Emily sat on her apartment balcony, bare feet propped up on the iron railing, strawberry-blonde hair piled into a bun atop her head. She regarded the popsicle in her hand as if it were a complex math problem, eyes tracking the liquid sugar melting off of the stick as though it were a detail that must be committed to memory. The red liquid trickled down the stick then pooled on her hand, almost the same color as the polish on her nails. Emily tried to remember when she had applied that polish. Two weeks ago? Three? Two months ago? The last eight months, really, had been a blur. Suddenly, it was August, summer was winding down, and soon students would be returning to school—whether that was in person or on the internet remained to be seen. Either way, though, Emily wouldn’t be returning. School was over for her, probably for good. Back in early June, she received her diploma in the mail, making it official: Emily McCann obtained a juris doctor from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. The last thing she did before Washington, DC went on lockdown was drop $200 she didn’t have on a cap and gown she would, apparently, have no reason to wear. Graduation was postponed, then cancelled, and she gave up on the idea of participating in a ceremony in the fall, if one should happen.
From her balcony, she could see the bell tower of the National Basilica. The popsicle started melting onto Emily’s shorts, so she set it down on the paper plate beside her. The basilica bells struck twelve, and Emily gazed in the direction of the bell tower, sighing with recollections of her time there in Brookland. 2017 seemed ages ago, she had been so young and naïve, though at the time she fancied herself a fully confident and capable adult. Really, she was only a child. From the first, her life had intersected with Hector Brigham’s. She didn’t much believe in fate, but perhaps there were times now and again when things were simply meant to happen. Hector had floated through her mind like an old, familiar song, with more frequency than normal that summer. Regardless of what might have become of them if things had gone differently for Hector, they had a son, Emerson, now almost two years old. He sat on the balcony beside Emily, playing with a paint set, his own popsicle long gone, the sticky remains stained around his mouth and on his hands. For Emerson’s sake, Emily firmly believed she and Hector were somehow meant to be in one another’s lives, if only temporarily. One icy January night in 2018, Hector had come to Emily’s apartment to hang out and to wait for the government to shut down with all the excitement of New Year’s Eve. The shutdown came at midnight, and not long after that, Emily and Hector tumbled into bed together. Then, in April, Hector was gone.
The Washington Post article glared at her from her phone screen. Her thirty-minute break from studying for the bar exam—which she had intended to pass with coffee and a snack along with one episode of “The Office”—had instead turned into a two-hour dive into information regarding the man who killed Hector. His sentence had been mitigated to manslaughter, which Emily found patently absurd, and the day before, he died of a heart attack. So that was the end of that story.
Her phone buzzed, startling her out of her rumination. Nadine Roberts was calling.
“Hey!” Nadine’s voice rang over the phone, “I’m at school.”
“Okay, we’ll be there in a second,” Emily said. “Hey. Did you hear about the guy who killed Hector?”
“What about him?” Nadine asked, hesitation palpable in her voice.
“He died of a heart attack yesterday,” Emily said, as plain as if she were reporting the weather.
“Good,” Nadine said.
Emily situated Emerson in his stroller, complete with a bottle of milk, a bag of cheerios, and his favorite stuffed animal. She adjusted her mask, grabbed a tote bag, and headed out the door. It was the first time she would see a friend in the flesh since March, and her excitement grew as though she were actually going out to do something entertaining, rather than merely going to clean out her locker at the law school.
The law school was empty and silent. No security guard manned the desk, no chatter or laughter echoed through the atrium or in the student café. The usual posters touting student elections or study abroad programs were replaced with reminders to wear masks, wash hands, and keep distance from other people. The law school lockers consisted of rows of lockers too skinny to fit much of anything. Emily hadn’t bothered with hers the first semester, considering the concept of lockers something belonging to high school, but from the second semester onward she steadily filled her locker with junk.
“You remember 1L year when our first torts class was cancelled so we could all go see the solar eclipse?” Nadine asked.
“Yup. Wasn’t that our very first class, too?” Emily asked.
