The Victim

§ Preface

What if not all victims were victims? What if public opinion was the judge, jury and executioner that condemns men without the chance to defend themselves?

The Victim is a tale of lies, murder and betrayal where people play to win using social justice for their own ambition.

Because of self-publishing it’s all free, unless you want to support me, in which case, thank you.

§ Chapter One: The house

§ Hello world

Allow me to introduce myself briefly. I know little about myself, only that my father was likely a sailor. My real mother was likely a whor… well, I can’t say it. The w-word, you know. At least that’s what my fake-brother told me about her. I’m not so sure though. But when I asked at the table during dinner what it meant, I was severely punished and sent to my room. “Don’t you bring that hate into this table!” yelled mother.

I guess I should be thankful to them for taking me in. But a few days ago I found out why they did it and realized how blind I’ve been. You see, I was abandoned as an infant outside their mansion, about sixteen years ago. The maids found me crying in a crib at their gate during a storm. What kind of sick person does that to their child? At least those degenerates would probably be better than mother…

Anyway, there I was, a defenseless little girl with big eyes and no future. And despite not being white, the lord convinced his wife to adopt me. She thought I was trash, but he promised to treat me like his natural children. Except, of course, I was never like them and never will be. I always came in second after them. Don’t get me wrong, I get it, but it’s frustrating. Despite being in this enormous palace, they never gave me anything of my own. Always second-hand clothes, second-hand toys… I am their second-hand daughter, still here only because of father’s mercy.

Mother always defends her awful children. Although father tries to protect me, he’s away most of the time. Even when he’s home he’s too coward to stand up to her. They have four kids of their own: the eldest who will inherit father’s business (thus “the heir,”) two male twins and a girl. I can hardly believe those two were able to create her. She’s only eight or so, but she’s smart, cheerful and above all, kind. The boys, however … are the opposite, at least the heir. They go out of their way to have mother punish me for their… let’s call it “mischief.”

So what have I discovered? That I’m their token child, you know, to look good. Without me they would just be an oppressive, rich, white gang. With me, they are an inclusive, well-off, diverse family unit. It’s disgusting to be used this way, but I have decided I will play along. In turn they will pay for my education somewhere far from them. That’s our unspoken agreement, as I understand it.

I’ve read books since I was eight, when mother bought me one for my birthday thinking I’d hate it. The other children at my school and my fake-brothers spend all their time playing games and watching TV. Not me. I realized long ago my life will be no cake-walk, so I knew I had to read. I had to make something of myself. Also recently I found out our school is one big charade. Everyone talks about how great it is, a private school for the elite where everyone comes out with incredible grades.

That’s kind of funny, don’t you think? That everyone is so great? If everyone has excellent grades using the school’s tests, it doesn’t really mean anything. If they did have those grades with external tests… well, that would mean something. But no, here everyone cheats and teachers look the other way not to make the school look bad.

The other kids are just… well, kids to be fair, interested in chasing balls like dogs, or gossipping about each other. Well, I say f-word them! I don’t have a childhood to waste, I won’t be given everything for free. So I started reading and discovered that books are full of shi… sorry s-word. Except for one or two, which are worth it. Wait, no, even then! So much fluff to say things. So much dancing around with words. I won’t be like that, I promise, I will be…

“What are you doing?” Not this again. “Hey, I’m talking to you, what are you, autistic?” The heir is speaking to me. He’s the most pretentious little brat any trophy wife has ever spawned. Luckily I can enjoy his company any time I want. “Oh my god, your so funny,” starts one of his brothers. Yes, I wrote it “your” because that’s how they say it. “Please can you leave, I’m trying to…” I ask, but no, he throws the book I was pretending to read on the floor.

“Wow reading is for losers!” says the heir, and his brother-lackeys laugh and cheer. I just sit in my room in silence. “What, you wanna say something?” he threatens. I realize I have been staring at him wishing he would die, and try to compose myself and smile. “Weirdo!” he screams and the others chuckle. They leave. I let go a sigh of relief.

I see them run across the hall into the yard outside, where they chase a ball. It seems they have not chased it enough during school. I close my room’s door and sit on my bed. There’s finally silence and I can think. Why are they like this to me? What are they, afraid? Well… they should be.

§ We wuz

Today we are having history class. The fourth time this week. This semester is “The great pharaohs.” The teacher says that, contrary to tradition, it turns out all the great pharaohs were black. But the thing is, I once read that pharaohs were of greek descent and that recent genetic tests had revealed their western origin. So, propelled by the self-righteous impulse of someone who wants to right a wrong, I raise my hand.

“Yes?” asks the teacher, whom I have interrupted. “Yes, I-I think that actually the ancient egyptians descended from the greek…” I hear gasps and laughter all around me. My schoolmates were all sleeping or using their phones until my words magically caught their attention. “I’m sorry but you’re wrong,” says the teacher. “Just read our textbook. It says it right there. The—” “N-word,” says mockingly a girl behind me. “What did you say!?” screams the teacher, looking at me.

But I didn’t say that. I open my mouth to explain but it shuts down. A wave of heat strikes my face. “Go out to the hall, now!” Even though I should say something, for some reason I won’t. I just meekly walk out of classroom. “The n-word is a horrible word,” she explains. “It puts the real word in your mind. Just saying it, n-word, is so triggering! So if you say it again you will be expelled from this school!” The way a little spittle hits my face when she barks just makes me want to… “Are you even listening to me? I’m going to have a serious talk with your mother. You’ll be lucky if you’re not expelled for this.”

We walk to the principal’s office, who tries to calm down the outraged teacher. She demands that I’m expelled four days. But the principal talks her down and reduces my sentence to writing a paper on a underappreciated non-white historical figure that made a contribution to science. No matter what I do now, the teacher will always see me like a racist moron.

After class is dismissed and we are given permission to waste our time, I go talk to the only girl whom I can stand. We’ve been friends since kindergarten. “Hey, wait for me,” I call, but she keeps walking away. She walks with other girls in silence.

She turns around, but she isn’t looking at me. “Please, leave us alone,” says the disgusting c-word (c u n t, so you understand,) who got me in trouble, but I ignore her. “What’s wrong?” I ask my friend. “Let’s talk another time, okay?” my friend says without looking at me. I feel like crying, but I won’t. I must spare myself the embarrassment.

On the way back home with my little fake-brothers I remain quiet. They discuss important matters such as what was for lunch, which girl is the ugliest, and the like. In silence I mourn the loss of my only friend, my last friend. I promise not to make the same mistake again, investing hope and trust into fake people. I force myself to remember I only have myself by pressing my nails against my palms until it hurts.

Once home I begin to read my books, or at least pretend to do so while I tell you this. Suddenly mother bursts in. I can tell by the way she kicks open the door she’s very happy to see me. “You said what!?” she screams. Nobody can save me now. “You mock o-our ancestry!?” She’s whiter than chalk. “Little c-word… We taught you better than this!”

“It wasn’t me…” is all I manage to reply. I can feel my eyes beginning to water. The knot in my stomach tightens, guilting me into taking the blame. “She might be anti-semite, for all we know,” says one of the boys from the door, trying to conceal his smile. They watch expectantly, guessing and dreaming of what mother has in store for me.

“We gave you this, this … life! and this is what you do with it!? You really are scum,” then she pauses, trying to compose herself. “No books. One month!” “That is so unfair!” I let go, and immediately regret it, holding my mouth with my hands. She slaps me across the face. “Two months! Reading is for losers, and is probably what made you racist in the first place!”

In silence I think of mother’s death. She realizes just how much I hate her, but she doesn’t care. There’s nothing I can do to hurt her. I watch as she takes the books away from my room. Her children are smiling, except for the little girl.

After the others have left, she comes into the room and hugs me in silence while I cry. “I love you,” I start, “and I won’t let you become like these motherf…” but I hold my tongue. Then she runs away, laughing. I just wipe my tears and chase her, playing hide and seek.

After I get too tired to keep running, I go back to my room and lie in bed. As I wait for dinner I hope for a better tomorrow, knowing it’s up to me to make it happen.

§ The cat

The day after my “crime,” my old friend comes to meet me before going to class. “I’m sorry, but I can’t be seen with you after what happened,” she explains. “My parents would punish me.” She smiles trying to appease me. “But we can still talk… if you want to, I mean,” she says handing me an old phone. I’ve never had one, because mother feels it would “spoil me.” I smile and hide the trinket in my pocket. Even if you think I have no self-respect, I can’t blame her for what she did. I understand how parents can be.

On monday, class moves on to inspect nazis and the exceptionality of their evil. As the teacher shows us pictures of the tall chimneys and the piles of shoes, I leave the classroom crying. The teacher comes out shortly after. “I-I… I’m sorry,” I say, “It’s just too much what we went through.” The teacher is clearly confused. “We?” she asks. “Yes,” I answer, wiping my tears. “I’m jewish, like my parents. I thought you knew.” “I thought you were an orphan…” she says. “Yes, but I researched my parents and discovered they had to leave me behind out of fear for their own lives. A bunch of angry people were after them and they knew I was in danger with them… And they were right, because they were eventually brutally murdered.”

She is clearly upset, even more than I am. “F-wording white people,” she says. I never wanted to get involved in this race discussion. It never ends well for anyone: the people who argue are seen as ideologically possessed by some and like stale bigots by others. The person presenting the discussion is usually accused by each side of favoring the other side…

Anyway, I walk back into class with my teacher and she explains to my upstanding fellow students that I was jewish. Their attitude changes immediately. They no longer see me like a racist brat. Each in turn apologizes twice in front of the teacher: once for what happened to my people and another time for our “little misunderstanding.” The teacher says “She clearly said something else and we heard her wrong.” They also offer their sympathy, their help and a bunch of other empty, meaningless things that are only in their heads like “prayers.”

Two girls try cozying up to me after class. I ignore them. They only want to say they have a multi-ethnic, jewish friend. They barely care or even understand how miserable those times were. And I’m not even talking about the nazis exclusively. The gulags and the japanese took care of many more people. But for some reason we don’t talk about them in class. When I asked our history teacher, she said there were only a handful of gulags, and only used for the truly “bad people.”

Sorry, I’m digressing. So once we get home, my fake-brothers run to tell mother I’m jewish. They expect an outburst, a volcano pouring over its rage and frustration worthy of a pasty white suburban mom past her golden years. After listening to the news, she raises her hand to hit me, then realizes it’s actually good for them. “Go to your room! Do something useful for once!” she snaps at the kids. They look confused and accept the whims of their goddess.

“You too,” she says more gently, as though my new status made me untouchable, if only temporarily. As I lie on my prison’s bed, doing nothing, she brings back the books in silence. I don’t accept her apology, but it’s a start. I open the book I was reading before I lost the privilege of performing that basic human function. There’s peen (p e n i s) drawings all over it. Made with pen. And they’re not even anatomically accurate.

I’m not sure whether they don’t grasp that this is the only thing that is mine here, or that they do. Maybe they’re just kids being kids. Maybe there’s something more to it. I guess I should watch them, and I mean truly watch them. Hopefully I will gain insight into why they torment me. I may even be able to learn how to appease them or make them ignore me.

Suddenly I’m convinced I have to follow them. So when I hear them running to the garden, I exit my room and watch them from afar. For the most part it’s the same thing, running and kicking or throwing a ball somewhere. But then it happens. They look at each other and become completely quiet.

“Hey, guys, there’s a cat in the bush behind the goalpost. Don’t look,” says the heir. I don’t see why that is relevant. Then I see them work together. The heir brings yesterday’s fish leftovers while the twins take a net. They place the fish in the middle of the garden and hide. When the cat comes to eat the fish, the net falls upon it. The cat struggles in vain to free itself.

“Stupid cat!” says the heir, and the others laugh. They throw it in the air and catch it again with the net, as though it were a ball. But I can tell they enjoy it so much more because it’s a living thing. However, during their shenanigans, the cat flies too high and hits a pointy rock on the wall. Its body falls flat to the ground.

Blood pours out of it and it doesn’t move. “S-word! What have you done!?” panics one of the twins. “It was your fault!” says the other pointing to the heir. “Guys, guys, chill,” says the heir confidently. “It was an accident. Let’s just throw it out and that’s it, like last week.” What? Are they seriously… No, wait, they are doing it. They are actually taking the cat with the rope to throw it away. They said “last week.” Is this something that happens recurrently, like, I don’t know, getting a haircut? Perhaps things are worse than I thought.

Yes, I see it now. They can take the life of an animal just like that and get away with it. What will they do when they get older? “S-word! She’s watching!” My heart stops. I was so caught up in my thoughts that I inadvertently made myself visible. We are looking at each other. The twins are freaking out, but the heir stays calm and announces, smiling. “It’s her word against ours,” then lets the net go and the dead cat falls to the floor. His face changes from the insidious smile to an expression of distress, and screams “Mom! Mom!” and the other two follow his lead.

I freeze where I stand as she runs toward us. “What!?” she yells, angry because they have interrupted her favorite tv show. Then she sees the cat. “What have you punks done?” “It wasn’t us mom, we swear,” says the heir. “We got here and saw her bashing its head, it was really disturbing.” Then she turns to me. I can tell she wants to bash my head.

“What are you, f-wording psycho?” She’s clearly drunk, because all her high-society decorum flies out the window when the margaritas kick in. “The hell is wrong with you? We give you shelter, food, and you pull this crap on us? Do I have to take you to a f-wording shrink? Go back inside! No leaving the house, no reading, no tv, no friends… two months!”

I accept my punishment in silence and return to my room. Mother cleans it up, leaving me only my bed and school stuff. For all my reading and studies I have no clue how things work.

§ Scott free

Father is home for dinner today. Usually he’s out all day, but today he has decided to dine with us. Looking across the enormous table I see the smudge of lipstick he’s wearing on his neck. It’s clearly from another woman, because he wouldn’t touch mother with a ten-foot pole.

“How was work today, honey?” she asks as she pours in another glass of wine. He looks at her briefly, then back at his plate. “The food is great,” he says to the service. The young woman cook we have in staff smiles back at him. “So, are you f-wording her as well?” asks mother politely.

The kids, who have been kicking each other and catapulting peas with their spoons, stop suddenly and start chanting “Mom said the f-word! Mom said the f-word!” “Shut up!” she yells back, and they obey. “Eight dollars for the swear jar, mom!” they demand, but she knows the swear jar is only for kids, and throws them a threatening look.

Now that everyone has caused their necessary drama, we can resume dinner as the perfect family. After we finish, we take a picture for the family christmas card. You know, to show everyone how happy we are. “Skunk,” mother mutters looking at the maid who takes the picture.

Then we return to the table and have dessert. Except for me, since I’m an unperson now. “How’s school treating you, dear?” asks father looking at me. “The little psycho killed a cat,” mother starts. “Can you believe that? We raise her well, give her all the comfort…” the train of thought derails as she pours one more glass. “Is that true?” father asks me, concerned. “No, I—” I reply. “Yes, father, we saw her do it!” interrupts the heir. He’s always trying to poison father’s love for me with lies.

“Psycho! Psycho!” start chanting his brothers as they hit the table with their spoons rhythmically. “Please boys, quiet down,” he starts calmly. But father seems as threatening to them as a deer at this point. The kids only obey mother, or rather, fear her. But she’s snoring with her mouth open on her seat, so there’s no one to keep order.

“It was terrifying, father,” explains the heir. “She bashed the cat’s head then smiled, like she enjoyed it. And she—” “Shut up you little prick!” I yell, standing up from my chair while holding knife and fork. The heir cowers back, and turns pale. “Look!” he screams with a high-pitch. “See? Mom! She’s crazy, look. Mom!”

“Everyone quiet down!” father commands, waking up mother. The boys look at him in awe, ceasing their disruptive activities shortly before laughing at him. “Go to your rooms!” shouts mother. “You gave me a f-wording migraine again!” Everyone obeys. I feel like crying. I don’t want this life. I want to leave with my little sister, to save her while I still can.

My door opens. It’s father. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know it wasn’t your fault.” It seems like he’s about to break down. “I’m not proud of how I’ve treated this family, of how my kids are turning up… But I don’t know what to do.” “Send us away,” I say. “Take me and your daughter and send us to some boarding school. I will protect her. But please don’t leave us here.”

“I’m sorry…” he sighs. Looking into his eyes I can tell mother has defeated him completely, and that he’ll never stand up to her. He leaves my room. The next day mother has her hangover sunglasses on, and ignores everyone and everything that is not the TV as she has breakfast alone. It’s the only good thing about her drinking. It even makes up for the times she hits me. Or at least it’s what I tell myself.

Life goes on as usual for the rest of the week, as though the whole cat incident never happened. Either father told mother to let it go or she just forgot about it. My brothers, however, are not willing to let me off the hook so easily. The heir tries to spread a rumor about me. He tells the other kids that I agreed to taste dog s-word in exchange for money, and the lie spreads quickly. Just like that I’m back to being a social pariah. They all laugh at me behind my back. Father, in his own ingenuity, goes to the school board and threatens the teachers.

Their response is to question the kids to find who was responsible. When father learns the truth, of course, the boys receive no punishment. What is worse, all the kids now think I’m a snitch and tease me accusing me of “running to daddy.” I talk to my only friend at school using the phone she gave me, not being able to say hello or even look at her when we cross. Of course father apologized to me, although I can’t blame him, as he was only trying to do what he thought was right. Still, the laughter at my expense, the nicknaming, the shame… it all leaves a mark.

§ Appointed psycho

As the school-appointed psychologist questions me, my mind drifts away to wonder how I got here. I thought I was above their violence, their banality, their pettiness… But no, the incident proved I’m no better than the other kids.

When teachers give us time to waste between classes, I try to hide and read alone. Of course this is not always possible, especially when it rains, because then chasing a ball out in the open is no longer an option, and kids have to release their energy in some other way.

After the ceremonial debasement of the geeks, some kids came after me bearing a turd they offered as meal. That alone was not enough to upset me. No, that had to wait until I failed to wrestle away the book I was reading from one of the brutes and it fell in the rain.

It was the only copy of that book I had. It took me weeks to find it, and I was just about to finish when they took it from me. Just seeing it lying there, lifeless beneath the rain, filled me with rage. Instead of an apology, I received a smug “reading is for—” that I silenced with a punch to the brat’s face.

I must admit it felt good. I oppose violence, in any form. But there is something in justice that just trumps everything else. I tried to explain this to the psychologist, a mistake I regret deeply. “Surely it was just an accident. The boys here don’t act like that,” she explained to me. “You need to work on your anger issues.” Look at her, trying to fix me, to make me one with the others. To make me normal. Even white.

But she either fails to see that’s not an option, or she doesn’t care. So I just nod to everything she says and try to answer what any other kid would. She makes these obviously loaded questions, like “Do you feel displaced from your community?” which I answer as dishonestly as I can.

I have finally sunk to the depths of social status. That, however, has brought me close to the social outlaws: the geeks. Because despite the large amount of anti-bullying, anti-hate propaganda teachers shove down our throats, kids carry on their abuse against us with more refined and subtle ways.

There is no physical abuse, only endless verbal assaults and cold contempt. They simply leave us out of every party, act as though we are unworthy of them and ignore or mock every word we say. So we react by throwing our own parties. Still, it’s easy to see every single one of my geek friends would easily leave the others to die if that only slightly improved their social status.

I can see it in their eyes when someone popular talks about a party they’re not invited to. They set up their own replicas of those parties, not to feel left out. They can’t understand or accept that we’re alone in this world. “Are you listening to me?” asks the psychologist. “I apologize, I was…” But it’s too late, she’s shaking her head and writing down notes about me.

I somehow got through the rest of that day and survived until the next. “Hey!” a kid that likes whispering to himself greets me. “A bunch of us are hanging out at an empty house tonight, wanna come?” I really don’t, but the psychologist said I had to “raise my social interaction levels above the desired average quota,” so what the hell. “Ok,” I concede.

The party is just their response to another party where the cool kids are hanging out, and where my geek friends would actually like to be. Eight of us enter a poorly lit basement, while the granny of one of them is still upstairs. However, that doesn’t stop us from bringing in alcohol to add to the soda.

Oh yes, alcohol. I am way underage to be drinking it. But it seems that if a party is thrown without it, it becomes a meeting. As far as I know, alcohol is the party. This liquid courage, that by the way, tastes like crap, makes these tortoise teenagers explore outside their shell. All their inhibitions seem to fade and we all vent the actual hate and jealousy eating us up.

There is a certain sense of camaraderie in our condition, and for a moment it inebriates me even more than the alcohol. I finally understand the power in the feeling of belonging to something greater than myself.

§ DUI

Who do you think brought alcohol to the party? It was me, of course. I stole it from mother’s booze cabinet, which is actually larger than my room. And how do you think my friends reacted to the alcoholic stupor? They broke stuff, tried to start a bonfire, vandalized and threw up on their parents. Of course eventually the fingers were pointed at me.

Mother puts me on a chair and starts yelling at me, raving over how I’m an ungrateful little c-word. You know, the usual stuff. I just sit there and watch her. Her resemblance to a rabid dog barking is uncanny. What bothers me most is the pain in my ears from her screams so close to my face. Also the accidental spit that rains on me from her lack of verbal restraint. After she finishes, she slaps me across my face. Twice. But I don’t look away, I just stare at her defiantly.

“What are you looking at!?” She tries to look indignant over my actions, but really it only bothers her I stole her good vodka, freedom vodka, which she was saving up. Father got it as a present after a business deal. She slaps me again. “For this, ohh, for this you’re gonna pay.” As she tries to figure out my punishment, I smile.

“What. What!?” she yells. “There’s nothing left for you to take away,” I say calmly. Then she looks at me, confused. It’s true, she has already taken everything that could possibly bring me any joy. Or at least she thinks she has. I still smuggle books into my room every now and then.

“I’m taking you to a boarding school right now.” she announces when her alcohol-soaked neurons finally make a decision. I struggle to conceal my excitement, keeping a poker face. Her drunkenness makes it easier. “Please, don’t! I beg you!” I say like a soap opera actress. “No, no, no,” she says dragging the words. “You won’t get out of this one.” I must admit, I didn’t expect my plan to work so smoothly.

We drive in the middle of the night to the boarding school. Our house is on the outskirts, so we have to cross long, poorly lit roads. She wants to dump me as soon as possible and be on her way. She plans to just ship me off to some other country and figure the rest out once I get there. That, if she has planned it at all.

As we race way above the speed limit to my new future, I begin to worry it won’t work out. Where will I stay? I don’t have any clothes other than what I have on me. And I doubt she will give me much money. The idea of being in a strange city begins to scare me. I feel the urge to turn back. At least, I know just how bad I have it at home. Outside, anything is possible.

“Mother, please turn back, you made your point,” I ask her. “Oh, mother, is it now?” she replies. “You’re not my kid, you can cut the crap.” “Look. I get it. You take the hate you have for your husband on me. But it doesn’t work. It just makes you hate yourself even more, so you drink. Little by little you kill yourself and me. Why don’t you divorce him and be done with it?”

She turns to look at me and is about to open her mouth when she hits the brakes. A loud sound comes from under the car. We spin out of control until the car stops a few meters later. “What was that!?” I yell. I know what I’ve seen, but I don’t want to say it. “P-probably, probably it’s, it’s just a deer,” she says, shaking. “I… I’ll check,” she stutters. “You know… just to be sure.” She steps out of the car and walks as I watch her from the rear-view mirror. “Oh my god!” she screams taking her hands to her face. I immediately run out, heart in hand. In the ground lies a woman, hardly breathing. I cover my mouth with my hands.

Mother is walking around the body, swearing all kinds of profanity. Then it happens. A faint “help” and some blood escape the woman’s lips. “We have to find an ambulance!” I scream, with tears in my eyes. “Let me think!” says mother. The dying woman starts repeating the words “help… me.”

“What is there to think!? She’s alive!” I say. “Shut up and let me think!” she screams. “Where’s the phone?” I ask, but she stays quiet. “The phone!” I say raising my voice. “In the car, in the car…” she finally says. I look for it, but can’t find it anywhere. I run back to mother, yelling “Where did you put it?” and freeze after I see her hunching over the body.

“What are you doing!? Stop! Stop!” I yell, my voice reaching a high pitch of desperation. I try to pull her away but it’s too late. The woman is silent. “What have you done!?” I continue, but she stays quiet. “I… I was drunk. They would’ve put me in prison. There was nothing else to do, nothing else… nothing else to do…” We both stare at the corpse. She gets up and drags me back to the car, turns it around and drives home in silence.

§ Patronizing

Heading home she once again breaks the speed limit. Luckily, that’s the least of our concerns, you know, since she’s a drunken murderer driving away after her hit-and-run. She’s freaking out, and I don’t like it. “Slow down, please.” I say, but she doesn’t respond. “Slow down!” I yell. She reacts and steps on the breaks, making me nearly fly out of the car. Then she resumes our shameful escape.

The guilt presses my stomach. I cannot breathe. “We have to turn ourselves in,” I finally say to break the silence. “It’s the right thing to do, we—” “No!” she interrupts me, shaking her head. “I won’t take the fall for this one. It doesn’t help anyone if we turn ourselves in.” She feels with her hand for a bottle of freedom vodka she has placed in the car.

“Are you f-wording kidding me!?” I scream indignant. “You want to drink now? After what you’ve done!?” She stays quiet and suckles her freedom vodka like a hungry baby. “Pull over. Pull the f-word over!” I demand. She obeys. I try to open the doors but they’re locked. “Let me out! Let me out!” I cry desperately. My heart races. I feel claustrophobic in the car. “Now, what we did, we did together,” she says calmly. “What!?” comes out of me. “No! No way! It was all you!”

I exit the car and stand with my hands on my knees, feeling the world spinning around me. She follows me. I throw up on the side of the road. “Now, you clean yourself up and go back inside that car or you and I will have a serious discussion.” she threatens me. “No!” I yell. “I saw what you did. I’m tired of you, taking out your crap on me… on all of us. I’m turning you in! You’re off to jail for a while, say the rest of your miserable…” but as I’m finishing, she pushes me, and I fall backward, hitting my head against the floor.

After an indefinite period of time, I wake up at the hospital with a monstrous headache. I try to scream but my throat is dry. The room I’m in is silent, dark and empty. I flail my arms around until I finally press the right button, and a nurse comes. While I’m anxiously drinking water she says “you were in an accident.” I nod, eager to tell her all about it.

“You fell while you were playing and hit your head against the floor. Luckily your mom brought you to us, and…” The nurse stops. I’m shaking my head, feebly saying “no, no, no.” “What’s wrong?” she asks me. “Is it the water, or—” “I didn’t fall, she pushed me!” I interrupt her. “She ran over that woman while she was deporting me for drugging the other kids, and I, I…” I struggle to explain myself, but it comes out as delusional. The nurse smiles condescendingly.

