost casually that he shot her an appreciative glance and a quick proposal: wanna go out for coffee?

His name was Ken Corbin Gardner, which she joked made him sound like the Gardening Ken doll she played with when her father had his “special friends” over and her mother had made herself scarce. Ken was a poet by trade, and really into it, too. Every sentence he said had some sort of hidden meaning and a poetic twist; she’s pretty sure his dying words would be lyrics to live by. And his eyes--his eyes were clear slates and stormy skies in one, smoke on water with a dash of blue hope behind them, and if he still calls her Clumsy three dates in, that’s alright with her.

He said he wanted his life to be the cadence to injustice in the world, and that for that to happen there had to be pain. He said he was willing to sacrifice, and was she?

“Yes.” She said, leaning forward with stars for eyes. Whatever you want.

Months later, he was still the same outspoken warrior he used to be, still commanded the room with an iron fist, but when he stood up now to make the final point, it was accompanied with a glance and a preen in her direction. She started wearing makeup--well, not that she didn’t before, but now it was for real, a full warrior’s mask of mascara and smoky eyelids that reminded her of burning, curling paper. She knew he was watching, and she watched his world shrink to the pools of her eyes with emotions with cousins named satisfaction, excitement, purpose and vengeance.

This time, she asked him for coffee.

In between meetings, there was a valley of phone calls and late-night texts, philosophical debates shoved in hallways and lunch lines, furtive glances and moments lost in his smile. Her days became assumed into living daydreams she was content to get lost in, which she did without question. She couldn’t pinpoint when exactly she stepped from one boat to another, but she could remember exactly when she forgot there was an ocean. It was when he said Clumsy for the last time, and she felt her name blossom for the first time.

It’s a bit of ritual now, their coffees. Everyday, 7:30 on the dot, she’d brave the early fog wrapped up in term papers and the latest winter fashion just to find him sitting at what was soon their couch at their Starbucks, absorbed in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle--which she assumed should be in all caps, seeing as she’d never done one before--or the latest Time Magazine. He’d always leap up when he saw her, and she’d greet him with a hug, and then later a kiss on the cheek. One day she hoped she’d be brave enough to move it just a little to the left.

Then she did, brushing her lips just barely over his before dashing off in a haze of mortified anxiety and a flapping, pink scarf. The women's bathroom was her sanctuary. His face was a mask when he followed her in; the door locked with a click and then he loomed over her like a full moon. They didn’t go to class that day.

The next three weeks were the happiest in her life. She wrote out her name on his lips, her I love you’s in his collarbone, and she didn’t just give him the keys to her heart; she broke the lock away completely and threw open the doors for everyone to see. At every sunset they laid out on the roof, imagining that they were the ones who painted its hues with 99 cent brushes from Michael’s and Crayola Watercolors. He whispers in her ear. I want a voice the color of your breath at Niagara Falls. I want to explore the orchards in your heart and find what you keep from the world in the center. I want you to always say my name like that.

Like what? She replies.

Like I’m leaving you behind, and you’re calling me back, he says.

She has nothing to say to that, so makes her kiss her reply; once, twice on his eyelids. He keeps talking.

One day, his voice louder, we’ll be a family. Two kids, so they won’t be lonely, like us. We’ll watch the stars and the sunset every day, and we’ll never be alone again.

She asked him, promise?

He said of course. I love you. He stops talking.

They spent the night tracing the constellations on each other’s skin, forming stars out of kisses and blowing solar winds in each other’s hair. And then, in the moment of heat, she told him she loved him back.

Her mother got a call from one of her favorite professors asking why she hasn’t gone to class in three weeks.

They moved in together once class ended for the year, and she was released from the mandatory freshman dorms. They rejected the pleas from friends for a good old-fashioned house party, and throw one for themselves. By themselves.

That was a good day.

The Earth shook with the chill the summer the economy froze and shattered. The sunsets dimmed; the people feared. Mr. Gardner lost his job and went to work at a steel factory; Ken dropped out of four courses to take a shift at the meat processing factory, blowing away intestines on the floor with a fire hose. He laughed about it, and was glad he was still in college, but she worried.

The smell permeated through everything, right down to his bones. He smelled like rotting meat, the word “tired”, and dried blood no one wanted to clean up. Right about the time even his collarbone tasted like pork chops, they got a call. There was an accident at the factory; Mr. Gardner was at the hospital.

Hospital IVs and old magazines; blue clipboards and condolences; blue, wrinkled scrubs and the smell of piss; Ken said the word ‘gone’ tastes like thin plastic and green raspberries.

A month later, Ken’s desk was covered in drop-out request forms. He got home at 12 o’clock every night, just to wake up at 5:30 for another shift, not even bothering to bring his air-filled wallet. He sold his car and put his metro pass in his pocket with whatever crumpled bills he could spare for lunch. Ken was still in college, though; two classes after 2:30, and then it was back for a third shift. Despite how much he talked about them, she was pretty sure he was failing both of them.

And there she was: in the middle of a tornado and a storm, waiting for Superman.
And there she is: lost.

