The judge’s jowls wiggled and Lucian noticed things he hadn’t before. The dyed fringe of stringy hair, the liver-spotted head. Crimson-shot eyes, turtle-beak lips, hasty concealer.
He thought of the mildewed dishrag in the farmhouse sink that never fully dried and wondered if everyone in the yawning courtroom felt the same way. Were they thinking about hair dye and rags?
The judge peered over bottle-thick glasses, scrutinizing a sheet of paper from a stack held in his black-veined hands. Someone cleared their throat as the judge milked this moment of listening silence.
Sara shifted in the seat next to Lucian.
“Hm… indeed, indeed,” said the judge, in a high voice that belonged in the throat of a cartoon mouse, “no trace history of familial diseases beyond the standard. Clean genetic profiles… finest kind, such as it is.” He looked up at Lucian. “What of the mouth? Does your second have its teeth in order, Mr. Aster?”
“Sara,” his wife whispered below breath, for herself.
The judge lifted his eyes and frowned. Had he heard that?
The answer came with unpleasant grace. “Mr. Aster, as this is your first visit to the court of application I will stay penalty. But should another unsolicited sound come out of your second, I will level a ruling of contempt that will be paid for in penance. Must I repeat?”
Lucian squeezed Sara’s hand beneath the table. “No, your honour, I understand.”
“Be sure it understands,” the judge grated with a nod toward Sara. She squeezed back. An angry squeeze. I know, love. We’ll get through. “Now, Mr. Aster, are your second’s teeth in order?”
“Yes, your honour. Inspected by the same minister of the court that oversaw the physical.”
This seemed to appease, but the judge held his “watch yourself” expression long enough to leave its threat in the air, and longer still to remind the room what a man in his chair might do if the mood struck.
But still, the jowls. “Indeed, indeed. By this report, you both meet the aesthetic standard, though it was close for your second at 129lbs.” He paused for a look at Sara that included a slow slug of his lips. “It seems that any excess weight, however, is carried acceptably across the chest. Please have it stand for the court.”
Sara stood and came out from behind the table with her eyes up. She knew what came next and she wasn’t about to give the judge his little delight in ordering it. Before anyone spoke again she stripped naked and stepped onto a brass tile set in the floor in front of the judge’s bench.
Lucian had prepared to feel something—sadness, impatience, whatever—but that was before the jowls and makeup. Now, hate pricked his fingertips, urging him to find the neck in that flesh and squeeze till the jiggle stopped. He breathed deep. This is why we’re here; this is what’s necessary.
The judge leaned forward for a better view, mouth open, adjusting his glasses, dragging his eyes from Sara’s toes to her dark brown hair.
He made a yum noise—nothing agreeable about it—then creaked back into his seat before gathering up papers, but only to stare over them at Sara’s breasts. “Right then,” he managed, his voice damp, “let the record show that its weight now tops out at 128 pounds, clearing the 130 threshold. No blemishes on the skin, left breast somewhat smaller than the right, but within prescribed limits. Health and nutrition appear optimal for genetic clarity and the head is in proportion to all other extremities. Eyes are more green than blue; please correct the record, clerk.” A voice from behind the judiciary bench muttered a waifish “yes, sir.”
The judge moved to speak, but Sara beat him to the punch again. She raised her arms and turned on the spot with her legs slightly spread.
Lucian squirmed, but he could do nothing worthwhile save to be awed by her composure. Even here, under all this scrutiny, nothing got near her.
The judge took his time. “Mmmm. Indeed, indeed… All hair removal below the chin meets regulation. Indeed. The second is in order. Note for the record that both medical and visual inspections pass to code.”
Another disembodied “yes, sir” from somewhere at the judge’s back. Behind every great man was a runner collecting crumbs.
There would always be the physical inspection, regardless of pre-screening. It was the judiciary’s privilege to be a pervert.
Sara waited to be released, standing proud. Always eyes up. He wondered what wonderful, awful things she was doing to the judge in her mind. At least there, justice still existed.