“I think you’re right,” Nadine said. “Started with a solar eclipse, ended with a pandemic, had the longest government shutdown in history wedged in between.”
“It’s been quite a ride,” Emily muttered as she swung open her locker door. It was like a time capsule, frozen in March 2020, patiently waiting for life to resume as usual, which would never happen. Among crumpled papers, breath mints and candy wrappers, were remnants of the past: Evidence and criminal procedure textbooks, a coat with a pair of gloves in one pocket, a half-eaten bag of chips and a half-drunk bottle of water. There was a Starbucks receipt from October 11, 2018—a Thursday, just two days before Emerson was born. Information about graduation, all but useless now. A copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays sat with a copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague. Both copies had belonged to Hector Brigham, and both had been particular favorites of his. They were full of his underlines and notes in the margins. Emily had taken them after he died, finding comfort in their pages, feeling close to him in the comments he made and the passages he starred. She had been reading a passage in Emerson’s Essays when her water broke, thus she named her son Emerson Brigham McCann.
Tucked in the pages of The Plague was her airplane ticket from New Orleans to D.C. in April 2018—her return flight from Hector’s funeral. Emily pulled the ticket out of the book and studied it when Nadine exclaimed from the other end of the aisle, where her locker was.
“What’s wrong?” Emily asked. Nadine held up a wrinkled sheet of loose-leaf paper and read from it,
“May it please the court…”
“Oh, no,” Emily laughed, remembering the 1L oral arguments, the dread of each new year of first years. It was the culmination of a year of the lawyering skills class, with snacks, wine, and beer at the ready in the atrium once the arguments ended.
“Can you believe that was only two years ago?” Nadine said as she crumpled the paper in her hands and threw it into the garbage. “Seems like another life. At the same time, though, it’s hard to believe it’s already over. Where’s the time gone, and all that.”
“It all feels unreal. I’m sort of numb to the whole thing, honestly. Maybe if we’d had an actual graduation, a sort of official send-off, it’d feel legit. I mean, I’m not that sentimental anyway, but I just feel strange.”
“I think it’s a lack of closure,” Nadine said, kicking her locker closed and heading to the nearest trashcan with arms full of three years’ worth of assorted junk.
“Probably,” Emily knelt down to situate Emerson back in his stroller. He protested loudly, but quieted down when Emily gave him some cheerios. “Or I’m just too old and tired to care about this sort of thing.”
“You are twenty-five years old,” Nadine laughed. “You’re a veritable baby.”
“What I mean is just—I don’t know. Life goes on, doesn’t it? This is just another chapter finished, and it’s not one I’ll miss terribly much. There was a sense of change after high school and college, but now that law school’s finished,” Emily shrugged, “I can’t seem to care.”
After emptying their lockers, Emily and Nadine ventured to the atrium, dark save the natural light pouring in through the skylight. The library was dark, doors closed and locked. The air conditioning pumped into the room. Standing with her back to the courtyard, Emily recalled the first day of orientation, the atrium filled with eager, new law students nervously chatting as then-unknown professors and administrators milled about.
“Our orientation table was right about there,” Emily pointed at the empty space in front of the library. “That’s where we met.”
“You, me, Martin, and Hector,” Nadine smiled. “We made a good crew.”
“Have you heard from Martin lately?” Emily asked.
“We chat now and then,” Nadine shrugged. “Not that frequently, though. You’re the only person I really keep in touch with from here.”
“Same,” Emily said. “Well,” she sighed, “I guess we’re all done here.”
“Bye, CUA,” Nadine sang out.