“Oh, I see you have quite the imagination. Yes, your mom mentioned you liked to read strange books…” she says it like it’s a disease or something, making me even angrier. “That b-word is not my mom!” I say threatening the nurse with my finger. Saying the b-word clearly triggers her, so she goes for the door. “Well, there’s a bible by your bed, and your mom will be her on the afternoon. Try to get some rest,” and she leaves.

But I don’t want to rest. I want to see mother locked up where she can’t hurt anyone anymore. I want to see her wither and die in a cell. I try to stand up but fall to the ground, hitting my knees. There I lay, defeated in silence. But I refuse to surrender. Summoning all my strength, I get up. With much pain I get dressed and leave before the nurse or mother come back. I head out for the police department that is nearby.

The bright sun hurts my eyes and head. How long have I been there? I can’t tell which day of the week it is. But I keep walking. People stare at me as I walk erratically toward the precinct near the hospital. There’s bustle inside. I walk up to a sort of counter and speak to an officer. “I am here to report a crime.”

The cop is amused and speaks to me like I’m eight. “And what crime is that sweetheart? The dog ate your homework?” I just ignore his remark and try to make my case. “Look, my mother, well, not my biological mother, ran over this, this woman the other day… or week, I’m not sure. Then she did something to her and she stopped, well, breathing. I, I tried to stop her, but she pushed me, and I fell, and I hurt my head, and…” as I touch my injury, I notice it’s bleeding.

“Are you ok?” the cop says, concerned. “What…?” I say, distracted. I begin to feel dizzy. Everything spins around me. I fall and hit the floor. A long nightmare later, I wake up in the hospital. The nurse is talking to mother, who carefully listens and offers her a cookie. A cookie! Finally the nurse leaves and I’m left alone with her. I fear for my life, so I grasp for the button to call the nurse and press it over and over. “Oh honey, it’s not even plugged,” mother says calmly. “But I’m here, you don’t have to be afraid anymore.” The creepiest thing is she smiles as she says this. Seriously, who is this woman?

“I know what you did, you won’t get away so easily,” I threaten her. “Look, I don’t know what you think happened, but the fall you took was pretty bad. Luckily you’re better now, and everything can go back to normal.” “Normal!? You f-wording killed a human being. In the Middle Ages they would’ve hung you by now.”

“I understand you’re upset. Your mind is playing tricks, everything is confusing, we’re not home… But please, try not to use that foul language.” That’s it, I simply look at her and remain quiet. There’s nothing I can say that will have an impact, so much I have understood by now. I’m futile.

§ Change of heart

Eight days I spent at the hospital. Eight days I will never get back. But when I return home is when I realize the extent of her… metamorphosis? There’s no alcohol in the house, she doesn’t lash out at anyone. Now she just acts like a lovely housewife. She holds book club meetings, goes out on dinner with other moms and signs up for charities. She, the same woman who once said “child n-words can starve for all I care. Just have them do it quietly where we don’t see them” after a commercial to raise money for some hunger-relief charity.

Indeed, throughout the course of the next few months she becomes a pillar of society. Every martyr of a lost cause loves her because she always has money to squander in them. Yes, she donates to pretty much everything one can donate to. Doctors without borders, women without borders, women programmers without borders, borders without borders… She becomes their heroine.

We’re more than four months into this madness now, and I am beginning to wonder: Is this her way of atoning? At the beginning I thought so, but now this mask of “goodness” seems to have become one with her. Still, we both know she’s hiding something, and I know it’s all a ruse to make me look like a liar. No cop would believe now she used to get drunk and take out her grief on me. There’s no evidence of anything she’s done.

Now she’s all kindness and social justice. She’s even trying to become my friend by buying me stuff I don’t want and offering to take me places I don’t want to go to. But I refuse every single time because I remember what she has done. Well, I may not always remember, but I definitely do not forgive. All the pain and humiliation she put me through. The hardships and pain to endure. The rain that our sins cannot cleanse…

The days crawl by as guilt consumes me. What if the authorities find out? What will happen to me? Children at school now think I’m either crazy or dangerous, so they leave me alone out of fear. Without mother’s constant battering, even her children seem to calm down. But I keep waiting for her to blow up, she has to. I mean, we could live happily ever after, forget it ever happened and move on. But I won’t allow that. I can’t accept she killed an innocent without consequences, making me her accomplice in the process. I still believe in justice.

I can’t help thinking about that night. It obsesses me, distracts me from my studies, distracts me from everything. I… I can hardly read. I must act. She will atone. I must use faint hints to make her remember what she has done. So I start with simple verbal play. When discussing something during family dinner, I say things like “yeah, they were run over,” when talking about a sports event. But she won’t even bat an eyelid.

I try for weeks to make her lose her composure using my finesse, but I fail, so I decide to step it up. I ask my little sister to play a game with me. We pull a prank on mother. One day while she’s out, we take a large toy car the twins played with when they were younger, and spray tomato sauce over her. Then we wait until we hear her car, and she lies sprawled on the floor with her eyes closed as though she was dead. I make sure I place her just like the woman we ran over.

Mother opens the door, greets us, but we stay silent. Then she sees her across the hall. First she screams, then runs toward her child and pulls her close. The girl laughs. “It’s ok mommy!” she says playfully. But mother is far from ok. “Are you f-wording insane! B-word!” she yells, then raises her fist to hit her.

I immediately step in and hold mother’s arm. “What are you doing! We were only playing!” I yell angrily. My sister runs away, crying, and I go fetch her. Mother just sits there, shaking with her eyes wide open. I comfort my little sister and apologize for using her. I can’t explain to her how important this is. “I’m scared,” she whispers sadly. “Don’t worry,” I say, wiping the tears off her little cheeks. “I’ll take you far from here.”

§ The edge of madness

That was the first crack on her ivory mask. All I need now is to keep hammering in the same spot. If the crack grows large enough, it will tear her apart and expose what she really is. After the little incident, she tries to act natural. But my sister is afraid to even look at her, no matter how hard mother tries to apologize.

“Look, honey, I’m sorry for yesterday,” mother said during dinner as she tried to take the girl’s hand. But my little sister pulled it away and came to where I was sitting, so I lifted her up and sat her in my knees. Mother again tried to speak, but the boys were being very loud, shouting about who was better at kicking a ball. Their discussion turned into a feud where food was catapulted across the table.

Since she changed, mother had let them get away with anything and merely smiled when they were playing. “Come on, mommy isn’t like that anymore, I was just in a bad humor,” mother says softly. A volley of cereal strikes her face. The boys continue laughing, but her face is pale. I pull my chair back fearing the backlash, and cover my sister with my arms.

Everyone in the table watches her in silence. She seethes with rage, but when she’s about to explode on them, instead manages to cool down and breathe. We finish our breakfast in silence and leave for school. Mother calls “goodbye!” from the table, but we keep heading forward. As I walk, I wonder if I’m doing enough to break her. She seems to be holding up, keeping her composure, but it can’t last forever.

“Is mommy ok?” my little sister asks worriedly as we walk to school. “Well… not exactly. Your mommy has issues,” I explain. “What issues? Can I help her?” she asks. I find her so… genuine. “No, only professionals can…” I sigh. She doesn’t fully understand, but it’s ok, because she sees a dog and runs to hug it calling out “Doggie!”

When we return home, mother is cooking dinner, the kids’ favorites. During the next week, she takes them to shops, movies, and buys them presents. That makes the boys become more and more obnoxious and spoiled. She becomes the world’s coolest mom for a week, until a letter comes in. No stamps, no addresses. Just a white envelope with a single picture inside.

I don’t see mother’s reaction, only the aftermath. She storms into my room while I’m doing my homework and drags me out by the hair through the hall. I scream in pain and try to fight it, but I’m no match for her. Finally we reach the main door, and she puts the picture in front of me, while still holding my hair.

“Please, stop!” I beg, crying. “No, look at it! It was you, right? This was you!” she screams frantically. I try to look away, but she only hurts me more, so I look at the picture. There are two female plastic toys by a car. They are hunching over another toy that is covered in red paint and facing the floor.

“This won’t work, you know!” she yells. “It wasn’t me, I swear, please, you …” but she slaps me. “C-word! What do you want, money!? Is that it? You want f-wording jewelry? I tried to be your friend, I tried to make up, but no, miss moral high ground is too good for me. Well, f-word you!” She strikes me again, this time hitting me with a ring that scratches my face.

Once again she drags me through the halls into my room, leaves me against the bed, makes the picture into a ball and throws it at me. But what is worst of all, what I cannot stand and makes me hate her deeply, is that she spits on me before slamming the door violently.

But as I lie there, in silence and darkness, I smile, even laugh. I knew she was in there.

§ Playing tag

The letters continue to drip in, randomly. They depict what looks like the future of mother through the plastic toys. In a scene she loses custody of her kids. Then she’s condemned for her crime. Later in prison, starving. Hanging herself on her own cell. In hell, being tortured by demons.

It takes a deranged person to make those things. Or someone whom she has deeply hurt and who has nothing left to lose. After the second letter she removes everything in my room that isn’t the bed and places a lock on the door. She also donates all the toys in the house to goodwill. But none matched those in the pictures. She now stays awake most nights, trying to catch her tormentor peeping through a window.

She has become increasingly paranoid, to the point of bringing her father’s old automatic rifles from the basement to the room where she keeps watch. I have also seen her buy new guns. I think she has started hearing voices. I’ve heard her say, when she thought she was alone, “They’re watching me… all the time, always watching. F-wording neighbours! C-word!” From the onset of this… change, she has neglected her children. Father hasn’t been here in over a month, and he doesn’t call. I think he has another family. So I have stepped up and acted as a mother to my sister. The boys pretty much take care of themselves, going wild on everything and everyone.

Mother’s illness has not made them any more considerate or moderate. Quite the opposite, they terrorize other children at school, and take it out on me at home. They lock me up for hours just to have the house to themselves, while mother is bunkered up in her room, waiting for her imaginary enemy.

The boys burn, stab and drown anything, whether living or dead. Rats, furniture, the wall, cats, the neighbours’ dogs… anything they come across. They even shaved my head and brows off while I slept and told everyone I had cancer. But what hurts me the most is how poorly they’ve been treating their sister, their own blood.

Finally today the heir drags me out of my room while I was reading. My little sister was there as well. “Come, b-word!” he threatens. I obey and follow him out of the house. There’s a boy waiting with the twins. He’s negotiating something with them.

When I get there, the boy pays the heir. “Now kiss him,” the heir orders me. “What? Are you insane? No, I’m not doing that,” I say. But he grabs my hair and twists one of my arms, forcing me. “Kiss him!” “No!” I scream before kicking him in the crotch and running away.

I can feel the wind rushing by as I run through the streets. My heart runs wild. I know he’s running after me, I can hear him, but I keep going. We run through the city’s alleys and streets, looking like happy kids to the untrained eye. But I dread the moment my stamina runs out.

Eventually we reach a long back street, and I realize I can’t run any longer. I’m panting, gasping for air. He soon catches up and comes close. I can feel his breath. I hate him. “You are mine,” he announces with a foetid breath. Who knows when was the last time he brushed his teeth.

“What?” I answer. I’m somewhat dizzy. “Lie down! Do as you are told!” he continues. “So that’s what you want, huh?” I say. “That’s why you’ve been so mean to me?” He nods and begins unzipping his pants. I let him come closer to me before I strike his nuts with my knee. He falls flat to the ground. “B-word!” he screams in pain. I walk away as fast as I can into an open street.

It’s late at night and I see nobody. “Help!” I scream. He draws closer and grabs me from behind. He is stronger than me, and I can’t fight him now that he holds my arms against my chest. I bash my head back, hitting his, forcing him to release me. “Now you’re done, b-word!” he says, pulling out a pocket knife. “I’m f-wording bleeding! You’re dead, you hear me?” he threatens waving his blade.

I run until I turn a corner, and he comes after me. But when he’s turning around, I push him with all my strength. He trips and falls on his back into the road behind him, dropping his weapon into a sewer. Before he can get back up, a car runs him over.

§ The first time

Even as I hear the ambulance’s siren rushing through the city, I can’t believe it. Someone asks me something, but I can only stare at the heir that lays in the ground, struggling for his life. I resign myself to stare from a distance, fearing he will attack me with his last breath.

The cops cover me with a blanket and the ambulance takes him away. “Hey kid, you ok?” asks the cop. He’s the same man I had seen at the station, which up to now I wasn’t sure had been real or a drug-caused hallucination. “Kid?” he insists. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“He… came with the knife and I, we… ran away. I…” then I stop talking. “Did you see where the attacker ran to?” he asks, and I scream “No… no!” trying to say there was no “attacker,” but the cop thinks I’m in shock. “I guess I’ll get better answers from you tomorrow,” he says. The paramedics check me for injuries then drive me to the hospital.

The heir spends a few hours in surgery. Mother, the twins and my little sister join us soon after I get there. She interrogates nurses and doctors about her son. They tell her he’s in surgery and she sits down, still shaking. Eventually she calms down and begins to cry. Father joins us a few hours after the incident. He took a flight as soon as he received the news.

“Who was it? Did you see his face?” mother snaps at me. “No, it’s not—” but she interrupts me. “Was he old? Young? Was he one of our neighbours? Which one? Which one!?” She’s out of her mind, shaking me violently, and the presence of father only makes her angrier. “You pathetic scum-f-worder!” she screams at him before pounding on his chest with her closed fist. “Get out! Get out of my life!” She practically pushes him out of the waiting room before collapsing on the ground in tears.

The twins are finally scared. For the first time in their lives, their ringleader is in mortal danger and mother is truly losing it. Then, eight hours into the operation, a doctor comes out and says the words. “We did everything we could.”

He doesn’t need to finish. We all understand what he means. Mother throws herself to the floor and enters full meltdown. She blames god, blasphemes and tells father never to come home again. She quickly becomes a force eight hurricane, throwing chairs through windows, breaking tables and knocking down hospital staff. Several thousand dollars in damages later, she’s pinned down and sedated. We all spend the night at the hospital.

Father has finally had enough and leaves for good. I beg him to take us with him and leave mother. But no, he could never stand up to her, and now we all pay the price. I don’t think I will ever forgive him for this. In the middle of my sleep, mother wakes me up. She’s in my face, leaving me no room to breathe. “Who did it? Tell me,” but I look away. “Who!?” she yells. “No… no one. He tripped and fell.” I see her eyes twitching fast. “Who did it? Tell me! Who did it!?” she begins screaming as she shakes me violently. My sister wakes up and starts crying. The twins stare in shock.

The hospital staff again have to restrain her and give her stronger meds. However, they only reduce after she punches two orderlies and kick a doctor. This time they restraint her properly. As I carry my little sister in my arms to an empty room where we can finally sleep, we come across a window. It’s dawn already, and the sun begins to emerge from the horizon. We both stare in silence for a minute. “Where’s my brother now?” she asks.

I caress her hair and look into her eyes. A tear falls down my eye. “He’s gone, and will never be with us again.”

§ War preparations

Mother manages to compose herself and the doctors agree to discharge her, accepting it was “transitory.” There was nothing transitory about it. I think about asking them to keep her in the hospital longer, but I fear what she might do if she finds out. After politely apologizing, paying the hospital for the damages and making a hefty donation to the children’s wing of the hospital, she takes us home. Not giving herself any time to rest, she installs security measures, calls the school to say we’ll be mourning some days and closes every exit in the house. She pays a minion from one of her favorite charities to bring us cooked meals every day.

Claiming there are “people who want to hurt us” outside, she locks us up in our rooms and removes anything we can use to talk to the outside world. We spend entire days without speaking to anyone else. The only thing we can do is watch tv or read the books I have managed to hide.

Every other day she punches me, throws me into a closet, locks the door and kills the lights. But just as sudden, she has a change of heart and apologizes to me for all she has done. One day, during dinner, she bursts into tears in front of her kids. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” She takes her hands to her face. Then she opens them and looks at me. “I ran over that woman and she died!” she screams. The kids are terrified of her. “There, are you happy? Are you happy now? Will you stop now!?”

I shouldn’t have pushed her, I understand that now. This… all of this is my fault. I don’t know how to get out of it. We’ve been locked up here over a week now. The school will be starting to suspect something’s wrong. She’s disconnected all the phones. She never opens the door to anyone. Maybe I could run for it, tell the cops. But what if she catches me? She wants to hurt me, she’s just waiting for an excuse.

You see, inside this prison there’s time to think, even too much time. This is her way of mourning, I get it. But it’s not fair for her kids. How long can we live like this? Someone will come. The school will tell the cops, or something. Someone has to act. Her confession today really scared me. I must act. As she studies some pictures of houses in the kitchen table, I step inside. “How are you doing, mother?” I ask gently. “Don’t you call me…” she starts, but then restrains herself. “I’m sorry. I…” she apologizes.

“It’s ok,” I continue, forcing a natural smile. “I thought I would give you something that might help you through this rough patch.” Now I have her attention. I was hiding it behind my back with both hands. She reaches for one of the pistols she has on the table. I offer her the bottle of scotch I carry and try to ignore the gun. She pulls back her hand before reaching the weapon.

She was going for a gun? Holy f-word. I try not to look nervous. She looks away in shame from the bottle and waves her arms trying to resist me. “No! I can’t do that, not now…” she says faintly, avoiding eye contact. “They could be here any minute now… I have to be ready.” “Ok,” I say. “But I’ll leave it here anyway.” I place it in the kitchen counter by the sink, without the cap.

I begin preparing myself a sandwich. She keeps focused on her pictures. She’s planning something, and I don’t like it. I take some jam from the fridge and return to the kitchen counter, but I trip and spill most of it on her. “For f-words sake! Can you not be a little c…” again she stops herself. She heads for the sink and starts washing her shirt. She closes the tap and sees the bottle, standing there. I watch her in silence. “Maybe…” she says shyly, “maybe one glass will calm my nerves.” “You’ve been through so much, you really deserve it,” I say. “Yes…” she agrees. “I can control myself. I’ll just have one.”

I hand her a glass. She fills it to the brim and smells it before gulping it down. “Oh, that feels good,” she says, smiling. Soon she’s drinking directly from the bottle and everything else has faded away. I cook dinner and stay with my brothers and sister while mother wanders the house or sleeps soundly. It finally looks like there’s hope for us. I will report her first thing tomorrow morning, before anything else happens to us. I go to bed and try to sleep. In the middle of the night I wake up. There’s a hammering sound going on downstairs. I try to ignore it thinking it’s just mother going crazy. Tomorrow everything will be over.

I wake up early the next morning, determined to put her away while she’s in her alcoholic stupor. When I go downstairs, I find the car is gone. Mother isn’t in the house. Something feels wrong. I open her room and notice the scribbles covering the walls. “They did it. One of them. All of them.” There’s pictures of the woman that she ran over with her family in a house. There’s surveillance pictures from the same house. My gut begins to burn. She thinks they sent her those pictures. She thinks they killed the heir. I guess she always knew, deep down, her boy was killed by the same person who sent those pictures. And she believes that person can only be someone related to the woman she had run over.

I have to report her right now. Oh god, I hope it’s not too late. I dress up and head downstairs. Everything is barricaded except for the door, which only has several locks both inside and outside. I look for the key in her room. I can’t find it. Where is it? Where has she gone? Should I scream for help? Maybe I should. I look for an axe to break out. Finally I hear her car approaching. My heart starts racing. I put the axe back, run upstairs without my shoes on, get undressed and get back into bed.

I hear her heavy footsteps creaking on the stairs up to the upper floor. She opens my door and sits in the bed. She sighs. “There, done. Now we can all just… relax.” She caresses my hair. I’m not sure if she knows I’m awake. “Don’t worry, son, it’s all good now, it’s all good…” She caresses harder and harder, hurting me. I cry in silence, trying not to let her know I’m awake. She suddenly stops and leaves.

“Who will pay next…?” she says on her way out.

§ Too far gone

“This is the end,” my only thought as I try to find a way out. I have to leave and take them with me. I have to tell the police. Oh god what have I done? Why didn’t I escape yesterday when mother was drunk? After we get dressed, we have breakfast like a normal family. Except for me, trying to hide the involuntary spasms from the tension and fear I have. The boys are not playing anymore. We are all silent and gloomy. The only sound is the tv on the background, but nobody looks at it anymore. Mother smiles without reason, even sings. She frightens us all.

My sister refuses to eat anything. I understand her, she must feel awful. I want to comfort her, tell her it will all be over as soon as we leave the house for school. “I thought we could spend this day together, as a family,” says mother cheerfully. Nobody says a word. I close my eyes, angry that my plans have unraveled so easily. “… and in breaking news, an entire family was killed last night. Four people, including two children, have died as a result of bullet wounds. The police are still investigating the cause…” I look at the tv and recognize the house from her surveillance pictures. I feel my throat shutting close.

Mother turns off the tv with the remote. “Maybe we could take a trip to the zoo, what do you say boys?” she asks. Again she’s met with silence. “Fine. It’s your loss…” Breakfast lasts a few more minutes before we hear a siren. A car stops in front of the house, and we hear steps, then a loud knocking on the door. “Police, open up!” commands a voice.

We are saved! All we need is to stay calm. “It looks like some… guests have arrived,” says mother, smiling. What? Ok, this is probably just her delusion. I make signals to the kids so they hide under the table. Mother walks up to the door, looks through the peephole and without word, opens fire with her handgun. She shoots an entire clip through the door. The kids are crying, I have a ringing noise echoing in my head.

She opens the door. I watch from the table. One of the cops, the one who had talked to me back at the station and where the heir had been run over, lies dead. The other is crawling away. She walks up to him and takes his gun. He raises his arms, as though trying to stop the bullet, and begs. “Please, no.” She loads a bullet in the chamber. “I have family, please—” She interrupts him with a bullet.

I hear screams outside. Mother comes back inside. “Well boys, it seems like the zoo is closed today,” she announces. “We’ll have to take a raincheck.” She closes the door and begins piling up furniture against it. She stops for a moment and orders us to help her. Then she gives a handgun to everyone. Lucky me I get one with blood from the cops. We also get a couple of boxes of ammo, even though we have no clue how to use it. It doesn’t bother her at all how dangerous it is to give a gun to a kid who has never been taught how to use it. “Shoot anyone who comes inside the house,” the only instructions we get.

She runs upstairs, and takes my sister with her, leaving the twins and me to hold the lower floor. What does she expect us to do, open fire? More sirens. A deafening sound comes from the second floor. She must be firing a heavy gun, an assault rifle of some sort. I look through the boards in our window. She sprays two of the neighbor’s houses with bullets. A few minutes later comes a second police car, riddled with bullets. The agents try to get out of it, but she shoots them down as well.

More sirens. She throws a grenade to the first police car. The grenade rolls down and blows up a car parked in the street. I can’t breathe. We’re all gonna die. I hyperventilate, covering my ears with my hands. Mother comes downstairs. The boys are petrified. She puts her hand over one of the twins’ right hand, which they are using to hold the gun, aims it outside and fires. “Come on. It’s really not that hard, it’s just like your video games.” She rushes back upstairs.

More sirens, but they park out of her range. It’s time for the special ops teams. News helicopters buzz around us like flies around fresh turds. More gunfire. I can’t look. It’s too much. I hear my sister cry. Then I’m standing in the living room. In a flash, I see one of the twins’ blood all over the other. “Help! Mom!” screams the other before he too takes a bullet.

I hear mother rushing down the stairs. Something heavy hits me from behind and I fall to the ground. I wake up with a horrible headache in her bedroom. Outside there are voices speaking and helicopters. For a second I don’t understand anything, but then I remember the nightmare we’re in. I hear a splashing sound in the bathroom and come inside. Mother is kneeling down by the bath, washing something. She’s singing a cheerful tone: “Take me home, country roads, …” I come closer dreading what I think, what I know she’s doing. It’s them. She’s washing her kids as though they were clothes. The little girl and the boys. “Hey, how did you get so dirty!” she stops to say to the girl, whose clothes are stained with blood. “Oh, nevermind, I know you kids love to play outside.”

I place my gun against her head. “Click”, it sounds. I try to fire again. Nothing. “No fun for you, I’m afraid,” she says without looking at me. I hit her with the back of the gun, grab my sister and run downstairs. “Are you ok? Can you hear me?” I whisper, looking for her pulse. She says nothing, her face is pale blue. I hear noise upstairs. Mother is awake. “Come here, b-word!” she shouts.

I start removing the furniture from the front door as I hear mother stumbling down the stairs. “Wait… wait up, darling,” she says. Trembling, I remove the barricade as fast as I can. “I’m almost there, honey.” I manage to open the door before mother gets to me. “I’m coming out, don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” I scream, carrying my sister on my arms. I feel like the whole world is watching me. Mother starts shooting from upstairs again, but I don’t care anymore. I see the bodies sprawled on the lawn. Father is there, too, with a gunshot to the head. I manage to carry her with me, covered by the police suppression fire. But by the time I get behind cover it’s too late. Tears run across my face as I hold her lifeless body, caressing her little face with my hand. My little sister is dead…

§ Chapter Two: Friends

§ Overexplaining

I sit alone in a windowed room at the police station. I only hear the small tv in the room in front of me. It makes the rest of the world fade. Some politician embezzled money, some other has been caught making racist remarks. Same-o same-o. A policeman comes through the door, startling me. “Well, we’ve been keeping the press off,” he explains as he sits on a chair in front of me. I remain silent. “I guess you don’t want to… Well, it’s too early yet. I say let them soak.” He’s clearly uncomfortable with me. He’s probably been told not to make me feel uncomfortable. Attaboy.

“You see… ehm,” he goes on. “The thing is… Well, we have all the facts, and just wanted to ask you and make sure, you know, just to be safe, make sure we got it all right.” He looks for consent from my part of some sort, but I just keep looking above his shoulder to the television in silence.

He clears his throat. “Ok. So. According to the facts, your mother ra—” “Adoptive mother,” I interrupt without looking at him. “Yes, yes, again, I’m very sorry.” See how uncomfortable he is? “It looks like she ran over a woman while you were still in the car. We later found this woman buried in the garden, along with cats, dogs and other animals… do you know anything about that?”

“My brothers liked to kill stuff,” I say dryly. He looks at me puzzled, smiles thinking it’s a joke, realizes it’s not, feels embarrassed and continues talking, acting like it never happened. “After the crime, you threatened to denounce her and she pushed you, causing your head injury. Some days later, you left the hospital to report the incident, but unfortunately that didn’t go through.”