The judge’s lip twitches had Lucian wondering what his free hand was up to beneath the desk. The man was well beyond his morning kickstand years, and his pasty skin suggested much of his body was barely up to the task of living. The thought of him trying to fondle his flaccid self was enough to gag goats, but something he’d heard a long time ago came to mind. Bad sign for the heart of there’s no steel in the dawn pipe.
Maybe there’s a heart attack in the judge’s tea leaves. Could be any day. That was something. That was good.
The missing hand came back up onto the desk. “The second will retake its seat.”
The crowd shuffled and whispered behind Lucian. If it was in solidarity with Sara or in judgement he couldn’t guess. She dressed without haste—all on her own time—and sat down. A reassuring squeeze of his wrist. Out of sight. I’m okay.
The judge exchanged one stack of papers for another, clearing the hunger from his throat.
“Now then, Mr. Aster, concerning your nomination of one Evan Lightfoot—let the record show that the nominee is listed in the file as low-blooded—you will have the next ten minutes to make your case for the court if you please.”
The room shushed itself into silence. They wanted to hear about the monster he and Sara had chosen. Not to gawk and chatter, but to compare. Lucian knew all the questions they’d be asking themselves because he had asked them too: Is our nominee bad enough to put us over the top? How much stretching can the truth take before it snaps?
Maybe law had always been like this; fake hair and whoever’s bullshit smelled best. Lucian hoped not. Morality must have been real at some point.
Just not today.
Sara had subjected herself to that bastard with a gavel exactly for this moment. Don’t blow it with morality.
“Sir,” he said, hating the quiver that had found its way into his voice, “as you can see from the evidence provided, the witness statements, the—” he stopped fast as the judge waved a dismissive hand.
“Your words, please, Mr. Aster. The file is thorough and thoroughly reviewed. But I require your words for this court. Proceed.” A babble of tension undulated through the crowd.
Another squeeze of support at his thigh.
Fine. If he wanted a speech, he’d get one. Lucian rose from behind the table.
“Mr. Aster, you are not required to stand.”
“I require it, your honour.”
A raised eyebrow. Permission enough.
“Evan Lightfoot is, by all definitions of the court, a danger to the public, to children, and to the system.” Creaking chairs. That perked up a few people. “He is known to have sought relations beyond marriage with women and men, and he is directly connected to incidents of roaming reported near Park Sinclair and Park Dunsmuir.”
He paused as the judiciary scanned more pages from around those glasses until he found what he was looking for, the seed they had planted.
“Park Sinclair,” the judge read, “is near three early childhood care facilities.”
“Yes, your honour. There are two more near Dunsmuir.”
More ripples of unease behind him, the other applicants weighing their barley against his. Hard to tip the scales against child molestation. Even here. Even now.
“Mr. Aster, what are your substantiations?” The seed was a meadow now. Evan was deviant, consorted with women and men, and was identified near children. Won’t someone think of them.
It was all bullshit. But bullshit had the power.
Just ignore the hand beneath the desk.
Lucian continued. “We have the sworn statements from fourteen educators who together represent each of the primary education facilities. All of them have described the nominee in detail and provided specific dates and times when he was on or near each institution.” Lucian quietly thanked those people who had risked their lives to sign those statements. “We also have photographic evidence, and you’ll find in the materials provided that Evan Lightfoot consorted with known system disruptors.” The judge nodded emphatically; yes yes, sir, we can’t have disruptors in the mix. The system maintains!
It was time to put an ugly bow on this. He swallowed hard, thought of Sara’s sacrifice. Of everyone’s. “Adding to this, your honour, is evidence not presented in the file you hold, as I know this court does not accept the testimony of children…” he trailed off, the lie thicker than his throat could handle.
“Yes?” urged the judge, coming off his chair.
It felt as if the room had stopped breathing. He thought of how they’d put all these pieces together over the past months. All three of them, sudden tacticians in a game no one would ever want to play. But it had to be this way, and damn everything else. It was as close to moral as they were going to get. It was right.
It was right.
“… we have, your honour, secured the testimony, with fathers present, of two young boys who were victims of Evan Lightfoot.”
Someone in the courtroom muttered a stoic shit.
The judge thumbed through the medical file again, making a show of weighing the offered evidence, making a show of procedure—of structured, incorruptible justice.
