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“Just say it,” you silently remind yourself. You know you’ll regret it if you don’t. His eyes demand an explanation, but whatever words you had so bravely composed in your waking hours, half-hoping they wouldn’t have to be remembered, stick in your throat now. You can only muster up an abbreviated form of your previous indignation.

“I don’t deserve this.” You say, but you swallow fearfully, doubting your own resolution. He glares.

“You don’t?” The question jabs like an accusing finger.

In the face of his cold countenance, all you can think is that folk tales and mythology have failed to describe this creature correctly. He doesn’t have a pair of scales, nor a toga. He has instead a crisp black suit, as though this is merely a business transaction and he is still here only because his next meeting has yet to begin. You can sense impatience in every feature, yet it doesn’t seem to be directed at you. Instead, he is annoyed at the whole institution he finds himself upholding, and interactions like this one that he has had too many times to count. His angry presence makes you forget your planned arguments, which now seem hopelessly foolish in the face of this otherworldly figure who seems to be only mildly interested in a situation that decides your whole… life? Or maybe afterlife? You were never a believer in that, but you have re-evaluated so many preconceptions in the last few days that it appears this one may need to be reviewed, too.

“N-no.”

“Let’s see.” The being declares, and you are filled with inexplicable dread. He produces from nowhere a black briefcase with silver buckles, flips it open, and pulls a single paper out of the mess inside. “You were a witness to a crime that you failed to prevent. Is that correct?”

You nod.

“A robbery. The store proprietor was shot and killed. And still you allow yourself to be coerced into saying nothing. For the sake of your friend.” Your throat feels as though it has been filled with sand. They are statements, nothing you can deny. Indeed, you aren’t expected to and to do so would be humorous.

“And you think you can be redeemed.” He scoffs, as though the idea is laughable to him. It occurs to you that this creature’s existence must render redemption impossible. Dread thickens and weighs down the very air around you. Your reasoning has by now been totally abandoned. You can see now that someone must pay for what’s been done, for the life of the man you had a hand, even indirectly, in killing.

“I’ll be back in twelve hours. Then you’ll get your verdict.” He disappears, leaving darkness behind. Twelve hours, he said, and you wonder faintly how he’ll know, since he didn’t have a watch.

***

You awaken to knocking at the door of your apartment. It jars you, and you pause for a second to gather yourself. There is still dread, thickly settled on every surface like the dust you too often allow to coalesce. Keeping an apartment clean is much harder than you thought it would be, especially since you have no roommate to disapprove.

You stumble out of bed to the door, where the knocking persists. Over the threshold, your friend Christine is waiting to be let in. She is not shocked by the state of your apartment, thankfully. She has seen it in greater disrepair. However, she does notice your hands trembling, a less common occurrence.

“Good morning. Are you okay?” She is matter-of-fact, revealing how many times she has had to ask the question.

“Doing fine,” you mumble, stepping back to let her in. Unwilling to meet her eyes, you busy yourself with preparing coffee. Outside, a car horn blasts and someone shouts, typical side effects of a morning commute. The two of you share a silence for a while, and then Christine ventures to engage your harrowed thoughts.

“So. The trial starts tomorrow, right?” You both know it’s a rhetorical question. Of course it does. The time spent at the police station, the sleepless nights, the ghastly anticipation—all have led to this. As far as most know, you are only a witness on the way to testify, protected by the claim of a chance encounter and ignorance of intent. It’s only you, Christine, and your friend in the grasp of the law who know the information you have been concealing. Christine has made it clear that she doesn’t agree with your choice, but then, she doesn’t share your burden of friendship. If she did, though, maybe she wouldn’t be so bound by loyalty. She has always been quicker to rebut and slower to forgive, qualities you wish you had a healthier portion of.

“Someone died,” She says. “This isn’t the same as some school prank.” And yet, you can remember plenty of those. They were all in fun and your friend protected you as much as you did him. There was no dark-suited apparition then.     

“Christine,” You begin with a stabilizing breath, “Do you think there’s such a thing as Justice?”

She sees the opportunity to convince you. “There’s supposed to be, and you should want it. All justice is is what’s fair.” Her response tells you that she failed to hear the capital “J” in your intonation.

“I mean… like in mythology. A being, maybe, who is Justice.”

She is confused now. “Like a woman in a toga?”

“Or… a man in a suit.” You are aware of how stupid you must sound.