“Yes, unfortunately,” I say, unable to contain my anger. “All the deaths that could’ve been prevented. Unfortunately they weren’t?” “Yes, well, understand that you were, well, indisposed, and your mother insisted that you had been in an accident.” I look away from the television to look at him with contempt. He understands and stops trying to apologize.

“Then it seems she had a busy social life until a few weeks later, when she started receiving those letters. We’re still looking into who sent them, but we have no clues: there are no fingerprints in the few pictures she kept, no addresses, no eyewitnesses. So it looks like that one will remain a mystery for now… Anyway, as I was saying, she became increasingly, ehm, unwell? due to the content of those letters, until her son died in that car accident.”

He pauses to look at me before continuing. “Then she became so emotionally extenuated…” I let go a laugh, the first in a long time. He continues as though I hadn’t said a thing. “She finally decided to murder the family of the woman she previously ran over. She believed they were responsible for the murder of her son, which we have ruled out. You see, the whole family went to a mall that day, we have them on tape. So it really can’t have been them. We haven’t found the car that hit him, or the person who attacked you.” I wouldn’t hold my breath on that last one.

“Anyway… After the crime, a policeman went to your house. I think you knew him. He was responding to a domestic altercation nearby, which solved itself. We’re not sure why he visited your house, though.” I smile. “I think he cared,” I say. “About me, you know? He wanted to make sure I was ok. But it was too late…” He remains in silence as I speak. “Then she opened fire on the two officers,” he continues. “She gave guns to you and her kids and ordered them to fire on anyone who came to the house.”

He stops. It’s too much for him to understand how a mother could be that way. I can see it in his face, that expression of disgust. “It’s ok,” I say consoling him, “it’s all over now, you can go on. She can’t hurt anybody else.” He doesn’t know how to react to my comment, so he ignores it once more. “After gunning down four of our cars, killing two police officers and injuring another four people, she shot your neighbour’s houses, causing one dead and four injured civilians. It was then that the two youngest received fatal shots to the head in the living room from a gun found inside the house. Do you know who fired those shots?”

“No, I—” I shut up and shake my head anxiously. “It’s ok,” he says, trying to appease me. “When the negotiator arrived, she only said she had hostages and that she would come out once she had spoken to her husband. After thirty-two minutes, her husband arrived at the house and was given a speaker. But once he was close enough to the house, she shot a burst of rounds at him. One of them pierced through his skull, killing him instantly.” Seriously, somebody should tell this guy not to explain ghastly details to the victims. I think he just realized it himself because he’s grimacing.

“Uhm. So. After that, she exchanged fire with the police for the next sixteen minutes, at which point you appeared through the door carrying the body—” I break down crying, thinking of that moment, thinking of her… “Well, you know the rest,” he says. “I’m sorry to make you relive it.” He hands me a tissue. “No, don’t be,” I say, wiping my tears with it. “It’s all fresh in my head anyway.”

“If there’s anything we can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.” “Actually,” I say. “There’s one thing. What about my inheritance?” He fiddles with his pen and looks away. I don’t like that. “Yes, well, I feel like you should discuss that with your lawyer.” “Is there something wrong?” I ask, anxious now. “Again,” he says, “discuss it with him.”

There’s a brief awkward silence. “Can I see their body?” I ask. He frowns, hesitating. “Sure, yeah, come this way.” In the morgue, under bright white lights I see mother, resting peacefully. She doesn’t deserve it. She should be punished, she should suffer for a long time. But instead… this. “Can I have a moment with them alone?” I ask. The cop nods, and I’m left alone in the morgue.

I also see the boys, lying in tables next to each other. And finally, silent under a white sheet, there’s my little sister. I reach with my hand to pull, but I can’t look. I can’t accept she’s dead. I grew to love her more than myself. I wish I was dead and she was alive. I wish I could die right now. I look at mother again. It looks like she’s smiling. “No!” I yell, then I spit on her, then break down crying. No…

§ A new life

“What do you mean there’s no money?” I ask indignantly. The lawyer tries to apologize and begs me to sit down again. “You see, your parents’s will didn’t include you, and everything belonged to your mother. She graciously left all her state, even her house, to wonderful charities for the welfare of children. Some children will be very lucky that she was such a generous soul.”

“Yes, she gifted bullets to the whole neighborhood, the police and her own children,” I comment. He looks at me with contempt, despite everything I’ve gone through! I realize I’m wasting my time speaking to this blood-sucking toad and leave. I’m alone and penniless. I don’t know anyone and have no friends, except for all the messages of support I have received from people all over the country. Well, those are not friends, only privileged white people with a bad conscience.

Abandoned by everyone else, the state takes me in and finds a foster home for me. It’s in a “socioeconomically challenged” part of the city, but I don’t mind it. I never really experienced the luxury of my old home, nor wanted to. But enough money to be on my own would’ve been nice.

Soon after getting there I feel right at home. They don’t give a flying f-word about me, just like mother did… well, for the most part. I go to a new school with people wearing counterfeit clothing, using counterfeit ids to buy booze, telling counterfeit stories to the teachers and believing counterfeit news networks; yet they are somehow “truer” than the people in my old school.

Remember when I said life wouldn’t be made easy for me? Now my prediction has come true. If I want to survive, to make something of myself, I need to study and work hard. Well, that’s precisely what I do. It’s me against the world. I focus all my efforts on studying, ignoring everything else. The only thing I keep from my past is my friend from school.

We play games online and talk for hours every day. But as time goes by, we start to drift away… Without the drama of my old home, I’m able to focus on my studies. The wounds left by mother slowly heal, but I soon understand they will never completely close. Day by day, month by month, year by year I toil to get the best possible grades. And it pays off: I earn a scholarship for a mildly prestigious college.

Look, I’m not delusional. I know a prestigious college is not necessarily a good college. But it will secure me a job, that’s for sure. You know what I’m going to study? I thought about it long and hard, and realized what I wanted to do with my life was being a lawyer. It’s a very stable job (there will always be something to regulate, someone to defend or accuse.) But it goes beyond that. I really want to make a difference in people’s lives, even if that sounds like a childish wish.

The day I have to report at the college campus finally arrives. The bus ride from my home city to college lasts for hours. I barely have anything with me other than a few clothes. As we enter the campus, a large poster on the bus stop catches my eye. “RESPECT,” it reads in all-capital letters. “Join us and stand against bigotry!” Under the slogan, several people of several colors are drawn holding the flags of different countries.

Preppy people parade from preposterously pricey cars. Proud parents photograph their perfect progeny. Ok, I’ll stop now. We are shown to our rooms and leave our stuff. Then come the rules. So many tedious rules I actually start longing for the beginning of class. After jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, we finally get the ball rolling with introductions to all our subjects. Because the scholarship only covers tuition and housing, I get a job to afford… well, actual living.

I become a waitress in a cafe less than an hour away from college and start working immediately. At the beginning, I enjoy a very peaceful existence, listening in class and reading what I can at work. But soon my college workload increases, leaving me no free time. Luckily, work is basically serving hipsters who go there ironically to drink italian coffee. Unfortunately, they only tip their own fedoras. I lead a soviet lifestyle, wearing second-hand clothes, eating leftover food from work and doing… well, nothing else. Everything goes fine until a few weeks into the semester, when I catch a guy from ethics class staring at me several times in different days.

“What?” I say, finally confronting him. “Oh, hi—” he replies, shocked. He doesn’t have a clue what to do with me. “I don’t have time for this, sorry,” I say dryly before I leave. The poor guy interprets that as “I just need to try harder,” and he begins to pester me with invitations to “class activities” such as hanging out at a bar, like I don’t know what he’s up to.

Despite turning him down over and over, he keeps trying. I admire his courage, and he’s not fugly, but I really don’t want a relationship right now. I’m in a crucial point in my life where I need to focus on getting through college. What I just said is not just an excuse to turn down fugly—Wait, I shouldn’t use that word. It’s not just an excuse to turn down “aesthetically challenged” people. Anyway, I don’t want to rant. He keeps asking and eventually gets frustrated.

One night he shows up drunk at my room. “Come on, tell me what’s wrong with me?” he starts, and I can smell the booze in his breath. “Am I not pretty? Be-because I don’t pack a six-pack?” he laughs at his own pun. Yeah, nothing turns on a lady like that. “Please, leave,” I say. “Not until you give me an answer,” he says raising his voice too much. “Please, you’ll get in trouble,” I beg him. “Tomorrow we can talk—” But it’s too late. “Hey, leave her alone,” interrupts him an alpha-male whose sleep has been interrupted. Other nearby alpha-males sense trouble and wake up as well, quickly forming a pack of perfect six-packs.

“Who’s this prick?” says a second guy. “Is he bothering you?” asks yet another. “No, it’s ok, he was just leaving,” I intercede. “I’m not going anywhere!” he yells. One of the alpha-male places his overworked arm on my suitor’s shoulder. “Hey pal—” starts the alpha-male. “Don’t touch me!” screeches the suitor before throwing a punch at the alpha-male. He is quickly immobilized and begins yelling “You are hurting me! Stop!” as he is dragged to the campus authorities.

After I wait for a while in my room, two security guards come. For a moment I’m not sure if they are meant to keep us safe or to keep us here. “Hello, we’re here to ask you a few questions,” says one of them. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” he sits down in a table at my room. “Could you please explain what happened?” he asks as he starts his recorder and invites me to join him in the table. “And remember, this is a safe space, he can’t hurt you here.” I look at him, puzzled. “Hurt me? That guy is probably harmless. All that happened was he got hung up on me and I refused to go out with him, that’s all.” The man smiles. “So that’s why we found an altar devoted to you in his room?” he asks.

“Well, I guess…” I start, hesitant. “He started following me around some weeks ago, staring at me during class. He asked me several times to join the class at the bar, but I always refused.” The man scribbles something in a paper and asks me without looking up. “Don’t you think you should’ve reported him?” “What? No,” I say, surprised he’s even suggesting that. “Well,” he says, “next time make sure to do it. But don’t worry, none of this is your fault.”

After a review from a conduct board the next day, my suitor is expelled from college and kicked out of his room. Additionally, he receives a restraining order against me. Later I learn that he had been in trouble before with the college board, questioning their inclusion programme to promote diversity and equality. I ask to see the “altar,” out of curiosity, but after sailing the college’s bureaucratic sea, all I get is “it was destroyed.” The boy sends me an email swearing he built no such altar and apologizing for his behavior. For some reason, I decide not to report him.

Out of all this, the only good thing is that I’m given a two month break from studies due to potential-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-after-near-rape, or PPTSDAN. Also, my friend from school, who is also studying in my law school, finds me a very nice roommate.

§ White supremacist

Oh what a sweet balm of relief. The study break is a gift from the heavens! My daily routine goes from working eight-to-eight to having a part-time job and a lot of free time. I actually retake reading for pleasure, something I hadn’t done since my time with mother, what now seems an eternity ago. At first, when I try to read, my mind becomes clouded with memories of that time. Thinking about my my little sister and what I could’ve done different often makes it impossible for me to read.

Still, there’s something wicked about that break. I know it’s bound to end, and that thought keeps me from enjoying it. For a brief moment after waking up I forget about everything: who I am, where I am. Then it all comes crumbling down on me. And eventually, I return to my old routine. Exams, projects, deadlines, reports…

I nearly drown in so much work, but working sixteen hours a day throughout my finals I manage to get through. During summer, as I try to rest before the next year, I hear news about tolerance demonstrations being held all over the country. They are protests trying to disrupt white supremacist rallies. Eventually one of them is scheduled to take place only a few hours away from my college, and I decide to attend out of curiosity.

I take a bus to get there. A few minutes into the trip, after nearly falling asleep, loud shouts awake me. “Hey, you,” some guy commands threateningly in the bus. “Didn’t you hear me?” he continues. I turn around to see two white guys hunching over a skinny arab guy who is holding up his hands to protect himself. I recognize the arab guy from one of my college classes. He receives a punch. “Hey, none of that on my bus,” says the driver. “Oh shut up you f…” wait, I haven’t introduced this. It’s an f-word, but it’s not the f-word. It’s “f a g g o t.” I will use “fa-word” for it. As I was saying, “Oh shut up, you fa-word,” says one of the bullies, the taller one.

“I asked, were you involved in what happened yesterday?” asks the tall bully again before punching the arab. I stand up. “Stop,” I command. “B-word, mind your own business,” says the other guy. “No!” I shout, standing my ground. “Of, f-word off you—” he manages to say before I kick his crotch. Everyone in the bus is watching the other bully now. “Oh, you are so done, b-word,” he mutters coming toward me. I start walking back toward the front door, scared.

Suddenly the bus stops. The driver stands between me and the white guy. “What, are you going to hit a girl too? Get out! Both of you! Out of my bus! And don’t come back!” The driver grabs the tall bully by the shirt and throws him out. His friend follows. “It’s not over, b-word!” the bully says before the door closes and I sigh with relief. “Are you ok?” asks the driver. I nod and thank him. As I return to my seat, I hear clapping, and I involuntarily smile. Shortly afterwards we’re on the road again. The arab guy comes to my seat. “I… I wanted to thank you. Those bullies were harassing me because of the bombing…”

Oh right, I neglected to mention there was a bombing yesterday in some country with over sixteen casualties. The perfect way to warm up a white supremacist rally. “… and they thought,” he continues, “well, because I’m brown, you know, that I had something to do with it. It’s so racist. It’s like every muslim thought the west is crawling with infidels.” I look at him with pity. “Anyway, thank you again,” he mutters before standing up. “Wait, you don’t have to leave,” I stop him. “Are you going to the rally as well?” He nods. “Ok, then sit please. I’m going there myself but have no clue of how-what to do there.”

He sits by my side. During the ride I ask him questions about his life. His parents are still living abroad. Like me, he has a scholarship, though his is a “diversity scholarship” given out in raffles. He also works as a bartender to pay for food and stuff. He sends his parents any surplus money he has. He explains this is not the first time people have behaved toward him that way. In fact, every time there is a notorious terrorist attack, he gets the same kind of grief.

“And, see, the funny thing is,” he explains excitedly, “it doesn’t even make sense to hate people for the country they come from! Like, you know, it’s not like what shoes you buy—That’s a perfectly fine reason to discriminate.” I notice he fidgets with his hands as he talks. “We, like, we don’t choose where we’re born, and it doesn’t matter; not today at least, with global politics and… globalization and global warming.” I smile at him. “But, you know, some people judge me like I belong to some group. What group? I wouldn’t like any group that would accept me as their member!”

§ Peaceful protest

The anti-white-rally demonstration is peaceful for about one minute. Then the exchange of words turn to one of punches, tear gas and other riot weapons. People run through the streets yelling nonsense or plainly screeching “REEE.” Finally a car rams into the crowd. People scream in pain, the fights get wilder. My arab friend grabs my hand and guides me out quickly. He receives one or two additional punches on our way out, but he pushes on. Finally we reach safety. “Are-are you ok?” I ask, impressed with how he handled himself. He nods, trying to recover his breath. “I’m somewhat of a veteran of these kind of demonstrations,” he explains.

He has bruises and a bleeding wound on his forehead. “You should… see a doctor,” I say worriedly. “You should see the other guy,” he says smiling, trying to look tough. “I’ll be fine,” he says casually, possibly trying to show how high his testosterone levels are so I will be interested in mating with him. On the bus back we barely speak. “You can find me in dorm room one hundred twenty-eight,” I inform him before we part ways.

The next day he shows up at my dorm door. “You don’t waste time, do you?” I ask him. But he smiles uncomfortably. He has a friend with him. “I’m not here for you, I—” he says before his friend interrupts him. “So this is the girl you met,” says his friend as he approaches me. His eyes are fixed on me. He takes my hand and kisses it without my permission. Is he crazy? If someone saw that he’d be in real trouble. I get very tense. “Allow me to introduce myself, I am—” “He’s my idiot brother,” says my roommate. Her brother smiles and nods. “Oh, you know her?” she asks the arab guy, who nods in response. I’m too embarrassed to say anything else. They all leave together, leaving me alone in the apartment.

How stupid was I? O earth, swallow me. I bury my face deep into my bed’s pillow and wish not to see anyone for the rest of the year. I just concentrate on reading. I clean the room and bathroom, take out the trash and watch tv until they return.

“Hey there,” greets me my roommate. “Oh, hi,” I say indifferently. “Well, bye,” say the guys from the door, before closing it. My roommate changes her clothes, prepares some food for herself, then comes to watch tv with me. “So,” she says with her mouth full of sandwich. “Now you’ve met my brother.”

I nod, thinking “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” to myself while I hit my forehead with my hand when she isn’t looking. “He asked me about you,” she says casually, then smiles. “Oh shut up…” I say, sighing with relief. “By the way,” she starts. “tomorrow there’s an important speech at tol’s headquarters. I was hoping you’d come with me, maybe see what I do…” She stops. “I mean, if you want,” she blurts out, trying not to pressure me.

“Tol?” I ask, and as she opens her mouth to explain, I realize I actually know what it means and feel like a complete idiot. “The tolerance movement, of course,” she says. “Uhhm…” I say and pause. “I guess I could join you. Where is it?” I ask, again casually. “I can take you there,” she says. “I’m a… member.” I notice how she hesitates to say the word “member.” The next day I wake up to freshly brewed coffee and scones. I like her much better than my old roommate before the whole near-rape incident, who didn’t care about me at all. I’ve only lived with her a few days, but I already feel a connection between us. My friend from school was right, she’s lovely. She’s shy, modest and austere. But, like me, she enjoys simple joys like good coffee. After breakfast, I thank her and we leave for the meeting.

During the bus ride I stare at her as she twirls her curls with her finger. She almost looks… sad. After that, we walk for sixteen minutes or so to get there. The building is huge, with an open hall at the entrance. “Good morning miss secretary,” we are greeted by two security guards. And by the people at reception. And by other people on our way to an elevator. Once it closes, I look at her with a naughty smile. “Miss secretary?” I ask. She keeps quiet and blushes. “How—” I start to formulate the question. She’s so young, barely two years older than me. How is it possible she’s so relevant here? “Well, this whole thing was, partly, my idea,” she explains. “My uncle’s organization finances most of our operations,” she tries to hide in political lingo. Ding. The elevator opens and we walk past several offices until we reach hers. It’s larger than our dorm.

“Come on, it’s not such a big deal,” she says seeing the look of amazement on my face. “So what do you do here?” I ask while she picks some folders and papers. “Well, we fight for tolerance and promote justice,” she explains. “But like, how?” I ask and sit down in a comfortable leather armchair, feeling its smooth surface with my hands. “We have several departments,” she continues. “For now we’re primarily focused on promoting equality on all fronts through targeted visual campaigns.” “So you run propaganda ads?” I say bluntly. She turns and looks at me. I have broken the spell that made her recite words written by bureaucratic spiders. “Uhm, I-I guess you could call it that. But that way it sounds… dishonest. We’re not pushing any shady agendas here,” she tries to justify.

“So who gives the speech?” I ask, feeling the leather one more time. She stays quiet and keeps looking for papers in a drawer. “Hello?” I ask again. “Uhmm…” She says. She sounds distracted. “I’m supposed to give it in—” then in a much lower tone so I can barely hear her, “… four hours.” “What?” I ask. “Then why are we here now?” I ask irritated. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says in distress. “I-I kind of needed someone to help me prepare and didn’t know how to ask. I knew it was a lot, and it’s your free time, but I really thought you could help me, and our friend in common said you were good at this kind of things so I, I—” “It’s ok, don’t worry,” I interrupt her before she runs out of batteries. “I just wish you’d consult these things with me in the future.”

She nods, smiling. “I promise.” Immediately after she hands me a stack of papers. “Ok, here’s my speech, I want you to read it and tell me what you think.” I feel awkward. Nobody has ever trusted me with a relevant task before. “Can I write on this?” I ask. She nods. As I read it, I make circles and notes with a pen. Meanwhile, I can feel her presence in the room. Every time I write something, she bites her nails unconsciously, realizes what she’s doing and forces herself to stop. The speech is not too long, but it lacks order and clarity. I can see the points she wants to make, but they’re all muddied by lingo. I look up from the text. She’s staring. “So?” I stay silent for a few seconds. “Ok, I have a few suggestions,” I finally say, “to help you get your points across.”

“First off,” I say. “‘Processes for the diffusion of our ideas will be further refined and utilized to fulfill our core goals, mainly through large-scale digital medium’ could be replaced with ‘we will focus on social media.’” She looks at me, confused by the clarity. “But that sounds… dumbed down,” she finally replies. “No. What you said sounds ‘dumbed up.’ The people listening will only hear static noise, and you will sound like the typical politician. But this is not for mass-consumption, this is for party-members only, right?” She nods. “Then you don’t have to say meaningless crap with fancy words. I suggest you make it simple and to the point.”

“But it’s not…” she says and stops. She thinks about it for a second. “But party members expect a certain level of…” “Unintelligibility?” I finish her sentence. She stays quiet for a moment, and something clicks. “You know, it actually makes sense,” she says a bit more cheered up and she comes to the armchair where I’m sitting. She sits by my side and takes the papers from my hand. “Ok, show me other examples.” I take her through the notes I’ve made. We make changes to the thing until it becomes something else entirely. She recites it for me a couple of times, and I also give her advice on what and how to emphasize.

The four hours fly between laughter and work. Finally we walk back to the elevator. Half the stuff she’s carrying falls to the ground. She’s clearly nervous. I help her pick up and carry the papers. We get to the elevator and she breathes deeply. “Ok, how do I look?” she asks. “I don’t know, good I guess,” I say. She’s disappointed. “Ok, wait.” I stand behind her and pull the pin holding her hair and comb it with my hands while we look at the mirror in the elevator. She fiddles with her hands nervously, accidentally touching me a couple of times and apologizing immediately. “There, much better. You’re going to kill in there,” I say. “Th-thanks,” she mutters shyly.

§ Tol

Many party members applaud at the end of her speech. A series of speakers come after her. But hers is by far the most colorful speech. She speaks about concrete things you can imagine people doing, instead of “measures that increase utilization” like others. The act itself is brief, and afterwards there’s a small reception with food. Lots of people congratulate her. Her brother and his arab friend also join us. She introduces me to several party members, and finally to her uncle. “That was a wonderful speech, dear,” her uncle says when we meet him. “If only you didn’t squander your talents here instead of—”

“Please uncle, can’t this wait for later?” she interrupts him. “I want to introduce you to a friend… She-she helped me a lot with that speech.” He looks at me like he just realized I’m a person instead of service staff. “Hello,” he says before quickly turning to speak to her again. “Please dear, have lunch with me tomorrow, I beg you.” She makes an involuntary grimace, letting her uncle and I know just how much she wants that. “Not if you’re going to insist that I—”

“You ungrateful little—” He threatens with his finger. He stops and sighs. “You’re young and can’t grasp the magnitude of what I offer. Your whole generation is just—” “Uncle, please,” she says taking his hands warmly. “Please let’s talk about this tomorrow, ok?” “Fine,” he concedes. She walks away with a smile, and I follow her.

We spend there another hour meeting people. She does most of the talk while I stay quiet. She looks confident, kind and warm. She looks like a leader. It strikes me how confident she can be in public, yet how insecure and shy she’s in private. Finally we go home, both of us exhausted. On the cab back to our dorm, she falls asleep on my shoulder, reminding me of… I better not say it.

At first I weep in silence to not wake her up. But then I remember: I will never see her grow up. I will never see her get married and happy. Mother took all that away from her. I clench my fist. That stupid, egoistical— “We’re here,” says the cabbie. I compose myself and wake her up gently. She pays him and we walk back to our room in silence. “Thank you so much,” she says when we get there. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Oh please, your ideas were there,” I say. “The speech just needed some polishing.” She looks at me, smiling. “You know you did more than that.” She walks into her room and begins undressing for bed. “Hey, with the elections coming up, we’re going to have a ton of work,” she says as she undresses. I’m sitting on my bed, listening. “We could use your help. I could use your help.”

“I don’t know if I could be that useful,” I say. I get up to go fetch some water and catch a glimpse of her naked body. She looks incredible. Luckily she doesn’t see me, she would be too embarrassed. I return to my room in silence. “Nonsense,” she says. “That way you can quit that job you hate so much and do what you’re good at.” I’m not convinced. “But maybe I—” I try to protest once more. “It’s settled then,” she says. “We’ll work together. I’ll make sure the pay is good, don’t worry.” There’s a brief pause, and her head suddenly pokes through my door to say “Good night.” It seems a new job has found me. With only a phone call the next morning, she hooks me up as “first communications assistant.” She tries to explain what I’m supposed to do, but after hacking through her webbed bureaucrat-talk, I only understand that I will “rewrite stuff.”

Her brother, his friend and my friend from school work at tol too. In fact, they spend much of my first day in the office with us. Her brother is in charge of “human resource coordination,” which as far as I can tell means gathering mobs for demonstrations. The arab guy does whatever my roommate’s brother needs done. He makes coffee, buys food, delivers messages. He’s essentially an errand boy. And my friend from school is the “efforts liaison,” which translates into “making our activities serve the interests of the people paying for them.” I learn all of this not just watching them, but also reviewing memos, messages and other stuff they give me to improve, deliver or archive.

But it feels like they’re holding off. It’s like they don’t discuss certain things when I’m there. The two guys don’t trust me, they see me as an outsider. And I am. All of this is new to me. We work eight hours split in two shifts, with a pause for lunch. When we finally get off, we all have dinner together in a cafeteria nearby and go home. The next day we get there earlier and work another two hours. The first week is hard, but by the second I begin to get the hang of it. I use any spare time I have to study, like they do.

Slowly, I become a member of their small group, mainly because my roommate insists. She pushes them to say “private” things in front of me. For example, when one of our group of protestors demands higher salaries and better riot equipment, she wants to negotiate. Her brother and my friend from school, however, are of a different mind. Her brother summons the group’s manager and four of their coordinators. You may be surprised to learn these angry mobs are not just angry mobs: they obey a rigid hierarchy.

Anyway, as I was saying, he summons them to our office. Although he asks this to be kept “private,” my roommate and my friend from school both insist that I witness the meeting. We all head over to his office and wait. It has zero pictures, no windows, and is essentially devoid of life. We stand against the wall. The protestors enter his office and sit down in uncomfortable, creaky metal chairs. He stands as he speaks to them.