Every law, every bill, and every page in those dead hands; the people lined up in murmuring rows, all a show for the hammer-and-fist class; the ones who would never understand that threats don’t scare people into submission—they just learn to talk a little softer.
A broad-backed bailiff bent low for a whispered exchange with the judiciary. Lucian couldn’t hear a word of it.
Then the judge straightened and called an ancient archivist from the wings. The man doddered across the room, footsteps echoing.
Lucian heard the squeaks of the wooden chairs, the brush of fabric. Many knew where this could go from here. How badly it could go.
The archivist finally arrived and stood shaky beneath the Judge’s stare.
“Mr. Lent, please usher the files of this proceeding—that of one Lucian Aster and his second—to records-receiving, if you have it in you to make it there before next week.”
A few nervous laughs burbled up from the human stew at Lucian’s back. Mr. Lent gave a weak nod and a resigned smile as he took the file. Paper-only for this court. No computers.
Paper burns easy.
“Get on with it then,” barked the judge. He shook his head before turning back to Lucian and Sara—the moment they’d all been waiting for.
“Mr. Aster, given your testimony, the available evidence, and the racial health of both you and your second, by decree of this court, your application for reproduction is granted. Seems you are lucky I’m in good spirits.”
The room let out its breath and Lucian couldn’t help but take a cautious look over his shoulder. Sadness from a few, a thin smile of congratulations here and there, some anger—couldn’t go anywhere these days without it. But that’s how the system would work, Lucian’s father had warned. Limit resources, make the people compete for what’s rightfully theirs, keep them looking left and right instead of up.
Zero-sum mindsets in a zero-sum machine. Miss you, dad. So glad you’re not here.
Sara made a little noise only he could hear, enough to snap his eyes back to the judiciary bench. The judge wouldn’t like someone turning their back on him. The gavel was in his hand now and the tall bailiff had returned to his side, a beat-up cardboard box held in his hands.
The judge nodded and stood, clearing his throat, jowls wibbling. There’s always room for Jell-O. “The record will show that this case was prosecuted fairly, with dignity and respect for all present parties.” He paused.
For applause? Laughter?
Nothing was funny anymore, thought Lucian. Parody had remade the world in its image.
Finally, “Mr. Aster. You have been granted the right of reproduction before this court. Your reciprocal obligation under the law must be carried out in the next 48 hours, and proof of execution of this responsibility must be presented to the people’s house no more than 24 hours after that. Do you understand your duty to the judiciary?”
“Very well, will the bailiff please present Mr. Aster with the instrument of the court?”
The bailiff obliged and came forward, cardboard box held uncaringly.
Lucian peered over the corrugated lip to see the instrument of the court laid out on a small hand pillow the colour and texture of a porn theatre seat.
No grandeur. No ritual.
Just a worn handgun and two loose bullets.
He almost laughed. Almost.
“Casings must be returned and accounted for along with incontrovertible proof,” the bailiff recited by rote, putting in time.
Two guards appeared on cue to guide Sara and Lucian from the courtroom and through the crowd.
Sara walked close, supportive. Even after all this, she was gracious, giving. Today and in everything leading up to today, Sara had guided them all forward. It came at a cost she’d never admit. And there’s still more to pay, he thought as he felt the contents of the box shift.
They passed under the courtroom’s arched entryway where, engraved in beautiful calligraphy, it read: “Justice is balance.”
* * *
Lucian took a long look at the glossy parentage identity card. No photo of his wife. Not even a name. Just an S and a serial number. Black with gold digits. Sharp on all sides. Cold.
He looked up at the pimpled man behind the security glass who had just handed it to him. The fellow smiled.
“Congrats,” he said. “Got a name picked out?”
Lucian left the man’s question in the air, turned and exited the stark building. Out on the milling street, he shouldered past the homeless, the starving, the discounted. There were more and more of them every week, spat out by the zero-sum machine.
Threading his way through them, around the clinking trash, he made it to his government-issued car, a real clunker that had nearly rattled itself apart on the drive-in. Though he’d only been away for fifteen minutes, it had already been tagged, even with Sara sitting in it.
“Balance is bullshit,” yelled the crude red letters across the hood.