He hides his alcohol behind rows of baked beans and corn in the second cabinet’s third shelf. She knows this is where his father hid his, too, from the look of disgust when he shifts the cans and the way he hides his face from her eyes while he takes a swig. She knows he knows she knows that he has it, but she doesn’t know why he continues to hide it, she doesn’t know what to say, so she doesn’t say anything when he comes to bed. She just knows that he needs her, and that the tension in his body slackens when she kisses his collarbone like she used to, so she doesn’t stop. He isn’t there when the sun goes down; his shift doesn’t end until 11:30.

Ken brings back a flyer about a Social Justice Club his coworkers had told him he’d like. At first she was ecstatic. He was coming home. So what if he had to drop out of college completely? Social Justice had always been his muse. And once he was back on his feet, everything would go back to normal.

She asks to come along with him one day. He says yes.

And suddenly, she’s not so ecstatic anymore.

The New Social Justice Club isn’t like the old. It’s more violent, meets for longer and more often, and she doesn’t like the members nearly as much as she did in the first SJC. They’re harder, older, and worst of all, tired. And she doesn’t just mean under the eyes; she means under the bones. These men shake with the unbridled fury of fathers without bacon to bring home, and while Ken isn’t a father, she knows these men can understand him loads better than she ever could. And it scares her.

By the time she manages to work up the courage to stop Ken, he has become a train without a conductor, and she can look into his eyes and know he’s lost. So she waits outside the meetings with the other wives, wondering with the rest of them if her lover will decide to come down from whatever cloud they’re on again. For the first time in a year, she sees her mother’s face, wrinkling and full of smug sympathy and her usual advice, but she’s still too prideful to acknowledge it. She reminds herself that she never really listened to her mother’s advice before, and endeavors to ignore it now. She will never abandon Ken. She will stay forever.

When she sees the reports on the news of the bolded words “domestic terrorism”, she pretends she knows nothing. She says, Sorry, Mrs. Bradshaw, haven’t been watching the news lately. I’ll be sure to watch tonight, though, and see what those terrorists have been up to. Can you believe what society’s come to?

She keeps her promise, and still denies everything, shivering against the December breeze in a way that had nothing to do with the cold. She loves Ken, even when she recognizes Ken’s handwriting on the ransacked government building.

“Justice”, it reads on the screen.

“Justice”, she whispers.

She joins the group again, this time, formally. She’s more terrified than she’s ever been, but what else can she do? This is where Ken is; it will be where she is, too.

Their plans are scary, but she realizes where the river flows from when Ken stands up and proposes a new plan.

She smothers her whimper with a smile, but her tears flow freely. Let him see that where the river flows from is her eyes. Her pain. He doesn’t look at her, and she is grateful. Underneath their held hands, walking home in the snow, it rains from beneath their arms.

They begin, but they stop; Ken’s plan is too much even for these self-appointed knights of society. They shake their heads with the force of a mountain chain. No. A month later, Ken leaves the group. She whoops for joy until he comes home like an avalanche, and screams. They were too moderate for what the people truly needed. The world needed action, dammit, and he was going to give it to them.

She is past the point of feeling resentment when he does not ask if she’d join him. They both know she will.

A receipt from Home Depot read for $50 worth of lighter fluid, and two lighters. Standard issue, and black. She ignores the slippery drip of dread that pools in the soles of her shoes where shame used to be, marvelling at the different temperature but the same feel of the two, and goes to class with her head in her hands.

But, as usual, she does nothing but wait.

He explains himself, and to her credit, she is composed. Composed like ice, maybe, and melting around the edges, but she holds herself with the weight of a glacier, and follows him willingly.

Coldly.

She will not break.

But all ice melts, in the end.

“I’m scared” is all she can whisper, faintly clinging to what was not there, what he was not. She had always believed, because who can simply break like he did, shatter into nothing like the man he was had never even existed? But she had always been a fool.

Two kids and a sunset, he promised. But his promises were as empty as the hole he kept trying to fill, first with righteousness, then with anger.

Justice was a sword he had never weld, but it was all he ever sought after. It left him in the dust.

“I know.” He whispered back, too wrapped up in his own reality to smother his grin. The light of the lighter caught in his eye, and reflecting all that he was in the finite of his eyes.

Oh, Jesus, she sobbed. “Why? Why this?” Why me? Even more faintly, she whispered. “We can still go back.”

He cupped her chin, getting even more lighter fluid across her cheek. “Oh, don’t you see?” He smiled. “It’s always been this. It’s always had to be this way. Life doesn’t always give you a sunset, so you have to make your own.”

A strangled cry escaped her, and she knew her face was twisting in a way her mother would have hated, “But why?”

“Because.” He said softly, leading the two of them outside. The crowded street outside their door let out a collective gasp, but he ignored them, closing her hand around a lighter. “When there’s nothing left of you to burn,” his thumb flicked the ignition, “it’s time to set yourself on fire.”

The flame twisted in the wind, forcing it to jump into the ocean of lighter fluid on his body, and she forced herself to watch as the man she loved consumed himself like he’d always threatened, the fire burning away the marks she left with her love, and with it herself. There was nothing left of either of them when she lit her own lighter, and called out his name. He did not come back.



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