“So you want better salaries, did I get that right?” he asks. “It’s only fair for what you make us do,” replies the manager. He laughs. “Huh. Fair? Are you telling me what’s fair? Who the f-word do you think you are? Nobody! You are only here because I put you here. And you… you have the nerve to come and speak to me about fair!? You’re fired! The f-word out of my sight!” He turns to me and says, pointing at me with his right index finger “call security.” The manager stands his ground. My roommate’s brother grabs the manager’s shirt and pulls him up. “Get the f-word out!” He pushes the manager out of the room. Two security guards escort the man out of sight.

My roommate’s brother comes back, breathes deeply, takes a sip from his coffee and looks at the four men before him. “Now you,” he calmly says, pointing at one of them. “You will be the new manager. Choose someone to replace your old job.” Then he puts down his coffee. “Any questions, any demands?” The newly appointed manager shakes his head. “Good, good, good!” He says smiling. “Now get the f-word out, all of you.”

They leave without saying a word. “You know we could afford the raise, right?” says my roommate, clearly upset. “And they actually deserved it, if you ask me…” she goes on. Her brother stands up and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Sis,” he says condescendingly. “It’s not even about the money. It’s about respect.”

§ Bullies

As time goes by, I become more and more concerned about my roommate’s brother and his… let’s call them “methods.” He wants to run this place like a mobster: buying expensive clothes, making his employees fear him and other things I suspect but can’t prove. However, I must agree it works. With the resources we have, we’re breaking hundreds of demonstrations. With any hope, we are showing people the true face of violence and mindless hatred. As I work on a table by her side, my roommate touches my shoulder gently, startling me. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes after seeing my reaction. “I never know how to… when you’re in ‘the zone.’” She even uses her fingers to act out the quotation marks. “Anyway, ehm… today my-our uncle, is coming. My brother and I will meet him in two hours here. You can have the day off.”

“Oh, thank you,” I reply. A day off. I don’t even remember what that’s like. In fact, I think I’ve had none in the… eight months? I’ve been here. But I can’t complain, the pay is good and I can study most of the time. On my way out, I cross paths with my arab friend. “Hey, you got the day off too?” he asks. “Yeah, I was just going—” “I know of a new brewery with cheap imported beers,” he interrupts me. “They have indian pale ales.” Is he asking me for a date? “I’m sorry, I don’t really do alcohol.” “Oh…” he says gloomily. I feel bad for him, he does such a great job. “But we could maybe, I don’t know, watch a movie?” I say. His face lights up. “I heard there’s a new film about who was the true author of ‘War and Peace,’” he says.

“Sure, sounds fine,” I say. I don’t want to sit through another revisionist bore with boring actors about a boring book, but whatever. We walk to the bus station in silence. I take my phone out and text with people, partly to avoid a conversation. I also check out the best way to the movie theater. “Let’s go this way,” I say. He meekly agrees and walks with me. As we turn the corner to the street with the station, we watch the bus speed away. “Oh, this is great,” he complains. “No way we get there now… What are we going to do? There’s no more buses until—” “Stop worrying,” I interrupt him. “We’ll go later. I was hungry anyway, so we could grab something to eat first.” “Wait a minute,” he says, pale with fear. “We’re on the bus stop where you joined the bus… you know, when we met. The protest.”

“I’ve been avoiding this route,” he goes on. “I don’t like it. I don’t want to see those two bullies again.” He’s truly terrified of them. “Please, let’s go,” he begs. “Ok, just give me a couple minutes to rest,” I say before sitting down. “My right leg is cramping, again.” He nervously paces up and down the street until he comes running. “Th-they are here!” He stutters. I see the two bullies walking toward us. They are still far. “They haven’t seen us yet, let’s go! Let’s run!” He begs me.

“You should learn to confront people who don’t like you,” I say calmly. “Are-are you crazy? Th-they’ll break my leg or something. They’ll compress me into half my size, and I’m not even tall now.” He rubs his hands nervously. The two guys keep getting closer. “If you don’t stand up to people, you’ll always be a squeamish errand boy,” I continue, impervious as I stand up. “Otherwise people, especially women, will never respect you.” The two guys point to us and start walking faster.

“C-call the police, that’s why, you know, we-we pay them,” he says, reaching for my phone, but I stop his hands with mine. “Stand up to them,” I whisper before giving him a kiss in the cheeks. He stares into my eyes. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the b-word and her towelhead friend,” says one of the bullies. I let go of his hands. My arab friend closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Go away! We are not afraid of you!” I yell, standing my ground. “Come on, tell him,” I say to my friend, who just smiles weirdly. “Hey pal, are you gonna let a woman speak for you?” the bully taunts my friend, who rubs his hands. “Y-you know, I usually leave the fighting for after dinner, you know? It helps with digestion.” The bullies are right next to my friend. He runs his hands over one of the bullies’ coats. “You cowards better leave!” I threaten them. “Or what?” chuckles one of the bullies, coming closer, “There’s no bus driver here to save you.”

I throw a punch at him, but he stops it and twists my arm. My phone falls to the ground. I scream in pain. “Stop!” says my friend, punching my aggressor in the face. “You’re dead,” says the aggressor, grabbing my friend. Then the first guy says through his teeth, “b-word.” I feel his punch on my face. The next thing I know I’m on the ground. I look up, feeling the blood on my face pumping. Then I look left.

I see my arab friend getting beaten as his cries for help slowly die out. I get kicked on the gut, and feel the urge to vomit. I take my hands to my face and cry, crawling into a ball. I stay there for some time, until I hear a man’s voice, “Hey, are you ok? Hang on, I’ll get help.” He helps me get up. When I look down, I see my friend, bleeding on the floor. I kneel by his side. It doesn’t look like he’s breathing. My heart races. “Wake up! Wake up!” I scream, fearing the worst. But he just bleeds.

Then, as I stand up, I grab my phone with one hand as I cover my belly with the other. I wait for the police and paramedics to arrive. The paramedics place him on a stretcher and take him to the hospital. Police officers take me to the station. “Here, look,” I say to the policeman who found us. “The whole thing is on tape.” We watch the video, with the faces of the two bullies clearly visible at some points. “Those monsters won’t get away with this,” promises the police officer.

§ Charity case

In less than a day, the video gathers two million views. The comment section is filled with hateful remarks and political arguments. My roommate posted the video using tol’s main social account this morning, along with a link to donate money. And it works incredibly well.

The first day alone brings in thousands of donations. By the second day, we have set up a donation goal of sixteen thousand three hundred and eighty-four dollars, to pay for my arab friend’s medical bills. We explain that he’s in a coma, without medical insurance and his parents out of the country because of our restrictive immigration policy. Luckily, there’s enough generous folks around the world to quickly donate the amount. I write a post where I proudly announce that “… the goal has been overfulfilled within two days. The party is very proud. Thank you very much to all who helped make it happen,” and receive messages of support from a lot of different people.

I stay at the hospital with him during his coma. He’s a pitiful sight: swollen face, bruises all over his body, especially around the abdomen and arms. But my roommate is more concerned about me. When she saw me after the attack, at my arab friend’s room, she lifted my shirt to see the bruises and gently put her hand over them. Then she hugged me like it was my last day on earth.

She’s staying with me at the hospital, and we post updates regularly about our friend’s status. We deny interviews to most news channels and offer information straight from the source instead. That drives up the number of subscribers to tol’s social networks considerably. The second day, a man pays us a visit at my friend’s room. He’s a deputy secretary of some libertarian subcommittee, as my roommate explains to me. We sit in chairs by my arab friend’s bed when he comes in. He introduces himself and shakes our hands, then pulls up a chair and sits in front of us. “We have been following these events closely, and have discussed with your uncle,” he says looking at her. “We would like to run you as mayor of—” “Thanks,” she quickly interrupts him.

“He told me,” she continues, “but I would like to think about it,” my roommate says, looking away. “Well, I’ll be here a few more days. I can speak for all the committee when I say you’re a rising star. We know you would just steamroll the election,” he goes on. “I…” she starts, but I take her left hand with my right before she turns him down. “I-I’ll give it a lot of thought,” she concludes. The man walks out of the room. “Take it,” I say to her. “But the work I’m doing now…” she says. “I need to make sure—” “Take it,” I insist. She smiles. “Do you really want me to?”

I put my hand on her cheek. “You’ll make a difference there,” I say. “Isn’t that what you want? I’ve been coordinating protests and pumping out propaganda for over four months now. And you’ve been there well over a year. Don’t you wish to make decisions that actually affect people’s lives? Besides, that would only be a stepping stone to even greater things…” She looks at me and pulls back. “You’re beginning to sound like my uncle.” I smile. “Maybe your uncle is right. Maybe power is the way to achieve your goals.” She looks down. “But I’m way too young to be mayor…” she sighs. I turn her face to look at me.

“Who cares about age when you are kind and just?” I say. “Besides, if it’s age you worry about, add my age to yours. Add my wisdom to yours. You’re not stupid, and you will have plenty of help. The only thing that matters is how you are deep down.” I say, poking where her heart should be with my finger. She smiles and hugs me, taking me by surprise. “Thank you… I-I,” she whispers. We stare at each other, our faces barely touching. I put my right hand on her neck. I can feel her pulse getting faster. I come closer and our lips touch. She kisses me, at first timidly, then almost throwing herself on top of me, grabbing my—

My arab friend coughs, interrupting us. “Look, he’s awake!” I say to her. His eyes are still closed, so he hasn’t seen our little moment. “Water… please,” he gasps. My roommate pours him a glass. I exit the room to find the nurse. Once he is well enough to speak normally, we show him some of the comments of support. “While you were asleep,” I explain, “we raised thousands for the medical bills and also funds for the movement. Here, take a look.”

He carefully reads some of the comments and sheds a tear or two, excited to see so many people who care about him. “Have you thanked them?” he asks. “Well, yes, but not properly,” my roommate says. “Only with text.” “We should record a video!” he says as though it was his idea. “If that’s what you want,” I say. “Yes, when I feel better,” he says.

After a few moments in silence, I speak again, “Well, why not do it now?” He looks at me, puzzled. “But, I’m not… Now I’m… indisposed,” he answers. “Precisely,” I say. “That way they will see the extent of the damage done by unfounded racism.” “If you say so,” he concedes. I set up the camera, facing the bed. My roommate and I sit in two chairs at his right side, so that all of us are in the shot. She holds my right hand.

“Dear supporters,” she begins, looking concerned at the camera. “We wanted to thank you dearly for your caring words and donations. You have been truly helpful through this awful, inhumane situation. What’s more, you have shown once more that in this country, people are united against injustice. You are courageous and strong, and like her,” she looks at me. “… you are fighters. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.”

She stops, looking aside from the camera for a moment. “Now I want you to listen to my dear friend, who refuses to be another faceless victim of the bully machinery that operates in our nation.” I look at him. He’s impressed by the passion with which she delivers the speech. He stutters in front of the camera. “Th-thank, you all, f-from the bottom of my heart.”

I shut down the camera and upload the video. The response is very good, so much that my roommate receives a call asking if we want to appear at a safe tv interview about the attack. They want to do a special report on it. We, of course, agree. That afternoon, we return home to rest. She barely says anything on the way back. I enter my room and start changing into more comfortable clothes. Suddenly, my roommate enters wearing only a nightgown and sits on top of me. She whispers in my ear “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this.”

§ First interview

Four days after the attack, my friend is ready to leave the hospital. We enter the news building in the morning for our interview, and a nice lady greets us, taking us to a preparation room. “Here you are,” she says handing us some papers. “These are the questions she will ask you.” After thirty-two minutes waiting, we meet the hostess of the segment where our special report will air tonight. She walks up to us, looks up and down each of us and smiles like a spider looking at its prey. “It’s so good to meet you,” she says. “Have you taken a look?” she asks pointing to the paper with the questions.

My friend frowns. He doesn’t like this sort of thing. I, on the other hand, expected it. There is an ancient oriental saying: “Never trust a reporter.” I follow it by heart. “Would you mind giving us a second? He’s exhausted,” my roommate says. We take him behind the set, where they can’t hear us. “Look,” she starts. “I know this is hardly ideal, but it will help us all. So suck it up and—” He interrupts her, “But this-this. Ha-have you people gone crazy? What are we, those plastic people that go on tv and complain about everything? I don’t like plastic, you know, it causes cancer…”

“Please,” I say. “Don’t do this for yourself. Do it for the people like you, for your parents… for me.” He looks down to the ground. I take his hand. I can feel my roommate staring at my neck. “Ok…” he concedes, slightly blushing. “Great. Then let’s go, there’s no time to waste,” she says.

We review the questions and “suggested” answers, pretty standard stuff. Next we step into the makeup room. The bruises in my face are highlighted. My arab friend has eye bags and signs of exhaustion painted on his face… You know, to make it more real. After the hostess is plastered with makeup, we are ready to begin the interview. “Good morning, everyone,” the hostess says, reading from the teleprompter. “Those watching right now will remember the heinous crime that happened only a few days ago, when a young man and woman were beaten and insulted by white, disgusting, white supremacist bigots.” So much for this network’s “political neutrality.” “Well, these two non-white brave young people have come today to speak up. Please, give them a warm applause.”

The “applause” sign lights on. The audience automatically claps and cheers. I blush. “So tell me,” she continues once the audience settles down, “what happened?” “Well,” I start, “as millions have already seen from the video of the attack, they came at us without provocation, and when I tried to stand up to them, they—” I lower my voice until I’m mute. “Come on,” she says gently, “you can tell us. This is a safe space.” “Well, they… they punched me and beat my friend…” The “outrage” sign lights on. The audience automatically becomes outraged.

“Those white males punched a girl and beat a defenseless boy for, what exactly?” she asks. “I don’t…” I say shaking my head. “I have no idea what could possibly be going on inside their minds at that moment. Or anyone who acts like them, honestly. It just doesn’t make sense to me how some people can think they are better than others judging by the color of their skin, or that women are somehow inferior than men. I simply don’t understand.”

The “applause” sign lights on and the audience claps. “Thank you so much for joining us, truly,” says the hostess. “Now, how are you feeling?” she asks, turning to my friend. “Well…” he starts shyly, not making eye contact with her. “I guess I’m… I’m still recovering.” “I heard you received plenty of supportive messages and even donations, is that correct?” “Yes,” he says. “I’m genuinely amazed by people in this country. They either beat you to death or give you money.” An “applause” sign lights up. The joke was unscripted, though, and the hostess’ right eye twitches. She still smiles, though. “Seriously though, I’m very grateful.” The audience once again bursts in applause after the “applause” sign lights on.

“Hey,” says the hostess. “We’ve put together a short slideshow. Would you mind if we show it to the audience?” “Sure, go ahead,” he agrees, oblivious to what the slideshow is about. The lights dim. A screen behind us lightens up and begins showing images of him as a baby with his parents. “He was just a regular child,” says dramatically a man’s voice. Then as he grows older, “He led an honest life.” The audience goes “Aww,” looking at the innocent child.

I can see my friend freaking out, completely embarrassed that his childhood pictures are being shown on national television. Good thing we’re dark and nobody sees us. I grab his hand and breathe deeply. He follows my lead and calms down. Then suddenly, out of the blue, frames of the beating appear with spatters of blood added for dramatic purposes. “And now this poor boy has been assaulted,” says the narrator. Then pictures of him in the hospital bed, with tubes, as loud and dramatic music plays. “He was on the verge of death!” The audience is outraged. The music’s crescendo ends and with it the slideshow.

“So tell us,” says the hostess, “is there something else any of you would like to say before we wrap up?” “Yes,” I say. “We would like people who have suffered discrimination in their lives to tweet about it accompanied by #tol. We need to share our experiences and help each other fight bullies.”

The audience cheers and claps. Then the hostess says, “Stay tuned for more news at our next show, ‘state of the states.’” The camera finally turns off, and the hostess’s face changes from a gentle smile into a tired, angry expression. Two frightened boys rush in with food and water. She waves them off like flies. She turns to look at the audience. “Good audience. Good,” she says like she was speaking to her dog. “There’s treats for all of you at the table, come, come.” Then she picks up a scotch bottle and a plastic cup and goes into a room alone.

My friend and I are led to a waiting room. “She wants to say something to you, and she… asked if you could please wait a sec here.” Yeah, I’m sure she “asked.” Half an hour later she comes out of the room, reeking of booze. We take pictures which she posts to her social media, where you can’t smell alcohol. “You can leave now,” she says to us without looking up from her phone, merely waving us off with her hand.

§ Plans of mice and women

Like an old man without hope nor purpose, summer slowly dies down. My roommate and I become… closer. She says “I love you.” I lie and tell her I love her back, even though… and it pains me to say this, but I don’t. I don’t think I love anyone. What’s worse, I don’t think I can love anyone anymore… At least not romantically. But I believe in her and what she wants to do.

She introduces me to people from different committees, subcommittees, movements, organizations and lobbies. Each is involved to some measure with her mission, yet each has their own agenda. We travel in the new tol delegation van across the country, bought with the money raised after the assault. “We” includes me, my roommate (I guess I should call her girlfriend), her brother, my arab friend and my friend from school.

But as the deadline for the beginning of classes approaches, I become increasingly stressed, and take it out on our male friends. Only two days away from our return to college, my girlfriend’s brother announces with a pale face over breakfast: “Look what we received last night.” He shows us an email with the pictures and addresses of the two guys that assaulted us. “We should call the police,” says my girlfriend. Her brother and my arab friend both nod. “Ok,” I concede. But I feel like this is not enough. We should confront them… or well, someone should. “We’ll call when we’re back at campus,” her brother says, and we agree.

The idea of those two monsters roaming free festers on my mind the whole night. As my girlfriend’s brother is driving us back to college the next morning, I open my mouth and say “Don’t you think it will be too little, too late?” “What will?” asks the brother. “What the police will do to them,” I answer. They stay quiet. “No, they will be in prison for years,” says my arab friend. “Well, maybe not so long,” says my friend from school.

“You see,” she continues, “they will only be charged with assault, get a couple of years which they can get out of soon thanks to good behavior. And then they’ll know where to find us.” My arab friend becomes clearly upset. He thought they were going away for good.

“Well,” he says trying to calm himself, “we can just get a restraining order.” “Ha,” I chuckle, “right, because no woman was ever killed by her husband if she had a restraining order against him.” There’s silence in the van for a whole minute. “So what do you want to do, huh!?” breaks out my arab friend. “Go there and stand up to them on camera, again? Great, maybe this time they will actually kill you. I know you’d love that because then you’d have like sixteen million views. You’d get the whole evening show for yourself: ‘Interview of a dead woman.’”

“Oh shut it, like you didn’t play the victim,” my girlfriend snaps at him. Her brother hits the brakes hard. Drivers behind and beside us scream profanities as they speed by. “Can we please just… like f-wording drive in peace?” asks her brother calmly. My girlfriend and I mutter a feeble “ok.” One hour or two later, my arab friend speaks again. “So what is it you want to do to them, exactly?”

“Maybe we could dox them,” I say, looking through the window. “What? What’s that?” my arab friend asks. “She means expose their identities, like, leak the info we have,” says my friend from school. “That way people will know who they are and get a chance to make them know how much they are hated. Maybe then those bullies can sympathize with their victims. Now that would be justice.”

“I agree with her,” I say looking at my friend from school through the rear view mirror. My girlfriend instantly takes my hand. I sense jealousy. I smile back and caress my girlfriend’s face, making the two boys uncomfortable. After some hesitation and debate, he agrees to do it. We all look at her brother. “Ok, so what do we do now?” he asks. “Simple,” I say. “We leak the information and watch it play out.”

§ Doxed

I write the comment quickly and post it anonymously to one of our social media profiles: “Hi. Just saw the 2 guys that beat 2 of our members sum weeks ago, they walked into an appartment block together. theyre address on the link.” The link points to an application where you can see the location on a map.

We also comment on their social media profiles exposing them. Others soon discover who they are and spread the message. Within the hour, several thousand people knows who they are. Only two hours later, we park near their apartment, and see people starting to flock over there.

“I don’t feel ok with this,” starts my arab friend, uneasy. “Oh, don’t worry, police will be here any minute and they both will be arrested.” Concerned citizens are quickly piling up in front of the apartment. Cries of “Racists! Bigots! Come out cowards!” start to spread. The two are in their apartment, and one of them comes outside.

“What the f-word are y’all doing here?” yells one of the bullies threateningly. He is booed by the crowd. “Shame!” yells a concerned citizen. “Shame! Shame!” begins chanting the flock of concerned citizen. “Get off my property, I’m calling the police!” he threatens. But they continue to chant. Someone throws a rock at him.

“Ok, what is going on?” says my arab friend. “Stop it,” he says putting his hand on the door, but my girlfriend’s brother is sitting on the driver seat and he locks the van’s doors. My arab friend looks at me looking for answers. “They deserve it,” says my girlfriend. “Hey, stop, ok, I’m sorry,” says the bully, trying to walk back, but he’s quickly surrounded.

I begin recording the scene. The chanting grows louder and they begin throwing stuff at him. Rotten tomatoes, garbage… anything they can find. Then a small group surrounds him and starts beating him. “You’re not so tough now, huh?” a woman screams at him. It’s mesmerizing, like watching ants devour a pigeon. The brother rushes out of the house. “Get the f-word away from my brother!” he says waving a pistol. “What the f-word have you done to him!” he screams in distress.

“F-word, f-word, f-word,” says my arab friend. “They’re going to shoot people! Oh what the f-word have you done!” The bully fires a few rounds into the flock, which quickly disperses fleeing from him. He chases down some of them and shoots them down. Everyone inside the van ducks so they won’t see us. I keep filming. “Holy s-word, do you think he saw us?” asks my roommate. “Look! He’s coming! Stay down, stay down!”

The sound of sirens is a relief. We’re saved. It gets closer and closer. We hear him running toward the entrance of his apartment block. I look up again and see him kneeling over his brother, who is struggling for his life. “What are you doing, get down,” whispers frantically my roommate’s brother, but I barely pay him any attention as I keep filming.

The scene is very touching. One brother holding another in his arms. Despite what they’ve done, I feel… Police cars suddenly flood the neighborhood, and men with guns quickly surround the two brothers. The one still conscious holds a pistol while he rocks his dying brother and weeps. “Police, freeze!” shouts one of the officers.

The bully that is still conscious raises the arm with the pistol, like he’s about to shoot. The police shoot them both down until they stop moving and a red river flows down into the street.

§ Due process

By the time the detectives are questioning us at the police station, the video has already gathered over a million views. Sitting in the interrogation room, I can feel my hands shaking. I explain only what the cops need to know; namely, that when we saw where they were, we went to pay them a visit. I don’t mention we were the ones who leaked it.

“So you, what, just decided to record them being humiliated and beaten at their own house?” asks me a detective. “Look,” I say, “as I have explained, we did nothing to them, only watched it happen. They didn’t deserve to die, but what do you want us to do?”

“Tell the truth!” he bursts out. “I know you’re hiding something from me. You set this up, you knew it would happen.” I am close to a panic attack. “You filthy little liar. I’m tired of little b—” He holds his tongue from saying “b-word.” “Of you brats getting away with anything because you have money and a pretty face.” Someone knocks on the door. “Not now!” yells the detective angrily, but the knock persists. “There is a lawyer here to see her,” quietly explains a police officer.

“Did you ask for a lawyer!?” shouts the detective. I shake my head. The lawyer walks in anyway. “You,” he says pointing to me. “Don’t say another word. You,” he says pointing at the detective. “I will deal with you later. Now get out.” The lawyer sits down in front of me. “Look, this… old dog is out for you. But they’ve got nothing. Just come with me, I’ll get you out of here. The others are waiting.”

He stands up. “Wait,” I say, stopping him. “Who are you?” He sits back down. “I’m sorry, princess, you’re right.” He hands me a card that says “Best lawyer.” “I’m one of natdec’s lawyers. We actually met before, at that tol event with the speeches.” True. I remember him now. “Oh, right, sorry, it’s just with the stress, and—” He smiles and says “don’t worry” as he pulls out papers from his briefcase.

Oh right, I should explain natdec: it’s an important liberal organization which happens to govern and fund tol. My girlfriend’s uncle is an important chairman in its executive board. As we exit the building, I see policemen rushing to their cars. “There’s been another fire,” I hear them say. “Is it him again?” another asks. Amid the people rushing, I can see the detective following us around, watching closely. Outside, my girlfriend, her brother, my friend from school and my arab friend are waiting. My girlfriend hugs me and I hug her back. My arab friend looks away, clearly angry at me. We get into a car and the lawyer drives us to campus. For some eight minutes, my arab friend mutters things to himself. “Is something wrong?” I finally ask.

“You had to dox them!” he yells at me. “Why, why, why!? Four people dead, including the brother. Another two with permanent damage. And the brother who opened fire will spend his life in prison for—” “Wait, what?” I interrupt him. “Yes, he somehow survived. But he will be in prison for a long time,” he explains. It chills my blood.

What if he gets out and seeks us? What if he learns what we did? “If only you had kept your big mouth shut…” he sighs. I slap his face. “We made the decision. We!” I yell at him. “So don’t you dare blame it on me.” The rest of the ride we spend in awkward silence. We finally get to the campus, say goodbye to our lawyer, and go to our room.

My arab friend just walks away in silence. When my girlfriend and I enter our room, she pulls out a bottle of scotch and pours two glasses. I stare at the liquid, thinking about all the damage it has done, and push it away. But she offers it again and again until I accept.

We get drunk together. So drunk that I start to cry because she looks so much like my sister. I tell her about… you know, what happened to me before campus. She holds my hands and at some point tries to read poetry for me, but she’s so drunk she just ends up puking while I hold her hair. Still, that doesn’t stop her from trying to kiss me.

§ Moral high ground

We wake up the next day incredibly hangover. I feel like all the water in my body has been sucked dry by the alcohol. I open the kitchen tab and start drinking as much water as I can, then prepare some coffee. “Someone kill me…” my roommate says from the bedroom. I bring her the first coffee I make, which she thanks with a smile, then make my own. “Today we’re going to see uncle,” she announces from her bedroom. “About the… shootout?” I ask. “About a lot of things,” she replies.

I have a feeling of what’s at stake here. My future. Well, our future. “Sure, what time is it?” I ask. “Uhm… Two?” she says. “Let me see…” After a minute fighting with her phone’s interface she finally says “Yeah, it’s at two. We’re also meeting the lawyer, my brother and his assistant.” Instead of our usual talk, we spend lunch in silence, with a blank stare on our face thinking of the two bullies bleeding out on the street as cops handcuff them. I feel out of my body throughout the whole day, like I’m in some strange world. My girlfriend’s uncle waits for us in a luxury hotel in town. “Good to see you, dear,” he greets his niece with a kiss on the cheek. He barely glances at me.