He got in and started the engine, the lights blinking and dimming. He couldn’t help but marvel at the half-full tank, just enough gas to make the approved trip. To the city and back. No more, no less. Even a sliver of freedom was entirely too much to offer. Can’t have the people making for the border now can we.
In two days, an officer of the court would provide him another ration to return and present his proof. But getting home after that was on him.
Lucian handed Sara the card and she gave him an easy smile. Not her full smile, the one that gave the world colour; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that. But he loved her for trying.
Sara resumed her glaring match with the instrument of the court, resting in its box between her feet.
She patted him on the thigh.
That took the edge off a little.
* * *
The old farmhouse had long ago lost whatever colour it might have been. Maybe yellow, maybe white, he couldn’t remember. It matched the land around it now; gray, dry, past its prime.
How had it happened so quickly? he wondered. Only ten years ago, these fields were green. He and Sara had hope. Only ten years ago, women were people.
Now, the sun beat down like his dad said it would, relentless and angry, browning the grass. Now, Sara was just an S on a shitty black card.
He inched the car up the driveway at a crawl. The blinking chimes of the check-engine alarm and the gas tank’s “you’re on your own” light were sore company. But, for the moment, it suited him. Slow and steady to a soundtrack of warning seemed right for this. It was the realest thing he’d experienced today.
Their drive back from the city kept teasing his mind with “maybe this” and “maybe that” thoughts of reprieve, perhaps some obscure exits that no one had thought of yet. But of course there weren’t any. They’d been through every possibility. And Sara never missed a thing.
Now here they were. And no driveway left to drag it out.
The tires crackled over the pebbled hardpan as he rolled the car to a stop and turned off the engine.
“You made that last,” said Sara with a hollow chuckle.
He tried to smile, couldn’t. So she smiled for the both of them, like always.
“Now come on,” she said, “waiting only makes the hard thing harder.” She bent low, pulled the gun and bullets from the box, got out of the car and walked around to the back of the farmhouse. He watched her tuck it into her waistband through the dusty windshield. He thought about wiping the glass clear. Then he thought of everything else.
Lucian caught up with her at the crumbling steps leading up to the porch. He’d have to fix these before the kid came.
She paused there, taking a freighted moment. He knew the look on her face, collecting all the necessary things. Courage, breath, resolve. Checking and re-checking everything on her copious mental lists to make damn sure nothing was missed; no loophole they could all rip open and fall through.
A dry, rattling cough from the shade behind the sagging screen door made them glance at each other. Then came the familiar titter.
“Come up. Come up,” reached them in Evan Lightfoot’s reedy voice. He sounds worse, Lucian thought. Much worse than when they left this morning. Another shredded cough. “Don’t stand out in the sun to leave a dead man waiting.”
Lucian didn’t know when he had grabbed Sara’s hand, but he had it now. They took the steps in unison to the complaint of the weather-worn stairs and he pushed the screen door inward. It groaned its familiar greeting as they stepped into the space Sara had called home as a kid.
Even here, in the shade of the closed-in porch, the air was hot, thick and absolute. Two dusty beams of sunlight split the shadows, illuminating a thin figure in a sun-bleached Adirondack chair that used to be red—that he remembered.
Evan looked awful. His olive skin had somehow grown whiter than should’ve been possible. His long black hair seemed to have more gray in it too. He looked twice his 38 years.
With his trademark grin, Evan nodded at the gun sticking out of Sara’s waistband.
Sara smiled and nodded. We did it.
At that, Lucian saw joy and life on Evan’s handsome face. First time since the diagnosis. The man’s eyes glistened with ready tears. There was pride. A flash of his old “fuck you” defiance.
And a profound relief.
He nodded again and looked out the broken window over the shimmering dead-and-dust field. “Good,” he said, wiping his eyes. “Good. How bad was it, L? Gimme the truth of it. Sara’d tell me she’s in fine fettle standing on two broken legs.”
“I am fine,” she said. “Some weak old man isn’t going to leave a mark on me, thank you very much.” She stared out toward the field too and Lucian followed her eyes.
Bleak, with a memory of lemonade and the splash of a sprinkler. The first time she kissed him beneath that tree, when it was more than a desiccated stump. What she was thinking about he could only guess, but he hoped it was lemonade.