Emily took one last look around the atrium, then followed Nadine out into the courtyard, where the sun beat down on the ground and the flowers bloomed around the fountain. Emily looked over her shoulder at a wooden bench beneath a tree closest to the school doors. April 13, 2018 was the day of their 1L oral arguments, and it was the last time Emily saw Hector Brigham, sitting there on that bench with a book in his lap and earbuds in his ears. She had known, then, about Emerson, but she hadn’t worked up the courage to tell Hector, promising herself—and Nadine—that she would tell him the following Monday. He wanted more of a relationship than she did, and she was concerned that he would want to marry her if she told him she was pregnant. Despite the ever-logical, ever-caring Nadine’s suggestions that, first, he might not propose; second, if he did, she could always say no; and, third, the baby was just as much his as he was Emily’s, so Hector had a right to know, Emily couldn't tell him. She waited too long, and on Monday, April 16, the day before Hector’s twenty-fourth birthday, a disturbed man at the Fort Totten metro station decided to gun Hector down, and he died without ever knowing that he had a son.
A Buddhist quote that Emily had seen somewhere ran through her mind: The trouble is, you think you have time. She shook her head as a lump grew in her throat, gaze still firmly set on the empty bench. That was always her problem, living life as though she had all the time in the world, treating the people in her life as though they would be around as long as she was. Hector proved her wrong on that score, and the abrupt, anticlimactic end to what should have been her celebratory third and final year of law school reinforced the point.
“You okay?” Nadine asked, stepping toward Emily, brow creased with concern.
“It comes out of nowhere, sorry,” Emily tried to laugh. She cleared her throat and sniffled.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Nadine’s said.
“It’s stupid. I don’t even have the right to grieve over him,” Emily said.
“Who, Hector? He’s the father of your child.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t want him in my life, did I? Face it, if he were here, we wouldn’t be together. We weren’t even together then. Not really. I’m being a hypocrite.”
“No, you’re not,” Nadine said, voice soft and gentle. “I remember when he died, how you were frustrated with people posting all over social media, moaning about missing him when they wouldn’t even give him the time of day when he was around—”
“Right, that’s what I’m saying. I’m no better than them,” Emily said.
“That’s not true. They had no valid claim to him,” Nadine said.
“No valid claim,” a mirthless laugh escaped Emily’s lips. She shook her bangs out of her eyes and folded her arms. “I don’t think anyone has a valid claim on anyone else. Except maybe your own child.”
“I think you’ve beat yourself up about Hector enough over the last two years,” Nadine said. She stooped down to pick up the stuffed animal that Emerson had dropped, smiling at him and pinching his nose as she stood back up. “Whatever feelings you have toward him are valid. If you’re still sad about him, you just have to let yourself be sad, you know? It won’t do any good to ignore it or pretend otherwise. Besides, for what it’s worth, I’ve never doubted that you cared about him.”
“Sure, but I didn’t love him. I didn’t.”
“I think you did,” Nadine said. “Maybe not romantically, and that’s fine, but I think you did love him as a human being, as a friend.”
“He’d be pissed off if he heard that,” Emily said, and they both laughed. A quiet moment passed, a pleasant breeze played with the trees, a slight hint of fall beneath the summer heat. “If I’m honest, I think I’m a little afraid to leave all this behind. I won’t think about him as much away from here. I don’t. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about him in a long time, until I read about his killer yesterday,” Emily adjusted the strap of her tote bag on her shoulder.
“You don’t need to think about him every second of the day,” Nadine said.
“I don’t want to forget him, either,” Emily said.
“Have you looked at this child’s face?” Nadine pointed at Emerson, and Emily smiled. The dark brown eyes and the dimpled smile were Hector’s. His curly hair was, too, although the strawberry blonde hue came from Emily.
“I wish we’d had a proper goodbye,” Emily said, glancing back toward the law school building. Whether her wish referred to Hector or law school, even she wasn’t sure, though she figured it was a mixture of both. Nadine was right, the lack of closure left everything in limbo, even one’s emotions.
“Me, too, but here we are,” Nadine said. “We did it, though. We got through. And you got through with a baby on your hip, no less! You deserve all the awards, Miss McCann.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Emily said. “I’ll go for a coffee, though. Haven’t been to Starbucks since March.”
“Let’s do it,” Nadine said, spinning on her heel and leading the way out of the courtyard and away from the law school, a place that no longer belonged to them. Emily sighed, content, as she walked with Nadine, memories of Hector and her years in law school etched with finality on her heart as she moved forward into the wide-open future.