My girlfriend, her brother, his assistant (my arab friend,) my friend from school and I all sit down with her uncle. All of us saw what happened first hand and are still in shock, though some more than others. “The police has launched an investigation into the leak,” explains the lawyer. I look away, worried. “Is there anything that can implicate any of you?” asks her uncle. We all stay mute at first. “No, uncle, trust me,” jumps my girlfriend’s brother. “She used an anonymous—” “What did you use, a phone?” interrupts his uncle. He nods. “Did you throw it away?” I feel my face starting to burn. “No, she still has it.”

He looks at me. It’s like a titanic fiery eye focusing all its fire on me. “Are you f-wording stupid!? Take it out.” I oblige. “For f-words sake, we taught you to be smarter than this,” he says to his niece and nephew. Then he takes my phone, removes the card, smashes it, throws everything in the toilet and flushes. “But we posted it from a cafeteria, using a fake account. There wasn’t anything there…” her brother tries to explain. But his uncle shakes his head. “You put in danger… you don’t even know what you’ve put in danger. You’re both a couple of ungrateful brats! Zero, zero respect for tradition… Why even do it!? Why!?”

“Look, uncle, what’s done is done,” starts my girlfriend calmly. “No point in lamenting. Now it’s time for damage control, and it looks like there’s no damage. We didn’t do it on a whim, we didn’t do it out of spite. We did what was right. We made justice happen when no one else would.” She stands up. “And if you think I’m going to do nothing when I know I can make a difference, well, think again. Maybe I don’t care so much about your precious ‘legacy’ so much as I care about what’s right. And if that’s a problem, I will manage on my own.”

Her uncle opens his mouth to talk, then shuts up. Right then and there I realize: as long as she has a political future, she has him under her thumb. It’s her uncle who has the most to lose. What I don’t get is why he treats his nephew so poorly… “Can you at least promise none of this can go public?” my girlfriend’s uncle asks. “Only the people in this room know,” her brother says. “Oh, well, and whoever sent us the info,” says my friend from school. “But that doesn’t prove anything. It was sent to one of tol’s email addresses, so the leak can always be blamed on some aide or—” “Are you people even listening to yourselves?” my arab friend interrupts.

“Who, who’s this again?” says her uncle. “You… you people are talking about blaming someone else… and covering your tracks. Are you… are you forgetting people actually died? Four people died yesterday, and it’s on us. Did you sleep last night? Because I didn’t, and I hope you couldn’t either. Those people are, like… gone forever because of a decision you made.” He’s looking directly at me. “Wait a second mister,” says my girlfriend raising her voice. “We made that decision, and you agreed. Don’t try to pin this on us. And cut the moral high ground drama crap.”

My arab friend stands up, as if repulsed by the chair he’s sitting in. “Look…” he sighs. “I joined you because… well, because I thought you were good and could make a difference… I didn’t… expect this. So I think it’ll be better if I just resign.” I feel the hairs in my back stand up. And by the look on the faces of the rest of the people in the room, the same thing happens to them. “Don’t worry,” he says as if sensing our concern. “I won’t expose you… even if I should. No, I want to get away from you people and try to have a life while I can.”

“You ungrateful f…” starts my girlfriend’s brother. “No, no, let him alone,” says my friend from school. “It looks like he’s made up his mind.” My arab friend exits the room. “Give me a moment,” I say before following him outside. “I’m sorry about what happened, it was never-I-I—” I mutter. “You can also leave them, it’s not too late yet. But if you stay with them… well, I don’t know what will become of you.”

“Stop demonizing them,” I burst. “What happened to you? When I met you, you were funny and…” “They happened. What we did yesterday happened.” I’m mad now. “You see… you see everything black and white! Well it’s not. You didn’t want to play victim on tv? Fine. But you know what? We got thousands of dollars out of that, which we used to promote fairness and—” “Fairness?” he asks. “How can we promote fairness if we’re the first to avoid justice and use influence to hide crimes. You have no idea what they do. You think you do, but you don’t. And I can’t stand it one more second. I-I don’t want to see you or any of them ever again.”

He turns around and leaves. I stand there for a moment, feeling very violent. My gut burns. I hate him for saying those things. I hate him for hating me, for hating us. I walk back into the room. “… explore other options,” I hear my friend from school say as I come back in.

§ The patriarchy

It’s been two weeks and still no word - don’t I deserve it? He doesn’t return my calls, or my texts, and he won’t answer the door. Why? Why does he blame me? It irritates me. No, it drives me crazy. I need to make things right. Anyway… in the meantime I attend college and prepare for her campaign. The primary election for mayor is in only four months. I spend more and more time with her, correcting speeches, and taking on new responsibilities.

We train for her interviews, we attend every relevant social event, we hold dinners for relevant donors… It takes me a full two weeks to realize I have to choose: I can either work on her campaign full time or study. She finished law school last year. “… you know, you don’t really lose the whole year, only the first semester,” she mentions during lunch. “Besides, it’d be nice to take a break from studying, wouldn’t it? I was actually tired of studying all that ‘history of law’ nobody gives a—” “Ok, ok, I get it,” I interrupt her.

She stops and looks down to her plate. “I’m sorry, it’s just I… I really need you. I don’t think I can do this on my own.” I sigh and take her hand. “I know, I know. Don’t worry.” Putting all my eggs in this basket may not be the best idea, but I can’t leave her hanging.

At first it seems like she’s going to obliterate the other candidates. She’s a young, clear voice denouncing relevant social and economic issues. The mainstream liberal candidate is an old, boring pasty white fossil out of touch with the world - in an interview, he actually said “We need an agency to investigate people who use that… the… that green frog that white supremacists use as their pet.” Feels bad man.

The others are relevant, sure, but… you know. They are all experienced politicians: a couple of former congressmen, political commentators, two actors and other committee executives. But at the start of the second week of campaigning, the favorite liberal candidate has a massive stroke after ingesting several pounds of shellfish during a fundraising dinner. Obviously, he has to step down, and another individual (who, interestingly enough, was at the dinner where the former candidate almost died) receives the support of both natdec and the president. “Don’t worry, people are bored of rich white men telling them what’s best for them,” says my girlfriend.

I feel like she’s underestimating the man. After a little research, I can see he has had a relatively calm career. He’s a solid public servant with thirty-two years of experience, a wife, kids and no scandals. His platform is straightforward: he wants to get the city out of its prolonged recession and attract federal funds for his many social security programs. He projects confidence, stability and reliability. The race will be close, no doubt.

The first public debate we have scheduled is in only two weeks, and she has never actually… well, participated in one. Her uncle sends us a team of two people to train. Each day we go over questions about her political agenda for at least two hours. They try to corner her, but she manages to stay on top. When they say she’s too young and inexperienced, she counters that by saying “I won’t make the same mistakes they (current and former corrupt officers) have made.” It all looks promising.

Finally the moment comes to face natdec’s candidate and a radical liberal in a face-to-face debate. It’s held in a large auditorium, broadcasted over internet, radio and tv. For the first half hour, everything goes fine. But then, natdec’s candidate begins building up pressure. “… I’m sorry, but I think you’re being paranoid here,” he says. “Just look at the statistics. There’s only two men in the city council, and there’s only two white members! I believe that accurately reflects our racial situation.”

He is cheered and applauded by the audience. She comes back quickly: “Maybe in the council, yes. But what about the many chairmans, the attorney general, or the chief of police? That’s a nice, cozy white men’s club they’ve got going on there. And not precisely a very legal one.” Part of the audience bursts in laughter. “You know, you’re right about that,” he replies. “Corruption is intolerable, and a small group hoarding all the power is also unacceptable. Which is why I said I will not only clean the streets, but I will also clean the executive offices.”

“You know you wouldn’t have to do that if your party hadn’t corrupted it in the first place…” she snaps. I can see her getting upset. It’s exactly what I was afraid of. She walked into this thinking she had all the support. “You know,” he starts. “Those scandals have nothing to do with this election: they are affiliated to a party that backs me, but… I mean neither I nor many other members of my party have nothing to do with them. Also, you know there’s many men and women doing an incredible job at the city hall who had nothing to do with those other officers, right?”

“In fact, now that you’re on the topic of public servants…” he goes on. I can already see where this is going. “I wanted to ask you: how are you qualified to this office? From what I know, all you’ve done is tweet and prepare violent protests, and never had to solve any actual problems.” She opens her mouth to say “well, I—” but he continues talking. “What are you going to do to get us out of recession, if you even have anything planned?” Again she opens her mouth but he goes on. “Will you go running to your uncle whenever you have a problem?”

“Ok, I think that’s enough…” starts the “mediator,” but she’s already lost her composure. “You know what I find really funny about people like you?” she lashes out. I close my fingers and pray she sticks to racial issues. “You think, because you’ve been entitled your whole life—” “Entitled to what?” he interrupts her. “Entitled to being a rich white cis male born in a first-world country. Entitled to having family ties to politics you have used to get here. What do I have to show for myself? No, what do you—” she points a finger at him “… have to prove you’re actually a good manager and not just someone born into power?”

The radical candidate limits himself to watching the other two battle it out. He may as well be eating glue. “Look, hon—” he interrupts himself before he says the full word. “You are—” “No, no, no,” she interrupts him. “Finish that sentence. Say what you wanted to say: honey” she makes it sound so dirty, I love it. He says nothing. “Right then and there. You just showed your attitude toward women and the source of all your problems with me. It’s not my age, it’s not my political experience, it’s not my uncle: it’s my gender!”

Many people in the room applaud her, and others boo her. “Please, order, please,” asks the mediator unconvincingly. He looks french. “I think you are blowing what I said out of proportion. Yes, I was going to call you honey, because you are a young, beautiful girl. Is that wrong? Me, and the rest of the men and women in this room, still respect you as a candidate, even if some of us might call you ‘honey,’ which is something I call my kids.”

The crowd’s shouting becomes louder. There’s people protesting the words he used, and people protesting the people protesting. The mediator surrenders and shuts down the debate, claiming there’s “a threat to the candidates’s safety.” My girlfriend steps down and we walk to the car. “How did I do?” she asks. I smile back and say, “You did great… I-I’m so proud.”

§ Real lives matter

I listen to the words coming out of the tv and can’t quite believe it. “… there’s sixteen dead so far, and many more are presumed to be buried under the structure. This is now the fourth fire of what is suspected to be a serial arsonist. The police have absolutely no clues regarding the man that has taken so many innocent lives already and caused millions in damages to public infrastructure. The—” My girlfriend turns it off. “It’s awful. Who would… who would do something like this?” she asks.

I stay silent for a moment. “You know… it’s horrible, but… this actually benefits us.” She pulls away from me in horror. “What… how?” She asks. “For the election, at least,” I say. “Your main, and maybe only real opponent has defended cutting down funds for law enforcement. This fire is your chance to show everyone he’s wrong.” She hesitates. “But I will lose the support of Real Lives Matter,” she says. “I know, I already thought of that,” I reply. “That’s why you will also announce that when you’re elected, you will organize a civil commission to look into black suspect deaths by police gunfire.”

“I guess,” she says. “… I should ask my uncle first if…” “Don’t worry,” I interrupt her. “I had the idea while you were in the debate, which is when the story broke. I asked him and he agreed. In fact, he suggested that the commission should be civil instead of a police department for additional clarity.” Her face is like I’ve been running my nails across a chalkboard this whole time. “You… you talk to my uncle like that?” she asks, being far from happy about it.

“Someone has to run your campaign, you know,” I explain. “And he’s been very helpful, really.” She pulls away from me. “Ok, now you’re starting to freak me out,” she says. I reach out to take her hand, but she rejects me. “I-I’m going to take a… to sleep,” she says. She doesn’t like being managed. I can’t let her see me like she sees her uncle. As I’m sitting in silence, thinking about the campaign, I get a text. “your arab friend is in the hospital, yuou should come.” I come to her door to knock, but decide it’s better to let her sleep. I leave a note in the kitchen and drive away.

Of course, I forgot to mention. We have our own apartment and two cars now. All paid for by tol. I get to the hospital, walk to room 128 and knock softly. My girlfriend’s brother comes out. “Good, you’re here. Come in.” Once again I find the poor guy in a hospital bed. The left half of his face is completely bandaged. “Please, leave,” he says without looking at me. I can see a tear run down his right cheek. I come closer. “Leave, leave, leave! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” he screams and I freeze. My girlfriend’s brother takes me gently by the arm and guides me out.

We go to the hospital’s cafeteria, order some coffee and sit down. “Look,” he starts after a while in silence. “Don’t take it personally. He just… he needs time. Did you know that night, when you both were attacked, he was going to tell you he had a crush on you?” He catches me by surprise. “I had no idea, honestly,” I reply. Although I admit I suspected he had feelings. “You have to understand what this means to him. He thinks he’s lost you forever, he said it himself. He’s… angry. Very angry.”

After we’ve been eating in silence for a while, I ask: “And how… you know… How did it happen?” He sighs. “It was the big fire caused by that arsonist. His cubicle was in the top floor, and when the fire—” “His cubicle?” I interrupt. “Does he work there?” He lifts his eyes from the coffee to look at me. “Yes. I didn’t mention? Sorry. He works in technical support now. Well, more like worked.” I sense a slight smile. “I’m not sure there will be much of that company left after what happened.”

I stay in silence for a while as I drink my coffee. “Well, I’ve gotta go now,” I say. “We’re making an announcement after what happened, and she…” “It’s ok, you don’t have to explain,” he says. I leave the hospital feeling like I’m the cause of my arab friend’s misery. On the way home, I begin to prepare mentally my girlfriend’s speech. In it, she attacks our major opponent, claiming we need additional funds for law enforcement. But she doesn’t stop there. Of course not. She also attacks the current administration, for being so corrupt that it allowed a building well below the safety requirements to operate, “at the expense of sixteen human lifes.” She also blames the current police chief for failing to produce any leads on the arsonist.

She also… what the hell, I will tell you what I have in mind: “… And what about the police chief? We’re talking about a man who has the record of black suspects dead by gunfire under his watch. But now that it’s time to catch actual killers and not petty thieves, he has nothing! I ask, wait no, enough with the mild rhetoric. I demand he resigns! Now is the time for change, and it’s up to us, not the people in power. Your vote makes a difference. You make a difference!”

If only I could say the words myself…

§ The arsonist

She delivers my speech in front of an auditorium full of supporters and people from tol. I silently follow her with my mouth, word for word, feeling my words fill the room. During the next days, the tide turns in our favor. More fires, more police incompetence and a black man shot after trying to escape from the police help us too. We’re headed for a victory in full swing. She’s confident, strong and charming. With only one week left, I begin to feel anxious. We’re so close, yet it feels so far… As I’m preparing some breakfast for us while she still sleeps, I turn on the tv, dreading some news that will destroy us. I sigh with relief: there’s nothing.

Today we have several acts scheduled. She’s been giving talks at high-schools, associations, clubs, and colleges. This morning we have one in a high-school, then a live interview. She wants to save her energy for the “actual elections,” as she calls them. But I’m not so confident and want to make sure we nail the primaries. This last week I’ve had this… feeling of expectation. Like something is about to go wrong, horribly wrong. Irreparably wrong. But I keep it to myself.

The high school talk goes fantastic. The kids love her. And some not-so-kids actually love her, shamelessly looking at her a-word (a s s) and breasts. The live interview is another matter entirely. We’ve already done a couple, but I still worry. The start is slow, with questions about her platform, and what she’ll do in office, etc. Then it gets more interesting after the interviewer says “… so you would be… both the first female and youngest mayor in the history of the city. How do you feel about that?” She smiles gracefully. “I guess that would be a good, a very good sign of-of change, and possibly give hope to other women across the country. In fact—” She’s interrupted by the annoying message sounds of phones bleeping. “W-what’s going on?” I ask to a guy from production behind me who’s looking at his phone.

“Oh man, you won’t believe this,” he says. I look at the phone. There’s a picture of my arab friend with half his face burned. “I don’t know wh—” I say. He scrolls up and I read the title. “THE ARSONIST.” At first I pull back. I take out my phone and quickly scan the news feed. “… compelling evidence was found at the suspect’s apartment, who is now on the run, and suspected to be armed. Apparently, he—” I stop reading to look at my girlfriend in horror. She’s gone on talking and doesn’t know yet. The interviewer is listening to production through an earbud. I tell her to “cut talking” visually by moving my right hand in front of my neck as if cutting it. She frowns at me and keeps talking with confidence.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” says the interviewer. “Apparently there’s a suspect for the fires, and you know him.” His face appears on a large screen in front of them. She immediately takes her hands to her mouth. “I—” she starts. “… there must be some kind of mistake.” After listening through her earbud, the interviewer says: “Bottles of kerosene have been found in the apartment, along with an… altar with pictures of your campaign manager. Yep, that’s me. There’s also disturbing writing on the walls about torching people alive and ‘making her pay.’ What can you tell us about all this?”

I’m caught by surprise. What’s worse, my girlfriend’s caught completely off guard. She stays quiet. “Wire me up,” I order a crewman. He obliges and I step into the stage, sitting by my girlfriend’s side. “For those watching, the campaign manager is now joining us,” announces the interviewer. “Look, before saying anything,” I say. “We need to learn what actually happened. That’s why she’s decided to remain silent.”

“But what do you have to say about the altar?” she asks. “As I’ve said, until we learn all the facts, I don’t want to venture an opinion. I will say this: that he had a shrine to me, and kerosene, and incriminating letters is not enough. Justice is based on the assumption that men are innocent until proven guilty. Now—” “But you must admit, it… doesn’t look good right?” she interrupts me. “Look, I will not attack a colleague and friend until I learn more. Now, if you have any other question about our platform…”

She smiles. “Wasn’t your platform kind of based on ‘being the good guys?’ I mean—” I stand up and help my girlfriend up. “Ok, I see you have no interest in our platform,” I say. “We’re leaving now.” We walk out of there, me with my head held high, and my girlfriend… well, in a daze. We get into the car and I drive. “I-I f-froze,” she babbles. “It’s ok, don’t worry,” I say. A committee of vulture journalists is already gathered in front of our apartment, prepared to feed on us. I drive past it and head for a hotel.

My girlfriend seems to sink deeper and deeper into self-pity. “… it’s over,” she says. “We lost.” I hit the brakes, quickly pull over and park in a not-very-legal fashion. “Don’t you give up now, you hear me?” I threaten, but she doesn’t answer. “You hear me!?” I yell. “We lost it, you need to start accepting that…” she sighs. “No, no, no,” I say. “You don’t get to quit now.” She smiles. “Come on, we’re a joke. How can we ask for more law enforcement with a murderer in our ranks? A murderer I personally recommended. How—” Her throat shuts. “How am I going to stand in front of a camera and ask them to trust me when this happened?” She takes her hands to her face. “Oh god… we were vicious when we had the upper hand. You know how bad we’re going to be rammed by the media, the other candidates… Even regular people. No, I… we’re… we’re done.”

§ Hanging by a thread

Every day I begged her to explain herself, to get ahead of the story. Maybe it would have made a difference, who knows. As the election got closer, news about “the arsonist” flooded national tv. The police tracked him down to a building, but then the building caught fire and he managed to escape. Meanwhile, we became lepers. All the funds for the campaign were withdrawn. Her uncle said, “don’t worry, in a couple of years nobody will remember all this and you’ll have another shot.”

And she kept her head down as the other candidate steamrolled her in the primaries. After that, she became… well, gloomy to say the least. She hasn’t gone out after that. It’s been two weeks after the election already and she still won’t go out, or talk to anyone but me, or eat… I’ve expressed my concerns to my friend from school, who has been promoted and now heads tol. In fact, she was kind enough to restore my position there. During dinner at her place, she dismisses my concerns: “She’ll be fine,” she says. “She needs time to recover from the whole thing.”

“I mean, maybe you’re right,” I say. “… but she doesn’t seem to recover. It’s been two weeks since the election, and she stills refuses to talk about it. What are we going to do now? I left law school to help her, and now her dreams are up in flames. And you taking over tol hasn’t exactly helped her either… Not that I blame you, of course. You’re doing a great job.” She smiles at the compliment. “I think you should start looking at getting back to college,” she says. “I’m sure her uncle can get you back without much trouble.”

We stay in silence for a few moments. “Ok, I haven’t told you everything,” I say. “She has started drinking… heavily. I can’t stand being there when she… it reminds me of… well, you know who.” My friend from school takes my hand. “You can come live with me, if you want to…” she says. I’m tempted by the offer, but I can’t. “No, I have to stand by her side. Otherwise, I don’t know what will happen to her… I’ve seen her mix antidepressants with wine during dinner. I’ve warned her, but she resents me for what happened—”

“Look,” she says sternly. “It’s great that you want to look after her. It’s great that you want to help her. But I remember how you were after your adoptive mother… you know. And it wasn’t fair. You have to think about yourself too, otherwise—” “Please,” I interrupt her. “you don’t understand. I can’t let her become… like that. Not if I can stop it.”

After dinner, I return to our apartment. My girlfriend’s drunk. The next two months I try to help her quit drinking. I set up an intervention with her brother and my friend from school, but she accuses us of being paranoid and runs from us. I stand her abuse without complaining and spend increasingly less time home. Finally, one day after working all day at tol, I get home and she’s on the couch with a bottle of tequila, watching tv. “Ahoy matey… Come aboard!” she greets me, clearly drunk, and it just makes me see red. I wrestle the bottle away from her arms. “No, no,” she pitifully screams after I finally manage to pull it from her. “You are trying to replace me with… this?” I ask. She returns her look to the tv, pulls another bottle she had hidden under the couch and opens it, smiling smugly. “… at least it doesn’t b-word and moan all day…” she mutters, suckling from the bottle.

“Ok, that’s it!” I say calmly. “The other day my friend from school offered me to live with her until you… pull yourself together, and I’m going to accept her offer.” She smiles as she takes another drink. I start picking up my stuff and putting it in a bag. “Good, say ‘hi’ to that backstabbing, girlfriend-stealing b-word for me. If my job wasn’t enough, she also had to take you from me…” I stop for a moment and wipe the tears from my eyes. “Look, nobody but you ‘stole me.’ I told you what my… mother did. I told you I would never accept a drunk. And still I’ve stuck with you this long. But I’m done. Don’t call me again until you’re sober.”

I slam my room’s door and go on packing, unable to stop the tears from pouring. Finally I’m done and come out. The tv is off and she’s crying, crawled up in a ball. “Don’t… don’t leave like this… please,” she sobs. “I can’t stand what I’ve become…” She reaches for my hand, but I refuse to touch her. “If you had just—” but I stop myself. “What?” she asks, sobbing. “If you had just accepted defeat, I wouldn’t have thought less of you. But no, you had to crash into flames. What about tol, huh? You abandoned that as well, and if it hadn’t been for my friend from—”

“Don’t talk about her please!” she jumps at me. “I couldn’t stand it now… please.” “I should have been her roommate, not yours,” I say. “By now I would be finishing college—” “Don’t say that please,” she interrupts me, crying, but I go on talking. “I would be ready to join a nice firm and start my life… possibly with her even.” She’s just crying now. “I’m leaving, and now I’m not even sure… I’m not sure I want to see you anymore,” I say.

She grabs my arm one last time. “Don’t do this, please.” I push her away and leave the apartment. I walk away from her cries, from her drama and all this pain. It’s late into the night, but I don’t care, I just need to keep walking. As long as I’m out here, the world is on hold. I know I didn’t mean what I said and just wanted to hurt her. It was selfish, and I blame myself. Tomorrow I will tell her I’m sorry. But tonight I can’t stand her one more minute.

I fall asleep on a bench at a nearby park, and only sunrise manages to wake me up. I feel bad for what I’ve done to her, but I guess it’s for the better. Still, I can’t help but feel I could have gone down a different path. But who knows where that would’ve led me. I go directly to my office at tol, where I see her brother is also in early. After doubting whether or not I should say something, I finally enter his office and say “I’m concerned about your sister.” He frowns. “Why?” “Didn’t she call you yesterday?” I ask.

“No, why, what’s going on?” he asks, also worriedly. “Look, yesterday she was in bad shape. She was drinking, and we…” I sigh deeply. “We had an ugly fight. Look, I tried calling her now but she won’t pick up…” I pause, starting to truly worry. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so rough. He starts preparing coffee, more relaxed. “Oh, don’t worry. She’s quite the drama queen, as you know by now. She’ll get over it.” I find it strange that he talks about her this way. “Still, I think we should both talk to her today.” He sighs, showing he doesn’t really want the drama. “Fine…” he finally concedes.

After we have had breakfast, at around eight am, we drive to the apartment. I knock on the door several times and text her, but there’s no response. “Maybe she’s sleeping? Or she has gone out,” I say. “No, I don’t think so. Give me the key,” he asks. He opens the door and we come inside. There she is, on the same couch I left her last night, with an empty bottle of painkillers on the floor and an almost-empty bottle of tequila. “Sis, wake up,” he says, not noticing the pills. “Uhm…” I start, but he doesn’t listen to me. “Come on, can you hear me, it’s us? Sis!”

I take my hands to my mouth. He notices me staring and looks at what I’m looking, the bottle of pills. Her face is pale, looking nowhere with an empty stare. “Holy s-word! What have you done!?” he starts shaking her. “Call an ambulance! Quick!” he commands, and I obey. He breathes air into her lungs, and pounds her chest, screaming “wake up!” People start to gather outside the room, drawn in by the noise. We stay in that dreadful state of panic until the paramedics come.

Shortly after inspecting her they tell us it’s over, she’s gone, and close her eyes. Her brother breaks down crying. I just… I… I have no words.

§ Make the country great again

When she died, it made everyone feel like all the happiness, all the cheerfulness had been sucked out of the world, and that all that remained was a cruel, empty joke. At the funeral… Oh the funeral. I couldn’t bear her uncle and aunt’s faces. They simply couldn’t understand how someone so young, who oozed kindness, could have… When they approached me, I thought they would scream at me, blame me for everything. But no, they hugged me and we cried together.

My friend from school took me in. If I was a little weaker, I would’ve drowned in a sea of wine. But my deep, burning hate for alcohol kept me from going down that terrible path. For two months I stood still as the world passed by, but then I remembered what I set out to do so much time ago, when I got into law school. I couldn’t stay like this forever, so I talked to her uncle, who agreed to pay for my tuition and arrange my reinstatement in college for my last year. But I will still have to wait a few more months until the start of classes.