“There were no problems at all, Ev,” added Lucian.
Evan laughed as well as he was able. “Course not. Tell them a man’s a boy-loving deviant, that’ll straighten their backs. Add that he’s in league with disruptors AND that he’s a full-fledged, card-carrying native of this land? Bet you couldn’t stop them handing over the gun.” He winced a little as he laughed. Tough bastard only ever winced a little, but Lucian knew the kind of pain and discomfort he faced. He’d seen it with his own father a decade before. “Gotta keep their flimsy order, don’t they,” Evan said. “Don’t mind the stink behind the curtain.”
No painkillers. No drugs. No treatment. At least his dad had that. But not in this new world. And definitely not for his friend.
Got cancer? I know a good funeral home. That’ll be twenty rations for the parking.
Sara sat on the arm of Evan’s chair and hugged his wasted shoulders. He reached up and patted her hand. Tears ran down her face as the two of them gazed out over the field they played in when they were small. “Thank you, Evan,” she finally said.
“Nah. You’re doing me the favour, love.” He gestured at himself, look at me. “Be damned if I’m going out like this. And you get a kid from it. Couldn’t ask for a better send-off.” He smiled at her before setting his eyes back on the gun.
He held out his hand.
Sara didn’t utter a word of protest. She gave it to him and fished the bullets out of her pocket. This was the agreement. The way it had to be.
“What do they need?” Evan rasped as he used his fading strength to load the thing. His fingers trembled. He bit his lip, swore, kept working at it.
“Photos and a couple of hairs. DNA confirmation,” said Lucian.
A bit more struggle and Evan had a round chambered. He laid it on his lap and leaned back to catch his breath.
Sara took a long moment to weigh her next words. Words that Lucian had expected since they had hatched this whole thing.
“Let me,” she said, voice cracking. She bent to pick up the instrument of the court.
Evan caught her hand and he smiled through clenched teeth, gasping. “Oh no, you don’t. What would my ancestors say?” Another of those ugly coughs. “Appreciate the offer but I’m leaving as I choose.” He tried to get up, faltered, shook his head. “I am, however, gonna need the two of you to help me to my feet.”
They did. Sara on one side, Lucian on the other, Evan groaning with the effort.
“Lucian,” he rasped, “cock that damned thing and put it in my hand.”
Lucian didn’t hesitate. This man had given him a chance at a family, a child. “You bet,” he said, pulling back the hammer and placing the gun in Evan’s palm.
“Thank you, kindly.” Evan gave Lucian’s wrist a squeeze. “I love the both of you. Too much to ever see you crying about this and too much still to let you name that kid Evan when they come into this world. So don’t. Clear?”
They both nodded.
“Right then. Do me the courtesy of heading back down those steps.” They stood firm. “It’s a little like pissing. Can’t go with you watching.”
They chuckled. All three of them. And somehow, Lucian felt good.
This felt good.
“Go on,” said Evan.
Lucian’s feet only moved when Sara took his hand, leading them both off the deck. But no further than that. A look in her eyes and he understood. They were staying here.
“One more thing!” called Evan. “One of you’s gonna have to put this second bullet in me… and fast. So I suppose fuck you to whoever gets that honour.” Then Evan Lightfoot began to laugh, full and loud. A free man. Like he used to be, like they all had been. “I tell you what,” he said, “don’t bring ‘em my hair. Too pretty for those bastards… no… bring them the big black ball in my lung. Plenty of DNA in it and I swear it’s theirs anyway,” he laughed. “Least I can do is give ‘em back what they gave us.”
The shot shook the house. The thump of his falling body did too.
Sara immediately started up the stairs, but Lucian stopped her. It was his turn to carry the weight. Justice is balance.
Miguel Eichelberger has had over 60 poems appear in literary magazines around the world including Harpur Palate, the Literary Review of Canada, Plainsongs Magazine, Poetry Salzburg, and pacificREVIEW. His most recent play, Stupid Cupid, ran to 4-star reviews at the 2018 Edinburgh, Brighton and Vancouver Fringe Festivals; and again at the 2019 Camden Fringe.