“Are you okay?” She is alarmed now. “You’re pale.”

“I’ve just been having weird dreams the past few nights. Probably from stress.” You remind yourself that mythology was just an attempt to explain without science. Any superstitions should not be entertained in the light of day, where no sane person bothers to see anything but what is right in front of them. The coffee maker beeps to announce its cessation, and you are comforted by something so normal, under the influence of mechanics and electricity.

***

After such an awful nightmare, normal is all anything appears for the next eleven hours. The city is full of the usual traffic and the constant bustle is surprisingly pedestrian. The grocery clerk scans your purchases with tepid enthusiasm, inquiring after your well-being and not listening to your response. In fact, you manage to avoid productive thought for the whole day. Until you arrive back in your apartment, alone and confronted with the gathering darkness. You remember the musings of only a night before, where you fell asleep insisting that you and your friend had never meant to hurt anyone. You stood back and allowed a killing, but shouldn’t everyone have a second chance? And aren’t the lies you have memorized for tomorrow’s trial meant to give you and your friend that chance?

Mythology, you remind yourself. Besides, there’s no way you’ll be able to fall asleep tonight.

***

But you must have. Because you are shrouded in darkness and your fear leaves you in no doubt of what is about to happen. The businessman steps out of a shift in the stormy fabric, and his impatience is, this time, electric. He swings his briefcase, still crammed with papers. He could have just stepped out of a meeting.

“Well, what do you have to say to me?” He sneers, and it is now that you realize how thoroughly he towers above you, his eyes flashing. He is not filled with hatred, you sense, but you cringe away from him all the same. Your fever of self-righteousness breaks at the thought of giving a defense to this being whose verdict is already decided. You can apply a million virtuous adjectives to your intentions, but you know this purveyor of justice is not fooled. The evidence against you lies in his briefcase, uncompromising.

“I’ll tell the truth.” You croak. “We’ll both go to jail. I’ll tell the truth.” If you admit your faults, if you beg for forgiveness, this nightmare must end, right?

“Well good for you.” The creature’s voice drips with irony. “Do you expect me to be impressed?” Again, his briefcase is open and more papers are pulled out. Through a haze, you recognize your own handwriting on them. “It’s a little too late for honesty, isn’t it, coadjutor? These police reports—” he waves them in your face “—have your lies all over them.”

In spite of yourself, tears begin to crawl down your face. Justice seems disinterested. Your tears are not what he came for. Instead, he shoves one of the reports in your hand, perhaps to prove his point with a dramatic flourish. You try to read it, but the words swim and make no sense. You raise your head to meet the creature’s eyes again, but now his face is almost impossible to look at, too terrible.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Your voice is merely a tremulous whisper. The figure rolls his eyes as though he’s heard the question many times before.

“All I am is what’s fair. You’re only scared of me because of you.” A hand slides down the lapel of his jacket, smoothing it against his chest. The air crackles and you grovel. Again, he is irritated at his role. “If you had told the truth from the beginning, we would never have met.” He sighs. “If only. But anyway, I’m on a tight schedule—”

And then he pauses. He cocks his head as though at some distant music. His wrath, for a blessed moment, is stilled, but you still shiver. After a long moment, his eyebrows lower. “Really? This one?” He asks incredulously, as if talking to himself. Then he releases a heavy, impatient breath. “Fine.”

“Orders from above. You’re free to go. Why I even have this job I don’t know.” And then, impossibly, wondrously, he steps back into the surrounding darkness and is gone.

Alone in this dream world now, without what you had assumed to be its creator and custodian, the crushing blackness lifts and you see a bright light. Instantly, without explanation, you know it to be the distant music your judge was taking orders from. Can it be that redemption somehow lives in this darkness— ?

You wake up bewildered. Cold sweat has collected on your bed sheets. The vision was so real and the peace that followed it is still there, soothing your troubled mind for the first time in months. At the verge of dismissing this occurrence as insanity, you suddenly feel a throbbing cramp in your fist. You open it to find the police report from the creature’s briefcase now crumpled and stained with your perspiration, smudging the writing that you know is yours. You know, all at once, what you will say tomorrow. 

June 23, 2020 14:19

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2 comments

Anoushka Jain
18:24 Jul 02, 2020

Wow! What an amazing story! It was tinged with a sense of realism, and honestly really well written. Good job!

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17:12 Oct 22, 2021

I wish I had seen this earlier. Thank you so much!

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