Meanwhile, I will continue to live with my friend from school in her new, large apartment. I didn’t know she had this much money, and her parents weren’t exactly rich. She only told me my dead girlfriend’s uncle was very generous to her. Anyway, I’m digressing. There is one thing that hurt me. My girlfriend’s brother decided to blame me for her death, ceased to respond to my calls, and just plain disappeared a few days after her death. I think he just needed some time on his own. I just hope he’s ok…

During this interim, until I can resume my studies, I’ve been working at tol directly for my friend from school and following the news and the social media activity. It strikes me how petty everyone is. Everywhere I look, there are no honest, good-faith discussions about left or right policies. It’s all about appealing to emotion and using all sorts of fallacies.

We need leaders that are better than that. We need executives and legislators who understand their duty to the people they serve beyond their own personal gain. But hey, don’t take me for an idealist, far from it. I think I can actually deliver one such politician. It can’t be me, however. I’m not cut out for that. Although I know of someone who is already proving to be a great leader: my friend from school. She’s not as kind as… my girlfriend was. I guess you could think about her as a “woman of steel,” since she fights for everything and usually reaches favorable compromises. She also delivers her speeches with such passion, I feel it’s an honor to help her write them.

Look, I won’t ask you to imagine a world with this or that type of leader, with this or that doctrine. No, I will show you. But first things first. We need an arbiter, someone in the middle to say: “Hey, these and those people are simply fighting each other, not promoting fair discussion.” We need to bring back honest debate of ideas.

Luckily, I’m not the only one who feels this way. My friend from school has also voiced her concerns, both privately and publicly, about this issue. Tol was meant to be an anti-racism propaganda machine, but my dead girlfriend’s uncle doesn’t really care that much what exactly it does now. He doesn’t seem to care that much about anything anymore. And my friend from school, now tol’s leader, is using this opportunity to promote her own goals. Our goals.

The core of what we defend is simple: that any idea is debated, no matter who says it or what it means. And this is independent of your political affiliation. You see, it looks like partisanship only antagonizes people. As soon as people realize they’re listening to someone who “opposes” their ideas, it’s like they shut down and stop listening.

I mean, I understand why that happens. But we can’t let people censor ideas they disagree with. Otherwise, we’re no better than totalitarian regimes like the nazis. That’s something history has taught us, at the very least.

So we’ve tried to act as the voice of reason, reproaching both sides of the political spectrum to reach a middle ground. We comment on social media, specially on the polemic president’s inflammatory tweets. Usually, we get buried under a mountain of more… catching tweets. “OMG WHAT AN LOSER” is the most voted comment to one of the president’s calls to “make the country great.”

During these past two months, she has managed to reshape tol’s infrastructure completely. We don’t organize, promote or fund demonstrations anymore. All the staff and efforts are focused on a single task: promoting fair discussion online. There’s two whole floors filled with people that spend all their working hours in front of computers, doing precisely that. And I can feel this is only the beginning.

§ Nazis

“…come on, you have to agree that no one wants to hear nazis speaking in public, right?” says the other speaker during a debate panel at my college. The people participating are: a weak, partisan arbiter; a young liberal male; my friend from school. The two speakers are former students invited by the college. “Well, even if I don’t agree with their ideas, I think they should have the freedom to express them,” she answers calmly. “That way, other people can criticize them and maybe they’ll even change their mind. What is everyone so scared about, that a few people will be brainwashed into believing in the supremacy of their race? Come on, our society has grown out of those foolish ideas by now. And if a handful of people haven’t, it doesn’t matter whether it’s discussed or not.”

The other speaker shakes his head as my friend from school speaks. “But if we let those crazies say people of color…” I jokingly mutter “people of color” to myself. “… and jewish people are inferior to white people, it could undermine our modern values. What if they brainwash so many people that white supremacy becomes acceptable?”

“Oh please,” she answers. “Ok, ok,” the other speaker says. “Let’s make it simpler. What if you let jihadists go on television and preach about how westerners are degenerates? Would you let those people speak freely? People who twist otherwise-good-ideologies for their own purposes?” I find it funny he’s so concerned about anti-western propaganda coming from jihadists when we produce so much of that nationally.

“But that’s precisely the problem,” says my friend from school. “If people associated to ‘otherwise-good-ideologies’ are banned from speaking about their ideas, why not ban those ideologies directly? They’re easy to confuse.” The other speaker nods. “I agree it’s hard to know where to draw the line, but it doesn’t mean it’s not the best solution. That’s why we need reasonable people making those decisions.” I pity the poor confused panel member using the “good government solves all” argument.

“Then again,” my friend from school says, “What if the people who make those decisions are not reasonable, or are influenced by some doctrine? They may ban a certain religion or ideology, which has happened many times throughout history. That’s precisely why there’s an article in our constitution to grant all of us freedom of religion.” The other speaker smiles nervously. He can’t really fight the constitution. “The problem is,” he continues, “if these doctrines have enough supporters, they can’t be banned without political consequences for the politicians banning them!”

“Exactly!” she exclaims. “Then either an ideology is important enough that it must be discussed, or it doesn’t have much support to begin with, so it doesn’t matter if it is allowed to be defended in public!” Then she smiles and says jokingly, “And I thought you ‘liberals’ were all about defending ‘liberties.’”

Part of the audience smiles and applauds her comment. A young… girl? with pink hair boos her, and other people of indefinite gender join in the booing. To me, she’s won the debate. Her adversary is not precisely the brightest, though, and she has failed to win over many of the people in the room. But then, there’s only so much you can do in a college panel.

Slowly, through the following months, I begin to heal from my girlfriend’s death. Tol’s work is now something I can support wholeheartedly. My friend from school and I spend our days together, working throughout the day then going home to watch movies or tv shows at night. Everything is fine until one “fatidic” day. We make our usual orders and begin watching a new comedy. It’s so bad we end up making fun of it and having a great time at its expense. About eight minutes after we call the pizza place, we hear knocks on the door. “That was fast,” she says. I get up and go to the door, still laughing from the movie. Standing at the door is the brother of my dead girlfriend. His old rags stink. He clearly hasn’t showered in weeks… if not months.

“Aren’t you gonna let me in?” he asks drunkenly. His mouth smells even worse than his clothes. “No. Not like this,” I reply. I’m suddenly filled with anger, recalling mother, recalling my girlfriend… “I won’t accept this. Come back when you’re sober!” I shout before closing the door.

He kicks it right before I close it, hitting me with the door. I fall on my back. “Oh my god, are you ok!?” asks my friend from school. “I’m calling the police,” she says. “B-word you better not,” he threatens her, pointing with his right-hand index finger. “It’s ok, don’t worry…” I say to her. He steps into the house and opens the fridge. “Got any beer? I—” he says before puking all over the carpet.

“I don’t feel so well,” he says as he sits on the floor. My friend from school looks at me, clearly disturbed. But I can’t help it. I feel responsible for putting him in this position. I take him to the bathroom, remove his clothes, wash him and put him in my bed. All the while, she watches in silence. Finally he’s asleep and I head to the couch to catch some sleep myself.

She intercepts me. “He’s not your burden,” she says. “It wasn’t your fault, remember that.” I weep in silence, because the guilt over my girlfriend’s death overwhelms me. My friend from school puts my head against her shoulder, and I hug her. “Oh, what did I do…” I whisper, sobbing.

§ The man who played with matches

People use any number of metaphors to describe life. Some say it’s a waterfall, some say it’s some sort of journey. But after he returned, for me it was like being at the top of a water slide into the abyss. I saw what was below, and the path that would take me there, but I couldn’t do anything to stop sliding downward.

The day after he came into the apartment, I took him to an AA (alcoholics anonymous) meeting. I sat with him through the whole thing. People talking about their boring, monotonous life and the shitty things they did when they were high. Big woop. Then I kept him entertained the rest of the day, taking him to the cinema, shopping for actual clothes, a barber shop, etc. By the end of the day he looked like an actual human being.

I told him he could spend some days living with us, sleeping in my bed while I slept on the couch. My friend from school was more comprehensive than I could have expected. She was clearly upset about having him with us, but she said nothing. If only she knew how much I wanted things to return to normal. But I couldn’t let him on his own, at least not yet. I had to fix him first. So the next day I woke him up in the morning to go to another AA meeting, and then we went out for coffee. While we talked, I decided to ask him: “Have you decided what you want to do with your life?”

“I’ll finish my last year of college, then I’ll focus on politics,” he said. “My uncle’s greatest fear is that his political legacy is lost. He meant my sister to become president, you know? He had great plans for her. But now… now he’ll have to make do with me. Even though he really…” he shuts up. There’s something he doesn’t want to tell me, but I can feel his uncle doesn’t really like him. Still, it impresses me how focused he is considering he’s also a wreck. “You focus me,” he suddenly says without me having to ask. “I also wanted to apologize for everything,” he continues, looking down at his cup. “I-I couldn’t control myself after what happened.”

“It’s ok, don’t worry—” I say. “But it’s just,” he interrupts me, taking my hand. “I can’t help but blame you, I don’t know why. And drinking only makes me more sure of it.” I’m almost shaking. “S-sure of what?” I stutter. “That you killed her.” I chug down the rest of my coffee. “Please, forgive me,” he insists again. “Believe me, I’m way more responsible for her death than you are.”

We develop a sort of routine during that week. We get up, go to an AA meeting, then for coffee. By the next week, he feels comfortable enough to talk about what happened to him during these past few months. At first he only speaks about it in broad brushes. But I can tell there’s plenty he’s hiding. Things he’s ashamed of.

He looks like a broken man, nothing like what he was before his sister passed. He tells me he spent the first few weeks after her death at bars and friends’ houses. He drank and got into as many fights as he could. Then he ran out of both money and friends, so he had to live in the street. There he met a homeless man who helped him.

For those first few weeks, he gave me all sorts of detail. But he was completely silent about his time with some drifter that apparently terrifies him. However, today, he decided to tell me… more during our coffee time. He was fiddling nervously with a bottle of water, tearing the brand label with his fingers. “I think I’m ready now to tell you about the man who played with matches,” he starts. “Well, or just matches, for short.” “Who is that?” I asked. “You know, the drifter,” he says. “Anyway, it must have been between two or four am when I met him. I was walking down a street, pretty wasted. And there he was, on the ground, with four guys yelling at him.”

“At first I wasn’t sure what they were saying, but as I got closer I started to make out the words. ‘F-wording human waste!’ ‘Scumbag!’ they yelled at him. But there were four of them and only one of him, lying on the floor trying to cover himself with cardboard. Then they started kicking him, and I ran to help without thinking about it twice. I guess, I guess alcohol really is liquid courage… Anyway, ‘Hey!’ I yelled at them. ‘You got a problem, a-holes?’ They laughed. ‘We ain’t talkin to you,’ said one of them. ‘Just leave, b-word!’ other said as they continued kicking. I took out a pocket knife. They stopped laughing and kicking the man. ‘Look sunnyboy,’ their ringleader threatened. ‘Get the f-word back to mommy.’”

“Then one of them yelled, ‘F-wording hobo, he pissed on my shoes!’ Only it wasn’t piss. Matches lit the guy’s shoe and fire spread through his right leg. The guy started to scream for help, and the others tried to put him out. I just stood there, watching the scene.” He pauses to look at me, and speaks slower. “Have you ever… smelled human flesh burning? It’s quite… something, quite something…”

He stops again, looking at the almost-scratched label on his bottle of water. Then he continues without looking up. “Aaaanyway. I stood by matches, pointing at them with my knife. They put out the fire in the guy’s leg and left in a hurry. ‘Do you need help?’ I asked him. ‘No hospitals,’ was all he said.”

“I offered him the bottle of scotch I had in my hand, and he took a long gulp from it. From that moment, he took me everywhere he went.”

§ Anti-christian

The next weeks we continue to live together. But my two roommates can’t stand each other. She’s always pushing for him to contribute more to our bizarre household, and he blames her for trying to monopolize me. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to make peace between the two, tension eventually bursts into a mighty argument over any subject.

“No, no, no. You can’t have both,” she says during breakfast. They have been arguing for a while now, and I’ve been paying no attention. “You can’t defend freedom of speech while pretending to run for any office as a leftie.” “Why not?” he laughs. “Just because you couldn’t handle both things doesn’t mean other people can’t. You really shouldn’t project your own issues on others.”

“This guy!” she says, looking at me. I simply continue eating in silence. “When I read something outside your propaganda circlejerk,” she says. “I realize just how morally evil your socialist totalitarian ‘utopia’ really is.” “It’s just a utopia because of idiots like you,” he says bitterly.

“No!” she bursts. “It’s just a utopia because it’s squishy-fishy make-belief crap that can never work, in any society, ever.” “Or maybe it can work,” he answers. “with the right people in power. We can learn from the mistakes of the soviets, for example.” “Great example!” she exclaims. “That’s the case that illustrates it perfectly: if a small group takes power by force, they can impose their will and call it ‘revolution,’ ‘truth,’ whatever the hell they want; no one will stop them! And that’s the only way to implement socialism: against people’s wishes!”

“Nah,” he replies, “you’re just salty because you have no real arguments here. A good enough society could vote on implementing socialism and implement it without cults of personality or corruption.” She looks like she’s about to explode, so I intervene. “Come on, guys, let’s watch tv or something. This isn’t going anywhere.”

“Sure,” he says. “There’s a new show about a dystopia where only a minority of women can have children and christian males keep them locked up and forced to breed.” She facepalms. “Are you f-wording kidding me? That’s like the most obvious piece of anti-christian propaganda I’ve seen. And it’s made even more obvious by the awards it has received and the fact that you suggested it.”

“Anti-christian propaganda? It’s an accurate description of christians: hierarchy males that want to keep women locked up in the kitchen.” Now he’s taking it too far just to troll her. “What, are you christian now? That’s a bit too much cliche,” he comments looking at me for my approval. “If anything, you’re the naive liberal cliche,” she says looking at me for exactly the same reason. This isn’t working. They won’t stop until one of them “wins.” And the funny thing is, both are completely radicalized during their arguments, whereas they are calm and reasonable when they argue with other people. I feel like there’s some other reason for their mutual hatred that they keep from me. I know they worked together closely at tol until his sister died.

“So what do you suggest we watch?” he asks her. “Maybe that conservative sitcom that was cancelled because it was… a conservative sitcom and nobody watches that s-word?” “Yeah, you clearly got your facts straight,” she replies. “It was cancelled because conservatives liked it. It had incredible ratings but the producer pulled out due to politics. Holy s-word, are you blue-pilled…”

“Oh, look at me, look at me,” he says mockingly. “I’m ‘Ms. Redpill’. The ‘gubmint’ is out to get me. Everything’s a conspiracy!” “Stop it, both of you!” I shout, pounding on the table. “Can’t you behave like actual adults for a second? Outside is bad enough as it is, do we need this crap at home too? We’re eating for f-” But I bite my tongue. “… sake.”

“Why!?” she complains. “Yeah, why?” he joins her. “You can choose,” I say harshly. “Either keep it civil, or keep it without me.” They nod and shut up. “Nazi…” he mutters. “Commie…” she replies.

§ Can’t have your cake nor eat it

I have noticed several times now that he suddenly acts… I don’t know, weird. Usually at the AA meetings and out on the street. He usually looks behind our back, thinking I don’t notice. I’ve asked him why, but he always either denies doing it or refuses to talk about it. “Please, let’s go home,” he begs me suddenly as we head to an AA meeting one monday. “Look, we’re going anyway,” I answer tiredly as I drive through the streets, hungry and cold. “Can we at least not repeat this ritual every day?” I ask him. He remains silents.

“Besides, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention. These meetings are for life. You can’t just magically cure yourself. Eventually you’ll come less and less often, but you’ll still have to come.” He sits in his seat, looking outside the window in silence, angry at what I’ve said.

As we park on the building where the meeting is taking place, I notice people going in. I begin taking my stuff to leave when I hear him whisper. “No, no, no, no. It’s not right, it’s not right.” “What is it?” I ask, concerned. “I’m sorry, I can’t—” he says before he opens the door and runs down the street.

I look at the people going into the building. It seems like regular folks to me, there’s even a family with a baby in a carriage. I look at him go. It seems like he’s running for his life, crossing red lights and nearly causing an accident or two. I promise myself I won’t chase him. “He’s not my problem,” I tell myself. “Let him go.” But I know he’s headed down a road back to relapse. Or something worse.

I fight the urge to go after him and return to my apartment. My friend from school is there, still preparing her breakfast. “Hi, aren’t you here too soon?” she asks. “Yeah, he-he ran away,” I say. She stays quiet, thinking “I told you so.” “Are you going after him?” she asks as calmly as she possibly can.

“No,” I reply with determination, trying to convince myself. “If he doesn’t want to get better, there’s nothing I can do. I won’t lock him up or police him. I don’t have the energy for his drama.” “I think that’s wise,” she says. Of course, why wouldn’t she think that. She wants to get rid of him badly without looking like the bad guy. And unfortunately, I can’t say I blame her.

The next two days I keep looking at my phone, waiting for a message or a call to pop up. Then, when I’ve just about given up on him, he appears once again at my door. But this time, he’s covered in blood. “Oh my god, what have you done!? Are you ok!?” I yell immediately, trying to find the wound. “Please, let me in, quick,” he asks. “I can’t go to the hospital.” I let him through.

She helps me carry him to the couch. We put a blanket under him, so the couch won’t be ruined. He lifts up his coat and we see the cut, right under his heart. Immediately we clean up the blood with towels. In just a few minutes, it looks like there’s blood everywhere. She looks at me, terrified. “I-I think he’s dying.”

“No hospitals,” is all he says. I try not to panic, and stop to take a deep breath. Then I put my hands on her shoulders and breathe deeply, looking into her eyes. She follows my lead. He passes out, or at least I think he only passes out. I don’t let her see it, keeping her eyes on me. “Ok, the wound doesn’t look deep,” I say. “I think all we have to do is disinfect and bandage it. At least that’s all they do in the movies.”

I take the bottle of rubbing alcohol from our medkit and just spray his wound with it. “Holy f-word! F-word f-word f-word!” he screams. She and I quickly take our hands off him, scared we’re hurting him. Then we take a bandage from the medkit and put it on his wound. It’s not large enough to cover all of him, so we put more bandages.

Actually, we overdo it, and end up putting like eight bandages, covering most of his chest. “Now what?” she says. “It needs to hold.” I take duct tape from a drawer. “Sit him up,” I command. She looks at me in horror. “Look, we don’t have anything else to make it hold up.” She manages to make him sit up and holds him still while I wrap his bandages with duct tape. There’s much less blood now on him, it’s all on the cloth and towels we’ve used. He complains a couple of times about what we’re doing, but we keep going until he’s essentially wrapped up like a present.

“… water, please…” he mutters after the intervention is over. I pour some water into a glass and give it to him with a straw to drink from. After he slurps it away, he falls sound asleep. She is sitting in a chair next to the couch, and I come sit by her side.

She looks at me and shakes her head. A tear forms in her left eye. “Why?..” she asks, but shuts herself up. I take her left hand and look back down at the ground. “No, you know what, I’m not gonna stay quiet now,” she practically shouts, distressed, letting go of my hand. “This is not normal, you know that, right?” she starts, exalted. “Who wants to be normal anyway,” I sigh. “Ah. You don’t understand. This…” she points at the ground, littered with bloody cloth and towels, “is wrong. We shouldn’t have to deal with this.”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” I apologize to her. “No, no, no. Don’t apologize for him,” she says indignantly. “This is his fault. The only thing that can make this up is that you kick him out as soon as he can stand up.” I avoid looking into her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that…”

She takes her hands to her face and wipes her tears off. Then she wanders about the apartment for a few seconds. I know what she’s gonna say. I don’t want her to say it. “Then I’m leaving. It’s clear you will keep picking him over me. A person can only stand so much.”

I stay silent. A tear forms in my right eye. “So you have nothing to say, right!?” she says. “Right. Well, enjoy… him,” she says as she goes for the door. But then she turns back. “No, you know what! I’ll tell you the truth, someone has to. You have no clue what he has done and—” “What do you mean?” I interrupt her. “Do you know?” I ask. “Look,” she says. “That right there is a broken man. He’ll never be fixed. And if you let him, he’ll suck you right into his vortex of… f-wording chaos… F-word!”

Now she’s gotten out everything she wanted to say, and leaves still crying. On her way out she slams the door violently. I feel myself shaking without control. I’ve let her go. Why? Why!?

§ Grug

When he wakes up, I’m already there, watching him from behind a cup of tea. He notices me staring and struggles to ask “C-can I have some water?” I don’t say anything as I bring him his water. No straw. He notices there’s no straw, but he sees my facial expression and wisely realizes it’s not a good decision to ask why.

“So, where is she?” he asks. “Really?” I say sarcastically. “That’s what you have to say?” He looks ashamed at his glass of water. “You come in here, dying, and that’s all you have to say?” “I just, I—” he tries to explain, but I don’t let him. “What happened? And tell me truth, or I swear on my little sister’s grave, I’ll leave you out on the street to die.”

He finally looks into my eyes. “Ok, ok, I’ll tell you everything,” he says. “Do you-do you remember the man that played with matches?” he asks. I nod. “Well. When I met him, I didn’t know what he was up to. But he was all I had left, only he wanted me. So I decided I would do whatever he asked me to.”

“The morning after those guys were beating him up, we went to see… a guy. All he told me was ‘look tough.’ I did my best. We got to a flat filled with topless girls and people doing meth and heroin. But when he stepped in, it was like the world stopped. They all watched him quietly from their seats as he walked up to their boss. The boss gave matches some money and drugs from a safe without saying a word, and we left. I stood at the door the whole time, hiding under my shades.”

“I-I should’ve suspected he was no good news right then and there. But that power, I mean… The people in that room had guns, and even they were afraid of him. You don’t know how good that felt.” He seems to doze off, then comes back. “So anyway,” he continues, “we had a hotdog for breakfast and took the subway. All the while, he was carrying a bag with the money and drugs.”

“So we walked for a while, and we finally got to our destination, a flat in the city. A goon packing a gun opened up. ‘Who’s he,’ asked the goon, pointing at me. ‘Nobody,’ said matches. We dropped the bag off, received another bag and left. Then he took a bundle of bills from it and gave it to me.”

“‘Wow, really? For that? Thanks so much,’ I said to matches. He looked at me tiredly, not wanting to hear my gratitude. Next thing we did was get on another subway. I didn’t ask where we were going, I knew he wouldn’t like it. Once again we walked through a half-deserted city up to a park, where we stayed the rest of the day.”

“‘Wake me when no sun,’ he grunted. I waited by his side until dusk, watching people come and go. I realized that day I hadn’t thought about my sister at all. I knew it could help me, so I promised myself I would do my best. Eventually dusk came, and I woke him up. He looked tired, with bags under his eyes. That is, until he pulled a few meth crystals from a bag and smoked them. Then it all changed.”

“‘Holy f-word that’s good!’ he shouted. An old couple nearby stared at him. ‘Whatcha lookin at, dried c-words!?’ he shouted standing up. ‘Ok boy, let’s see.’ He took a paper from the bag with the mugshots of a couple of thugs. ‘Do you have my coffee?’ he asked. I shook my head. I had no clue coffee went hand-in-hand with meth. ‘Next time you will,’ he replied.”

“‘Ok, so we need to beat these two ugly motherf-worders. They’re selling outside their territory,’ he commented casually before starting to stretch. ‘But, shouldn’t you, like, rest or something?’ I asked naively. ‘just yesterday you got—’ He shot me a threatening look. ‘That never happened! Feel me?!’ I shut my mouth.”

“‘Now let’s see…’ he said reading the papers he had. ‘They should come here today at some point. They drive this ugly piece-of-s-word,’ he said showing me a picture of a rundown brown car. ‘Keep an eye out for it.’ I started looking at nearby cars, but none matched the picture. I thought we would stay there for a while, waiting for them. But he just took off in less than a minute.”

“Without saying a word, he marched toward a group of thugs with a bottle of water in his hand. I thought it was strange that was all he would carry. There were four of them, just chatting up. One of them looked like one of the guys he’d shown me, but a closer look made us both realize he was wrong.”

“‘The f-word you lookin’ at?’ threatened the alpha male from the pack of thugs. ‘Nothing, chill. I thought you was someone else,’ replied matches, before turning away to leave. ‘Hey, come back. You sound familiar…’ said one of the thugs, grabbing his shoulder. Now matches was really angry. You see, he never forgot a face. Quickly, we all realized who everyone was. The guy who called him out was one of the punks who beat him the day before.”

“It all happened too fast. Matches didn’t say a word. He just took a big gulp from his bottle of water, turned around and spit it on the face of the guy calling for him. The other thugs were confused by the move. ‘The f-word?’ said their alpha male. The victim tried to yell, but choked at first. ‘I-it’s him, it’s him!’ he finally managed to say before trying to turn away. But matches grabbed his neck and held him in place while he emptied much of his bottle on the guy’s head. I just stood there, frozen.”

“Matches dropped the bottle and lit a match with his free hand against his trousers. Then he lit the guy’s face on fire, still holding him. The screams were horrible, made worse by the smell of his hair, which quickly caught on fire. Matches’ gloves and clothes also caught on fire from some of the accelerant that had fallen on them. But he didn’t care, and walked in flames toward the others.”

“They ran away from him in distress, leaving their mate behind, who cried out for help but got none. Matches took off his clothes and left them on top of the screaming man, who was now rolling on the floor, trying to put himself out. He emptied the rest of the bottle on him and threw it into the pyre. People started coming, attracted by the screams, but we left quickly.”

He pauses for a moment. “Oh, the smell, if only you knew…” he says, as a tear rolls down his eye. I take his hand in support. I run my fingers through the burn marks that cover them. “Is that how you got these?” I ask. He nods. “I-I tried to put it out,” he says. “But matches dragged me out. And that was just the beginning…”

§ Runaway

“There are things… things I’ve done, things I’ve seen…” he says. “Please, I don’t want to dredge them all up. Just know that yesterday I faced him and paid the price in flesh. The other time, when I first came to you, things with him were… bad. Pretty bad.”

I sit in silence, trying to process all he has told me. “Where is this man, matches, now?” I ask. “Who knows,” he replies. “But he knows my face. And he never forgets. It’s only a matter of time before he comes… And you don’t want to be here when he does.”

The truth is I don’t fear this man nor his legend. I just don’t buy it. There are no boogeymen, only psychos. And psychos are not flashy invincible superheroes like in the movies. They are sloppy, crazy and eventually get caught, die or both. I think he suffered a mental breakdown after his sister died. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “Look,” he whispers seriously, grabbing my hand. “I’m not asking you. He will find me. Remember the night I’ve just told you about?” I nod, thinking he may have paranoia induced by some disease.

“Well, after he burned that man, I ran away. I ran as fast as I could, as far as I could. Away from him, away from all of it. I wanted to come back to the real world. I hid in a corner, under cardboard. There was no one there, I swear. But in the dead of night, even without light, he found me. I woke up from the smell, it was so strong…”

“He was pouring gasoline all over my cardboard, and when I woke up, he pinned me down by the neck. ‘Now, listen up, sunnyboy. You’re gonna repeat after me,’ he said, and put his lighter close to my face. ‘I’m never gonna run away.’ I begged him for mercy, but he wouldn’t hear it. ‘Say it! Say it sunnyboy!’ he kept screaming. I said the words ‘I’m never gonna run away.’”

“‘I’m never gonna rat on matches,’ he continued. I repeated after him. He smiled, let me go and put out his lighter. ‘Good,’ he whispered. He can find me. I don’t know how, but he always does. He’s made me do things…” He looks genuinely afraid. Now I’m beginning to doubt. Could this matches guy be real?

“Promise you will never lie to me,” I say. He just looks at me. “Promise!” I shout. “Ok, ok, I promise,” he says. “Good,” I say. “Now help me get up, we have to get away.” I pick up all the bloody towels and clothes we used the night before and put them in a bag. We take some stuff from the apartment and leave.

We get in my car and drive, in no particular direction. About an hour or two later we park in a cheap motel. I book a room and help him walk to it. Once inside, I help him into the bed. I close the door and draw the blinds. “Has anyone seen you coming in?” he asks.

“No, only the guy at front desk,” I reply. “Are you sure?” he asks again. I peep through the blinds. There’s no one else as poor or desperate as we are to stay in this hell hole. “Yes. I’m sure.” I’m about to sit on a chair, but I notice it’s… sticky. I go to the toilet to get some paper to clean it with, and it smells like a family of racoons died inside. I can literally feel the wall crawling.

I just use the chair to block the toilet, deciding it’s not fit for human use. The bed is the only thing that seems clean, probably because this is a cheap place where hookers take their clients. I resign myself to the bed. “So what now?” I ask. “Now we need guns,” he whispers. “Guns? Are you out of your mind?” I say, raising my voice.

“What do you want to stop him with? Mean words? No, this is a crazy man we’re dealing with. We have to shoot first and aim well.” Now he’s starting to scare me. At least he thinks it’s real and I see what he wants to do. “Look, I only signed up to help you live, because I owe you. But I won’t commit murder.”

He smiles, pulls himself up and says “Oh really, and what do you suggest we do?” “Let’s go to the police,” I reply. He laughs. “What, why!? Why does everybody think the police is so funny?” I ask. “Let me walk you through what will happen,” he says. “Even if we go to a police station and explain all I know, and they believe me, they will have no way of finding him. He will get wind of it, somehow, and disappear. Some years later, down the road, while we’re having dinner peacefully, he’ll come to our house and kill us.”

“Just like that?” I say, incredulous. He nods. I’m sorry, but I can’t buy this whole super-psycho story. People aren’t like this. It looks like he’s watched too many movies. He suddenly takes my left hand. “Look, this guy’s a pro, ok!?” he says. “He-he peels off his own fingertips to have no prints, because he watched it in some movie or some s-word. He never stays, eats, or goes twice to the same place. Never.”

“How will they link him to any of the crimes?” he goes on. “Crimes? How many are there?” I ask, concerned. “More than you should know. Trust me,” he says. “But there must be witnesses,” I say. “Sure there are,” he says. “People in the drug business, people from marginal hoods, too scared of him and the people he works for to speak. Nobody’s got nothing to gain from testifying.”

“I still think we should go to the police,” I insist. “They’ll find a way to get him… they’ll put you in witness protection.” He takes his hands to his face. “We’re lost, we’re lost, we’re lost,” he starts repeating to himself. “Look,” I say, “go to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll figure something out. I’m gonna get something to eat, do you want anything?” I ask. “You shouldn’t go outside,” he warns me ominously. “Yeah, that way we die from starvation or dysentery from staying on this room for too long.” He has no comeback for that.

I exit my room and walk down the street until I find a cafeteria. I order something for me to eat and a piece of pie to take away. As I eat, I decide to use the cafeteria’s public wifi to research a little on this “matches” guy. I search for recent fires in the city. Most of the stuff is ruled to be accidents. But there are some arson cases.

Of those, some are solved. But then there are a ton that aren’t. There’s an alarmingly high number of small business fires in the last two years. There’s also cases where a meth lab blows up, or a house with an entire family burns down. However, how can anyone find anything here to pin it on the guy he describes? A couple of hours after being in the cafeteria, I’m on my second cup of coffee. It’s already midnight, and almost nobody’s there.

But I feel someone watching me from the street. I’m sitting with my back to the door, so it would be too obvious if I turned around to see who it is. I open a black window on my computer and use it as a mirror. It’s hard to distinguish, but there’s a figure in a coat just standing out there. Could it be true? At least part of it, I mean. Maybe he really is mixed in some shady business and people are after him.

I take out my phone, shaking, and call him. “Pick up, pick up, pick up,” I whisper. Voice mail. “F-word!” I whisper. Nothing, he must be asleep. I decide to just wait him out. Meanwhile I keep investigating. I just hope he doesn’t burn me down. Wait, what am I saying. I’ve yet to see proof this guy has done half the things my dead girlfriend’s brother says he’s done. All I’ve seen so far is rumors.

Then I decide to search in the news for any reference to “matches.” And many sports articles later I find what I was looking for. “… a suspect broke into the house sometime during the night, tied the parents and—” I stop to take my hands to my mouth in horror. “… burnt alive the two girls. He first set fire to the crib where the youngest one was, and forced the parents to watch. Then he strapped the oldest one, aged four, to a chair and burnt her alive. The parents reported that their aggressor kept repeating ‘Matches is upset.’ Police are currently looking for a psychotic arsonist for these violent crimes with the alias ‘matches.’”

So it’s true.

§ Closing in

As I sit there, thinking what kind of degenerate would do that, I think of my little sister, running around. I hadn’t thought of her in a long time. I remember chasing her down the hall. But when I catch her, the image pops back into my mind, of her floating face-down in the water.

The door opens and two policemen step inside. I immediately close my laptop. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m doing something fishy. Maybe it’s because I know, deep down I know what I will do if I see that man. The officers sit down, take their cup of coffee and leave. I exit too, using them as human shields. If matches is really there, he won’t risk coming for me now.

After they get into their car, I quickly hop into a cab, make the driver circle around a few times and return to my room. I open up, and there I find my dead girlfriend’s brother, awake. “Where were you?” he asks. “You were gone for hours. I was worried sick. I have something to tell you—” I sit on the bed by his side and interrupt him. “I just came from the cafeteria two streets down. I think matches was watching me.”

He nearly jumps out of bed. “I knew it, I-I called it. F-word! Let’s go. Wait, there’s something else you don’t know—” He manages to sit on the edge of the bed. “No,” I say. “Not before you tell me what happened to the family with the two daughters.” “What? What do you mean, I’ve told you everything already. I—”

“No, no, no,” I interrupt him. “The first time you came to my apartment. It was the same day two kids were burned to death in front of their parents.” His face turns pale. “I don’t want to talk about that.” “Oh, really? Then let’s see how well you do against him on your own.” I get up, and begin picking up my stuff. “Wait, wait, wait,” he begs more and more desperately.

“I’m honestly tired of your bulls-word,” I say and put my hand on the door knob. “Ok!” he shouts. “It was us. Happy now!?” He begins to cry. I let go of the knob. “We-we were only supposed to-to scare the father, okay!?” he sobs as he talks. “But matches… f-word, f-word, f-word!” He hits his head against the headboard.

“He went nuts, I couldn’t stop him. He shot himself too much meth before we went in. A beating wasn’t good enough for him. That’s all the boss wanted. A simple beating. He beat him alright. But then he cut his wife’s face. Even that wasn’t enough. He tied the two parents up, and I helped him. Then he dragged the crib in front of them…”

He stops to cry. “Go on!” I yell. “The baby girl was crying. He told the parents to shut her up, but wouldn’t let them move. Her cries upset him so… he lit the crib on fire! Ok!? Is that what you wanted to hear?” “No. Finish the story.”

He looks down. “I can’t, I can’t…” “Finish or I leave,” I threaten him. “He-he dragged the other. I begged him not to, but he did it anyway. He tied her up as she cried for her mommy, sprayed her like he did to everything else, and burned her alive. Oh god, what have I done…” He breaks down in tears.

“Ok, I can finally let you go,” I say. “Goodbye.” “No!” he shouts, wiping his tears. “You don’t understand. Your apartment, there was a fire.” My heart stops. Without thinking about it twice, I open the door. “Come back! Come back!” he screams behind me, but I can barely hear him. I just run toward my car and drive, the rest just fades.

I speed through the city at night toward my apartment, skipping red lights and nearly crashing a couple of times. When I get there I can see the flames raging on our floor. All the tenants are outside. I look for her face in the crowd. I can’t see her, and my heart starts to pound. My throat shuts tight.

I hear there are victims still inside. It can’t be true. This can’t be happening. The world spins around me. There’s an explosion on our floor. People duck and back away. I just stand there. Now-now I know what I have to do.

§ Retaliation

I get in the car and drive back to the motel. He’s still in bed and the door is open. He looks like he’s freezing from the cold wind blowing outside. I figure it’s a fair punishment. “Get up and get dressed,” I command dryly. “I tried to tell you—” he says. “Don’t even try,” I stop him.

As I hand him his shoes, I notice the soles are slightly wet. Someone has taken a walk. “Get up, now!” I shout at him. “Ok, ok…” he mutters. We get into the car. “Call whatever lowlife you know who can give us a gun,” I say. “What, right now?” he asks. I just throw him a look, and he quickly understands.

“Ok, ok. Give me a sec…” He pulls out his phone and calls somebody who owes him a favor, and agrees to meet him. We drive to the outskirts of the city and park in an abandoned factory. I would make a joke about how cliched it all is, but I’m not in the mood for jokes. We pick up the guns and ammo and leave.

I know it would be too obvious if we went back, so I decide to do one better. We drive all the way to the park where matches and he first met. “How do these work?” I say, taking one of the guns and inspecting it. “Whoah, whoah whoah, wait!” he exclaims alarmed, before taking it from my hands. “These kill people, remember? You have to treat them with care.”

“Here, look. You just load them like this.” He inserts the clip. “Then you cock it.” He shows me how. “Aand now you’re ready to pull the trigger. But for now, let’s put on the safety.” He flicks a little “switch” on the side of the gun. “Just for… safety.”

I grab it again. It feels heavy. It feels… powerful. I aim through the windshield at random things on the street. “Ok killer,” he says, pushing the gun down from my hands. “Now we wait. He’ll recognize our car, so we should go to that diner over there.” We enter the diner, order something to eat and sit down. At first I have my eyes peeled on the street, but eventually I fall asleep. You have to understand, I had been awake for more than one day straight. I dream of my friend, trapped by flames, falling, ever falling…

“Wake up, wake up!” he says to my ear as he shakes me. “What?” I say, confused. “Look! Right there!” I see a man walking away from the park into the street. “Is that—” I ask. He nods. “But why is he… How?” I ask. There’s something that doesn’t feel right. Did matches track us down? Did he come back? If so, why didn’t he see the car? “It looks like you were right and he did come back here after all,” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “This doesn’t smell good.” “What, why?” he says nervously. “He’s right there! Let’s go. Take this, it will keep you focused.” He hands me a small pill. At first I hesitate, but then I swallow it with a gulp from my coffee. He stands up and walks out of the diner. I slowly pick up his pace. There’s only an hour or two of darkness left before sunrise. He could lure us anywhere and no one would notice. “Wait,” I call for him. But he won’t listen, and only walks faster toward the man.

We’re in a half-abandoned part of the city. There’s no one on the streets. We can barely even hear a sound. But I know there’s people inside the rundown buildings that surround us. I feel dizzy. Matches enters one of these buildings. Before we go in after him, my dead girlfriend’s brother (now my “partner” like in the cop movies) signals me to stop with his hand. He pulls out his gun and takes the safety off.

I do the same. Now I’m shaking. We go in. The first floor is filled with rusty machines. We look around but see nothing. “Let’s split. I’ll take downstairs, you go upstairs,” he whispers. “What? No!” I whisper back. “You’ll be fine,” he says before disappearing into the dark.

There is no light in the building, no way to see what is in front of me. I reach into my pocket for my phone, but it’s gone. I must’ve left it in the car. I slowly crawl upstairs, shaking. The first two levels are vast, empty spaces filled with graffiti and trash. The windows are all covered with old newspaper so the light can’t get in. But when I continue going up, I hear people. At first I think it’s him, matches. Then I realize it’s just junkies shooting themselves with heroin, or something similar.

The smell, oh god the smell. Some of them are relatively clean, but others… others look and smell like decrepit corpses. The next floor, I can finally see. All the walls are lit by candles and covered by a grimy substance. There are four doors in front of me, each with a different symbol. One has the same symbol he had carved on his chest when he came bleeding to my apartment. I open it slowly with my left hand, using my gun with the right hand.

There’s a red circle painted on the floor with markings on it. Inside the circle, there are several corpses of what look like animals. The stench is overwhelming. I run back to the stairs and throw up. I refuse to go in there again. I need to find… Suddenly a very loud noise comes from downstairs. Is it a gun? Did someone shoot?

I rush down the stairs, gun in hand. My heart pounds. The first level below ground is very dark and completely quiet. Only rusty machines and trash. Although there’s a smell… like meat being cooked? I continue my descent. Pitch black silence. I point my gun in front of me. One more floor to go. The smell overwhelms me. The air is thick like a smoke cloud.

There’s a corridor with a dim light at the end. I hear voices. I try to sneak up, but the ground is covered with glass or something, and I make a lot of noise. “Come here where I can see you,” says a man’s voice. “Yes, you in the darkness.” My mouth is dry. I point with my gun and step forward, shaking. The smell intensifies.

There’s an old man cooking something on a pot. By his side, on the floor, there are four piled-up corpses. My partner has his shirt ripped open; he’s currently sitting on a chair, unconscious. “And you are…?” the man asks. “What have you done to him!?” I shout, pointing at him with my gun.

The man turns to my partner. “She’s feisty, this one.” He looks like he expects an answer from my partner, but my partner stays unconscious. “You’re welcome to join us, child,” the man says, pulling up a chair for me at a table. “Dinner’s almost ready.” As I come closer, I discover the corpses are missing their eyes. There is a vat filled with a blood-red liquid. I look at the boiling pot in disgust and point my gun at the man with renewed enthusiasm.

“You sick f-word! What is this place!?” I shout. “I don’t understand,” says the man. “I thought he explained everything. I thought you were ready to take his body.” I just stare at the man, amazed. “Worry not, child. The body and blood of the saviour will cleanse you. He forgives all our trespasses.”

I close my eyes and open them again. This time, I don’t see him. I see mother. I see mother looking down on me, even laughing. “You killed her,” I say. “She was, she was innocent!” I shout and begin to cry. “Why mother!? Why!?” I shout at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says calmly, her voice turning graver as she speaks. “And why!? What for!? What did she mean to you!?” She raises her hands, trying to appease me. “Just put it down so we can talk, ok?”

“It’s matches! He’s got my gun!” shouts my partner, who has just woken up. “He’s cooking up some guy. Shoot him, quick!” he yells in distress. Mother looks at him, then at me. “No, look—” She reaches into her back with her right hand. I fire the gun. I hear a shout. I’m the one shouting. At first I’m afraid, not expecting the recoil from the gun. Then I realize I’ve shot a man in the chest. His blood starts pouring out.

“What have I done?” I say, shaking. The gun falls from my hands. My partner comes to me and hugs me. “Shh, It’s ok, it’s ok,” he says, caressing my hair. Then he takes the gun from the floor and takes me by the hand. We rush to the stairs. It’s like I’m in a dream, like none of this is real. Once we’re back at the first level, he whispers to me “wait here.”

“No! Where are you going!?” I ask, grabbing his arm. “To get rid of this place,” he says before vanishing back into the darkness below. I can’t follow him. I’m dizzy and everything spins around me. The walls crawl around me and I hear voices creeping in. What have I done? I shot a man. I shot a man in cold blood. I have to call the police. I have to tell someone. I look outside and see demons flying around. Wh-what is going on?

He comes out quickly. “Let’s go,” is all he says. We start walking away. He grabs me by the waste, pushing me to move forward. “What did you do?” I ask. He stays silent. “What did you do!?” I shout. We keep walking, faster and faster. He looks to me and says, “What needed to be done.” Oh no, he didn’t. “Did you—” I tremble to ask. “… set it on fire?” I ask.

He doesn’t say anything. I turn and head to the building. I try to run to it, but I’m too dizzy. All the flying demons are looking at me. The world is spinning and my legs feel heavy. I try to go faster, but I stumble with something and fall. It feels like I can’t stop falling.

§ White lies

In my dreams I see the people I’ve failed, screaming in pain. I see the flames consuming everything, reaching out for me. “Are you ok?” says a voice. “You were speaking in your dreams.” We’re in a car, speeding through the city. Ambulance sirens and firetrucks cross our way. I’m covered in my own cold sweat. I just want to go home.

He’s driving. I don’t understand, since he was in such bad shape. My head hurts as though I’d been hit by one of those trucks. More sirens going in our opposite direction. I try to speak, to tell him the building is full of people, but I can’t. I faint again. This time I dream of nothing. I wake up with a terrible headache, back in the motel room.

He’s sitting on the bed. I reach out to him with my hands, gasping. Finally he hears me and turns back. “Hang on,” he says, and fetches me a glass of water. It tastes like glory. Then it’s like I’m hit with a bucket of ice-cold water in the face. I remember the fire in my apartment, the man I’ve shot, the fire we’ve caused.

“Bu-build—” I struggle to say but my throat shuts tight. “Peo-ple!” “Slow down,” he says, trying to appease me with his hands. “Take it easy.” I drink some more water. “There was people in the building.” He looks away. “I know,” he says. I take my hands to my face. “So they’re…” I ask. “Yes. All of them.” “Turn on the news,” I say. He stays silent. “Turn on the news!” I shout, then start coughing.

“You shouldn’t put yourself through it,” he says calmly. What, he doesn’t feel like it’s also his fault? “Do it or I’m leaving,” I threaten. The ancient tv in the room makes a loud noise, like it’s dying. Finally it turns on. He switches to a news channel and mutters “Yeah, like you can,” thinking I can’t hear him.

We watch images of the fire raging in the building. Firefighters holding tight to high ladders shoot water into it. A banner below reads, “16 KILLED AND MORE MISSING IN FIRE.” My heart skips a beat. “There it is. Happy now?” he asks. He takes a long gulp from a bottle. I weep in silence, trying not to let him see my tears.

What now? What are we going to do? Where can we go? They’ll find us. We killed them. They-they burned alive. But why? Why!? I must know, I have to know. Are they looking for us? I step down from bed, my head still dizzy. I stumble, looking for my phone. “Where’s my phone?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. I look for a power socket, thinking I left it charging. I find one near the bathroom, but it’s been completely filled with some unidentified substance.

My head aches too much to go on. I surrender and lie down, with my hands covering my eyes. A loud knocking on the door. My heart pounds. They found us. It’s all over. He signals me to keep quiet as he loads his gun. “It’s me, open up,” says a girl’s voice. Could it be? I struggle to stand up. “What are you doing?” he whispers. With superhuman effort I drag myself to the door and open it. My heart skips a beat. “Oh my god, are you ok?” my friend from school says, holding me.

“How—” tries to ask my dead girlfriend’s brother. I can tell she’s angry. She’s very angry. “How are you still al—” he says. She slams the door, interrupting him. “We need to talk now. It’s time we clear things up.”

The coffee my friend from school makes for me clears my head, but the migraine persists. I sit on the bed, sipping from it. She sits on a chair in front of me, and my dead girlfriend’s brother sits on another so that we form a triangle. “What I am going to say will strike you,” she says to me. “Scar you even. You may be tempted to rush to the police after I tell you what you need to know, but I hope, by the time I’m done, that you change your mind.”

I look at him. He’s very unhappy about the whole situation. It’s clear he didn’t want me to know what I’m about to learn. “So far he has told you about his time with this ‘matches’ guy, right?” starts my friend. “But not about how… or more important, when he started. It wasn’t after his sister killed herself. He actually started about two years ago—” “Thirty-two months to be more precise,” he interrupts. “But sure, go on.”

“Do you want to tell her why, in your own words?” she asks looking at him. He nods. “I… Look, my uncle hates me. He’s told me I’m weak and humiliated me more times than I can remember. Still, I worked hard to make him appreciate me. But it was too much, keeping up with tol and college, so I started using. At first it was drugs to treat attention deficit disorders, then cocaine, and finally, well, you know, meth. I became aggressive, vengeful…Who am I talking to. You’ve seen me like that. I started gambling to afford drugs, and ended up owing money to the wrong people.”

“So the little s-word went to his sister for help,” she continues, “and she turned to me. I knew someone who could give him money in exchange for… certain things.” He comes closer to me, to the edge of his chair. “At first it was just dying businesses, for the insurance money, you know?” he says. “Wait, what are you saying?” I ask. He sighs and takes his hands to his face. “We set up a scheme,” she explains. “My… contact, bought the dying businesses. Then he” she points at my dead girlfriend’s brother, “burned them down when nobody was inside, the owner collected the insurance money and we split the profit. Easy money. Or at least at first it was.”

“You see,” my friend from school goes on, “my contact wasn’t exactly an exemplary citizen. He scammed some of his other ‘business partners’ and tried to run. But he was found hanging from a bridge with his hands cut off… you know, for being a thief.” I just stare at her with my mouth open, unable to believe how easy it is for her to tell the story. “So we decided to start doing it all ourselves. We set up a private fund as a front. It wasn’t hard to convince the small business owners that if they didn’t sell to us nobody would save them from bankruptcy, which was actually true. They sold their business at half what we got from their insurance policies, burned them to the ground and cashed in the insurance money. Then we laundered it through tol as donations and it became perfectly legal money in our hidden bank accounts.”

I don’t know whether to be amazed or terrified. “How-how much did you make?” I ask. She smiles. “A lot. You see, this city has been dying for a long time now. You’ve seen the empty streets and buildings. We just, well, we just took advantage of the situation, and also benefited a good cause—” “But you are criminals,” I interrupt her. “Hmmm technically, yes,” she says. “So if this gets out, we’re all going away?” I ask. She nods and adds “A s-wordstorm would be unleashed.”

I stay silent for a while. “There’s more though, right?” I ask. He’s very tense. I can see him twitching on his seat. “Maybe we could skip—” he starts before she interrupts him. “No. She needs to hear the full story. In fact, we should have told her months ago, as I suggested.” He angrily mutters something to himself. She goes on. “Yes, there’s more. Much more. Do you remember when we doxed those bullies and they got killed?” I nod. “Well, the night before the trip, we started a fire at a grocery store we had just bought. His—” she looks at him, “assistant was the one who took care of that one. At that time, he did most of the dirty work, even though he hated it and he refused to accept pay bonuses. It seems to me he just wanted to keep his job, for some reason.”

“Anyway, that night, two teenagers had broken in to smoke or have sex or whatever teenagers do in closed shops. They were caught off guard by the fire. Their charred corpses were found the next day, and the story broke the news—” “My assistant was out of his mind,” interrupts my dead girlfriend’s brother. “He said he had had enough, that it was time to stop. I made him agree to wait until the trip was over. That was why he was so… mad.” Now it all starts to make sense. “But that’s not all,” I say, fearing what I’m about to say next. “He wasn’t ‘the arsonist.’ You… made him that. You framed him.”

“You see,” she says. “The stars simply aligned. We had to start a fire in buildings that weren’t ours before anyone made the connection to the other fires. We thought doing it in broad daylight would let people get out quicker. Well, it turns out we were wrong. The ancient safety protocols failed, though we couldn’t have expected that. But the funny thing was, we started a fire where his former assistant had just gotten a job. We didn’t even know at the time, but when we found out, we threatened him, and forced him to keep quiet. After all, we had disposed of most of the hard evidence. Everything would have been fine, but he was… a weak man.”

“He began drinking. Heavily. We got him into rehab but he got away and we had to track him down. Finally, the week of the mayoral election, he said he was done after one of his getaways. We too were tired of putting up with his constant preaching and moral high ground… He killed two people for f-word’s sake!” She sighs. “We got him drunk, took him to the backyard and sat with him, looking at the stars…” “Please, no, stop,” he says. “You see… he,” she points at my dead girlfriend’s brother with an accusing finger, “… he just didn’t have it in him to pull the trigger. I had to do it. I splattered his brains all over the ground.”

I throw up. It’s too much, too much information. “For f-word’s sake…” mutters my dead girlfriend’s brother after I spill my guts. “Then we buried him until we needed him again,” she continues. “They’re actually still looking for him… Hah, I bet they won’t guess where he is.” I take my hands to my face and sigh. “Ok but, how does any of this fit with ‘matches’ and all that crap?” I ask. She looks at my dead girlfriend’s brother, amused. “Go on, tell her,” she says. “I…” he starts. “I was matches. I was the one hooked on meth who set hobos on fire. The one who was horrified was… my assistant.”

“And all that crap about working for some men with guns who were afraid of matches?” I ask, angrier. “All bulls-word,” she says, smiling. “In fact, let’s see what he has done to you: he told you crazy stories of supervillains and crawled through rain and mud for your attention and care. But that wasn’t enough. He realized I was a threat, and he wanted you aaaall for himself. So what did the little s-word do? He broke into our apartment with one of your keys while you were out, saw what he thought was me sleeping in my bed (which actually was a mannequin,) then set fire to our apartment and blocked the door. Apparently, he’s not very smart nor original, cause I saw it coming.”

He looks down in shame. “Is that true?” I ask. He nods without looking at me. “Oh, oh, but that’s not even the best part,” says my friend from school. “Fearing he would lose you, he stole your phone so you wouldn’t see my messages and realized I was alive in case he failed. It looks like he was actually good at predicting he would fail. Ironic, isn’t it?” He throws her a threatening look. “Then I bet you did something,” she goes on, looking into my eyes. “Or even worse: you killed someone.” My heart races. With everything, I had forgotten about all those dead junkies. “We,” I start, then swallow and go on, “well, he burned down a building, and I shot a man,” I say. She smiles, pleased. “I knew it, I f-wording knew it. He made you his accomplice so you would ‘be together’ or some s-word. I hoped you would realize what a leech he was before he got you knee-deep into his s-wordy life. I’m sorry, I should’ve told you everything sooner.”

I look at her. Despite everything she’s done, I can’t hate her. I understand they hid their activities from me for everyone’s safety. But he? Oh. He’s something else entirely. “Game’s up,” I say to him. “If you thought you had any chance with me, forget it. I’ll never forgive you for this, no matter what you do.” He tries to open his mouth to apologize, but I stop him. “However, we will get married in a couple of years.” They both look at me with eyes wide open. “Wh-what does that mean?” he asks. “Yes, what the…?” she asks. “Don’t mistake what I’m saying. You’ll never, I repeat, never, have me. But I will be your wife and we will promote each other’s political career.” Then I breathe deeply, and after a few moments, I say. “I won’t go to the police, I’ll never tell anyone.” Except you, of course. “In exchange, I want to know everything. I know there’s more. And we need to make all of this go away.” She smiles, pleased. He looks down to the ground in shame.

If there’s an inflection point in life, this is mine. I could have come clean about everything. But what then? Life in prison? Getting out in sixteen years with no friends, no money, no education? I refuse. I won’t be a victim of other people’s crimes. No. They will be my victims.

§ Chapter Three: Ascent

§ They burn house

I just talked to his uncle. I explained how his nephew needed a family for public image, a wife for support and a dedicated assistant to clean up his messes. He agreed to meet me in person when he understood I could provide it all. Who knows, I could soon be engaged to the guy with the brightest future… and the darkest past.

That doesn’t bother me though. My friend from school and I have plans for that. But first, me and my new fiance will move to his uncle’s apartment, where I’ll have my own, independent room. That is, once his uncle accepts me, which he will. The, let’s say “night of revelations,” ends with him alone in the motel, while my friend from school and I sleep at her apartment. The next day I wake her up in the crack of dawn. “You knew I wouldn’t go to the police,” I say. She smiles, still half-asleep. “Yes, because in more ways than you think, I’m like you.” I sip from my coffee and hand another one to her. “Before I go to his uncle’s apartment, let’s fix the whole ‘arsonist’ deal. Are there any cameras where you buried him?” She shakes her head. “Good,” I say.

She drives the car through a rundown boulevard beneath rundown buildings and parks in a rundown house. It’s the perfect house for meth heads, degenerates and dysfunctional families. Here you can grow up to be any kind of lowlife you want. We take two shovels from the trunk and start digging up. The smell is strong at first, increasing until it then becomes unbearable. Finally, when I reach with my shovel to dig, I accidentally stab his face. It’s kind of disturbing. “Oops,” I say looking at her. “Don’t worry, he doesn’t mind if it’s you who stabs him,” she says.

He’s wrapped in a large plastic bag and sprinkled with a white powder that helps with the smell, although not enough. We drag the plastic bag into the house and leave the gun I used to kill the man in that basement by his side. Then we empty a gasoline can all over the floor. After I’m done, she hands me a box of matches. I find it ironic. “Do you want to do the honors?” she asks. “Sure,” I say, lighting a match and flicking it into a small trail of gasoline we had left that led to the house. The fire quickly spreads, engulfing the whole house.

She takes out one of her many burner phones, and we call the hotline for people who spot the infamous “arsonist.” “Yes? Hello?” I say with a foreign accent. “I-I think I just see him.” “Please, I’m going to need you to calm down,” says the lady on the phone. I ignore her and go on. “Oh no, oh no! They just—oh god, they just shooting him. They have gasoline can… Oh can’t watch, can’t watch.” “Please tell me where you are,” goes on the lady. “They burn house… oh can’t watch… come fast to 32 acacia avenue.”

I hang up, turn off the phone, take off the battery and destroy the card. Half an hour later, we stop by a bridge over a river and throw the shovels and the remains of the phone to the water. Then we drive home to change clothes and shower away the smell of kerosene. Once I’m clean, we go to his uncle’s apartment. “Talk to you later,” I say to her before picking my things and stepping out of the car.

I’m finally at his uncle’s place. It’s a large flat in the middle of the city. It must have cost millions judging by the location and size. I ring the doorbell at the building door, walk up the stairs, and ring the apartment’s doorbell. “Greetings, dear. You’re as beautiful as always,” says his uncle, gracefully kissing my hand. His wife is on the kitchen, immobile, smiling like a piece of furniture. I heard she had a stroke when she learned her niece had died and has been paralyzed since. “Please, come inside,” he goes on. “My nephew is already here.”

I enter the flat carrying a suitcase. The walls are covered with images of his uncle shaking hands with important people. Politicians, tycoons, news anchors… you name it. “Just leave the bags at the entrance,” his uncle says casually. “Follow me please,” he goes on. We enter a studio. His wife smiles sweetly from the kitchen at me as I close the door. She’s kinda creepy. His uncle sits down in a large reclinable chair behind his desk.

I sit in a small wooden chair in front of his desk. My… “boyfriend?” is at my right, and doesn’t even greet me. “Are you ill?” his uncle asks him. “Uncle, why—” my boyfriend tries to protest. “I said, are you ill?” his uncle interrupts him. My boyfriend moves around in his chair, clearly uncomfortable. “Please, not in front of—” he practically begs his uncle. “Answer the question,” his uncle says calmly. They look at each other for a moment. “No…” my boyfriend finally answers.

“Good!, good…” says his uncle. “Are you a retard?” his uncle continues, angrier. I feel very violent. “No, I—” “Then can you explain to me why you started another f-wording fire after I ordered you to stop!?” he yells. “I’m beginning to question whether you’re serious about your commitment or not. Maybe you don’t have what it takes, and you’re just a little stray sheep after all…” “I am the wolf,” my boyfriend mutters, and only I hear it. “Come again!?” his uncle yells at him.

“N-nothing,” my boyfriend mutters, cowering back into his chair. “Now, dear,” says his uncle. “I’m terribly sorry about the way he’s treated you. I hope we can start over. Want some tea?” He hands me a cup of tea with some cookies. I take it and drink from it. “Look,” his uncle goes on. “I’ve brought him here because, well, it seems we can’t leave him on his own.” I look at him puzzled, unsure of how much he knows. “Dear, there’s something you need to learn about me,” he says noticing my expression. “You’ll never be able to hide anything from me.”

We’re all quiet. “Yes, I know all about the fires,” my boyfriend’s uncle goes on. “I had such high hopes for him, you know. But I fear he’s a wildcard, that he can’t be controlled. Not even by his own aspirations.” His uncle looks at his own cup of tea, and pulls the tea bag in and out for a few seconds. “Oh, but he can,” I say confidently. The two men look at me confused. “I will keep him in check, as we discussed.” I go on. “What are you doing, shut up—” my boyfriend tries to stop me. “No, no. Let her speak her mind. This is how she convinced me,” stops him his uncle.

“I’m guessing you want him to be mayor for the election after this one?” I ask. His uncle nods. “Okay, afterwards probably… congress?” I go on. He smiles. “And I thought you only had the looks. You’re going to be of more use than I thought.” He stops for a second and looks at my boyfriend. “Out, shoo!” he commands. My boyfriend leaves, ashamed. Once the door is closed, his uncle continues. “Now that I see you’re not just some bimbo, can you tell me why should I trust you? You are little more than a stranger in this family.”

“That’s not fair, and you know it,” I answer. “I gave everything I could to tol, your organization. I planned and spent months working all day on your niece’s campaign. I loved her as much as I could, as long as I could. So don’t you dare tell me I’m a ‘stranger’ in this family, because I’ve had more interactions with it in the last year than you probably have in your whole life.” He’s half-shocked by my attitude and words at first. Then a smile slowly forms around his lips as he stands up and walks around his desk in my direction. “I believe he can be even more than a congressman,” he says. “But not by himself. He needs people like us to do the hard work.” I’m starting to see the whole picture. “President in sixteen years…” I mutter, astonished. It’s too ambitious. He sits on his desk, right in front of me. “Yes, dear. It’s ambitious, I know.” “But he’s a murderer,” I say.

He chuckles and says “And a major participant in large-scale insurance fraud, after threatening, bribing or blackmailing insurance officers to ensure their cooperation. I’m aware of all that. I know they got millions out of it. That… brat too, the one running tol now. I’ll have to pull the plug from that immediately, before—” “Why?” I interrupt him, fearing for my friend from school. “It’s gotten completely out of hand. All it was meant to do was propaganda for natdec, not… engaging in large-scale fraud. You see, it was supposed to be a… let’s say ‘mob of angry possums.’ All they had to do was, you know, make noise, turn over trash cans and get hit by cars. Now they’ve become a pack of shady ferrets… or, ironically, how it’s called: a business. And your friend in particular has too much power right now.”

I have to prove my loyalty right now, even if it’s completely fake. “It needs to be shut down then,” I say. He looks at me with suspicion. “So you don’t care if your good old friend from… school was it? You don’t care she loses her job and we potentially antagonize her?” I shake my head and say “To hell with her.” “Ok, then I want you to announce it yourself. You’ll go over there tomorrow and shut down the whole thing.” I nod and say, “As you wish.” “Oh, and take your fiance with you.” We both smile. As the song says… “you put your right foot in…”

§ Water tasting

I look at the faces of the more than 64 employees. We’ve gathered them all in a single room. My friend from school is also there. “First of all,” I start. “I want to thank you all for your hard work here. Specially to the wise leader who coordinated your efforts.” I shake her hand. “Unfortunately, natdec has decided that they can no longer afford to fund this operation—” Sighs and protests fill the room. “Please, guys, calm down,” my friend from school says. “Let her speak.”

“Thank you,” I say. “If it were up to me, I would not only keep this thing going, I would add even more funding. Also, don’t think for a second I will forget what you have achieved here. If it’s ever up to me, I will make you an even better offer. Meanwhile, I doubt any of you will have a hard time finding a new job, am I wrong?” Some of them smile, knowing I’m right. “Now, please, a round of applause for the great work we’ve all done here.” Far from being dejected and sad, everyone claps enthusiastically. I smile at my friend from school. She smiles back at me.

On our way back to my fiance’s apartment—Well, our apartment. Anyway, on our way back, my fiance seems displeased. “You were too friendly there, weren’t you?” He says bitterly. “If you are trying to imply something,” I say. “Please make it plain, I don’t have the energy to play mental sword fighting with you right now.” I can feel he’s upset that those people didn’t hate me, and I’ve just made him angrier. “You think you’re such a princess, don’t you?” He says getting closer to me as though he wants to touch me inappropriately. “Well, let me tell you, you’re nothing without me. If I say so, I can just dump you and find another—” “No, you can’t, and no you won’t.” I interrupt him. “Because you need me if you want to do anything beyond meth.”

He raises his hand to hit me. I can feel his breath on me. “Go ahead, do it,” I say calmly. “Show everyone how you really are.” He stops himself. “Maybe one day I will,” he mutters. Our designated driver takes us to the apartment, and after we wait for an important meeting to finish, his uncle receives us. I explain how things went, then he looks at my fiance and asks me to leave his office. My fiance will try to turn his uncle against me. But he’s got nothing solid, only my “attitude” and “their attitude.”

His uncle says nothing to me after talking to his nephew. I take that as a bad sign and go to bed. It’s summer right now, and there’s only a couple of months left before classes resume. I spend that time preparing for my final year of law school, determined to finish my education. I don’t have a phone of my own, and I rarely leave the apartment, never alone of course. I’m given a computer, which I only use to study and play games. Yes, every weekend at exactly 8:00 pm I play a few games. My fiance watches me when I play, and in fact plays with me sometimes. I always play the same game, a rather old one where there is barely enough players to keep it going. But just enough so that when I look for a game at a particular time in a particular day, I’m almost guaranteed to play with anyone who also plays on that timeframe.

You may have guessed it. I use the game as cover to talk to my friend from school. Of course I don’t just ask her “hey, are you doing fine after being pushed out of tol?” No, we have a code. And she always makes a new account before each game, so it looks like I’m talking to different people. My fiance hates that I spend so much of the time we play just speaking to “plebs,” as he calls them. But it’s my way of letting her know how I’m doing.

After a long, boring summer, finally classes begin. After the first class of one of my subjects, a blonde and a brunette approach me. “Hi,” says the brunette cheerfully. “Hey,” says the blonde, more dryly. “Hi, I’m—” I say. “Yeah, we know,” the blonde cuts me. There’s an awkward silence. “We were curious about you,” says the brunette. “We were wondering if… Well, if you wanted to have lunch with us? We’re heading out to this new place—” “Sure, sounds great,” I reply quickly. This is the first contact with regular people I’ve had in weeks. I don’t really want to hang out with them, but my fiance’s uncle suggested I “accrue acquaintances.” And I should have some progress to report on that; he must not be disappointed.

A sixteen-minute cab ride later, we enter the restaurant. The tables are neatly set for their grand opening tonight. “Come on, the owner is a friend of the family,” says the blonde. We sit and immediately a waitress brings us the menu. A burst of laughter escapes me after seeing the prices. Thirty-two dollars for an omelette? What’s in it, thirty two dollars? I order the simplest thing I can find, steak.

“Red wine for me, please,” orders the brunette. “White for me,” says the blonde, smirking at the brunette. I don’t understand anything. “Just water for me, please,” I say timidly to the waitress. She must be my age, and I feel… guilty? I don’t know. I’m used to being on the other side of this social interaction. “Please, you don’t have to restrain yourself,” says the blonde without looking at me. “You can order wine or something. There’s also freedom vodka,” she continues, looking at me this time. “No, thanks. I don’t really drink,” I say shyly. They look at each other. “Why? Are you an alcoholic or something,” says the blonde. I feel how the brunette kicks her under the table. “I don’t think it’s polite to ask that,” she says to the blonde. “No, don’t worry,” I say. “I-I’ve had bad experiences with alcohol.”

The blonde is about to open her mouth when she looks at the brunette. “It’s ok, that’s cool,” the brunette says. “Water for her, please,” she says to the waitress. While we wait for our orders, the two girls talk. And talk. They bring our drinks, but they keep talking even as they ellegantly sip from it. “So how did you… end up getting engaged with… well, you know who,” asks the brunette taking a sip. “Well, I-It’s kind of a long story, really,” I say. “We’ve got all the time in the world,” says the blonde. I sigh. I don’t really want to tell them the fake stories I’ve been cooking up for precisely this kind of situation. Lying is exhausting, that’s why I prefer talking to you. Thanks to you I don’t need, well, them.

“Hello, are you ok?” asks the blonde. I seem to have been blank for a while now. “Yes, sorry,” I say. “I, uhm. You know my fiance?” They nod. “Well, I was a close friend of his and his sister until she—” My voice breaks. “Such a tragedy,” says the blonde with a manufactured sad face. “Always in our hearts,” follows the brunette. “After she… you know. Well, we became involved,” I continue. “And just a couple of weeks ago, he asked me to marry him.” “Yes, yes, let us see it,” waves me off the blonde. “See what?” I ask naively. “The ring, silly,” says the brunette stretching her arm and taking my hand. “Wow, your hand is really cold,” she says.

“Ehm—” I stutter. This is a little awkward. “That’s like, a lot of private donations,” says the blonde looking at the huge rock in my hand. The brunette smacks her playfully. “What a b-word. You can’t say these things.” They laugh while I stare like an idiot. I force myself to laugh with them. “So what is he like?” asks the brunette. “How do you mean?” I answer. “Delivering speeches, fundraising… What do you think!? In bed I mean,” she goes on jokingly. I blush and we all laugh again. Shortly after a couple of waiters and the chef bring our food. My “steak” is a small cube of… “meat” in the centre of an enormous plate. The plate could hold at least two-thousand and forty-eight cubes of meat like this one. But no, there’s only the one.

“Bon appetit,” says the chef, who stands by our table, watching. The two girls look at their dishes, delighted. They ordered salad and tuna. They got exactly the same as me. A cube in the middle of a gigantic dish. “Well, dig in,” says the blonde. Dig in? What? I pick it up and put it in my mouth. It’s not bad for about four seconds. Then it’s done. “Superb,” says the brunette. “Yes, you can appreciate the quality. This tuna was clearly raised in the wild.” She stops for a moment, focusing on her meal. “It had to swim up rivers, surviving wild bears and other furtive attackers to breed.” Is this really happening? “Indeed,” says the blonde. “I can feel the care put into nurturing this exquisite blend of vegetables, grown exclusively to produce this single experience. Astonishing.”

Now they look at me as though expecting similar crap. “It’s… interesting,” I say. “What do you mean, just ‘interesting’?” the blonde asks disappointed. “Now, come on,” stops her the brunette. “By that she means she experienced something unmundane, something beyond the perfunctory city routine.” The blonde nods in agreement. I say nothing. The chef leaves, pleased with our reaction. “So what’s next, are we going to a water tasting party?” I ask trying to be ironical. “No, that’s this friday,” says the blonde unironically. “We’ll text you the details.” The brunette glances at me and smiles, telling me in secret she understood the irony.

“I’ll be right back. I have to, ugh, entertain the owner,” says the blonde tiredly, standing up. Her tone annoys me. “And don’t worry about the meal, it’s on the house,” she continues as she leaves. I watch her walking down her imaginary catwalk to the kitchen, showing off her body for all the people watching her in her imagination. “So tell me something about you,” the brunette says. I realize she has been staring at me. “Wh-what do you mean?” I ask. “Why are you here?” she asks. I look into her eyes. “I’m honestly not sure.”

§ Free rider

Uncle was pleased with what I told him about my first day. Yes, uncle, because now I’m basically part of the family. “So what have you planned next?” he asks during dinner. “I will try to meet other students” I say slowly as I look into his eyes for a sign of approval. “And try to get them to owe me favors.” He nods, pleased. “You see,” he points at my fiance with the knife he’s using, “if you had been like her when you had your chance, things would be much easier now.” My fiance says nothing, only holds his own knife tighter as he cuts his steak. His face tells me all I need to know: he hates his uncle more than anything else in the world.

Then why is he doing this? Why is he playing ball? I guess he’s been pounded into submission. Then again, what is keeping him here? I have to find out, my future depends on these lunatics. “So,” I start casually, looking at uncle. “You never told me why you moved to this city.” My fiance opens his mouth, but his uncle throws him a threatening look which is enough to shut him up. “My niece thought she could make more of a difference here… She was an idealist, you know?”

I nod in agreement. My fiance half-smiles with his mouth closed, showing his silent disagreement. “I guess she told you she and I founded tol,” uncle goes on. “It was her idea though. I thought it would both give her political momentum and help natdec. And it did. She could’ve been the youngest governor in history, but she chose not to. She ended up believing the slogans she manufactured, thinking she was saving the world. I thought it was so strange, how she changed…” His mind seems to wander off. He stares at me. “I hope you don’t make the same mistake,” he says. “I hope you are more of a… realist.” I’m not sure if it’s a warning or a threat. For a moment it seems as though he was talking to her.

We finish diner, go to sleep, wake up, I go to class. It’s cold all day. It rains all day. It’s the same day all week. One by one we meet all the teachers throughout the first week. Most are energetic and manage to capture my attention. A few are boring and tedious. Then there’s one that I can’t stand from the first day. He’s overweight, has an unshaven double chin, and speaks as though he were the maker of all laws. But what I can’t forgive, what makes me hate him, is how he looks at girls.

When a male asks him a question, he answers tiredly and reluctantly. When a girl asks, however, he slithers closer to her. He smiles and compliments her for asking a bright question. He sometimes stares at her breasts shamelessly, or licks his lips when he thinks nobody sees him. But I see him for what he is. There is one girl who asks an annoyingly high number of questions: my blonde “friend”. Our seating arrangement is this: at my right sits the brunette, and at her right, the blonde. The brunette sometimes whispers a question to the blonde or me, saying for example “If that’s so, the process for constitutional amendments must take this into account…” The blonde then usually asks a rephrasing of that same idea to the teacher.

“Are you honestly not concerned at all about her stealing all your questions?” I ask the brunette. “No,” she says with a smile. “She’s my friend.” I’m sorry but this is weird. I don’t believe she’s here letting people climb on her back. Just yesterday she told me she didn’t come from a rich family, that she’s actually here on a scholarship. A scholarship! There’s like only one or two for this place. She must be really good.

The teachers give us different projects to work on. Thankfully most are individual, and I can make sure all the work is done. Then there are other projects where the teachers assign us random teammates; the reason being, they say, “that’s how it works in a job, so we have to suck it up.” This is like being told, “Hey, in a couple of years you will be shot in the foot. But instead of running and enjoying life until then, we’re gonna shoot you now!”

As you may have guessed, I don’t enjoy forced teamwork. My experience with it has always been the same, whether working or studying. If I want something done right, I have to do it myself. People avoid as much responsibility and work as they can. I realize the teacher is staring at me. “Miss, are you ok?” It seems I drifted off again, here in my thoughts. The brunette touches my arm gently and whispers “hey.” I stand up and head over to where the rest of my recently-assigned team is standing. I never know what to say in these situations. “Hi,” a guy greets me.

§ Teamwork

The monotony train gains speed as we cruise through the first month of class. The slimy teacher becomes ever more creepy. My team project stresses me to new levels. We talk to each other online, using our phones. The first week, we assigned the tasks and agreed to have the work done for the next week. The second week I had my work done, and asked them how they were doing. There was no answer right until the day before we were supposed to deliver. “i don’t get how to do this?” texted one of them. The other two simply said nothing. I tried to explain how to research basic facts about a topic, and how to write a simple report. But no, that didn’t stick. After a fruitless one-hour conversation with a completely useless human being, I told him “nevermind, I’ll do it.” How the hell did these people get to last year?

I finished his part in two hours. Then I made myself a coffee and finished the other two parts. “It’s done,” I texted them sometime during dusk when decent people are asleep. “Ok, I can upload it,” offered generously the useless teammate. The other two had the decency to remain quiet. It really annoyed me to see his smug offer for help. “No,” was all I restrained myself to answer. The next day the teacher spoke to each of the groups about their projects. “I think you can do better, guys,” she said. I agree, I wasn’t my finest work.

“We should try to improve for the next delivery,” says one of the teammates in person. “And where were you when I asked?” I say furiously. He shrugs his shoulders. “We should plan ahead next time,” offers as invaluable advice another teammate. I breathe deeply and focus on not going bats-word crazy on them. “Look,” I say. “I’m going to do all the work. You people just stay out of my way.” Two of them stay silent, knowing this is the best they could hope for. “But isn’t that, like, I don’t know… I’ll feel guilty,” starts the other. “Don’t worry. Just… think you owe me a favor. I can ask something of you in the future.”

The two silent ones smile, pleased like good future bureaucrats. The other barely tries to stop me, saying “Well, if that’s what you want.” Yes it is. If they tried to help, they would only interfere. Shortly after our little conversation, I have class with the creepy, slimy professor. He waltzes into the room smiling. He looks at the girls like they are his harem. Today I learned he gives great grades to girls who agree to, ehm, how to put it, “show him the goods.” Even though I expected something like that, I now find him even more repulsive. “Good morning class,” he greets.

Everyone greets him back, except for me. I think he realizes, but I don’t care. I think he knows I don’t like him. Class starts off as always. He begins peddling his pedant pedagogy. I turn off my brain and take off to dreamland. Then suddenly, amidst all his babbling, I distinguish him saying the date our constitution was signed. And it’s wrong. I never raise my arm, but this time I feel like I have to. First timidly, then with more vigor, I stretch my arm upward. “Yes?” he asks irritated, as though I was a male student.

“I-I think you got the date, wh-when the constitution was signed wrong,” I say. He smiles smugly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he starts. “You must be mistaken. The date was—” “Yes, I know the date you said. But that was when it was first ratified, which was after it was signed. Look, it’s all in my phone.” I put it up, but of course no one can see it. I hear people beginning to type. He is clearly embarrassed that I called him out. “Ok, I made a mistake. We’re all humans after all, aren’t we?” he says, and his yes-men in the front nod. The people in the back of the class are watching kitten videos or playing some crappy online skinnerbox game, completely oblivious to what’s going on.

“I think we should be lenient with those who err, should we not?” he asks me. “You never know when you’re going to need other people’s help.” That’s a threat to me right there. People are smiling in blissful ignorance. Most either don’t care or don’t get what just happened. He quickly picks up where I interrupted him. “Did you hear that?” I whisper to my brunette friend. She nods. “I don’t like him either. But don’t worry about him.”

Don’t worry? How? I’m stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have stayed quiet. Why did I have to say anything? To spite him? My throat is dry. Maybe if I apologize… “Seriously, do not worry,” the brunette says again, putting her hand on my arm. Wait, is there something I’m missing here?

§ #MeToo

Finally we get to our midterms. Stress strains me as I plough through the different projects I have to deliver in quick succession. Then there’s studying, which I’ve always hated. I can’t rest until I feel I’ve covered everything that might be asked. I read, reread, summarize, memorize. The exams take about four hours each. Then I come home to study for the next day. After two weeks of extenuating work, I get through the midterms.

The next week, some of the exams are already corrected. Subject after subject I get an email saying the grades are up. Subject after subject I pass them all. Or at least until I get the last grade, the one taught by the creepy professor. I stare at the screen in silence. I failed the exam. How? I know I got most of the answers right, I really knew the stuff. Tomorrow I should talk to the professor, see what happened.

After waiting over an hour for him to get to his office, he starts reviewing the exams individually with each failed student. Finally my turn is up. I step into his office. He’s wearing his smug smile. “Please, sit down,” he says. The room is cold, very cold. I notice my nipples getting hard and instantly realize that’s the reason why it’s so cold. “Hmmm,” he mutters as he looks for my exam from a pile. “Oh, here it is,” he says. “It seems like you only provided answers for about half the questions.” My heart pounds. I open my mouth, but I choke. Then I manage to say, “No, the-there must be some sort of mistake, I answered everything.”

He stays silent. “Well, there’s only two sheets here when you should have turned in four.” He stares at me for a few seconds. “I have no option but to fail you. I’m sure you won’t make this kind of mistake the next time.” Oh, I see what he means. He “lost” the rest of my exam. “Maybe there’s—” I stop. “Yes?” he asks, leaning forward. “there’s a way…” I finish. His smile becomes even wider. “Yes, there is. Come into my office tomorrow after class. We’ll have a private lesson.”

I leave feeling sick. The good thing is I won’t have to do anything. I reach into my pocket and stop my phone, which has recorded the whole thing. I know who I should take this to. I knew it before I started. I call her from my phone. “Yes?” my brunette friend answers. “I got him on tape offering to change my grade for sex,” I say excitedly. “Wait, who?” she asks. “Our creepy professor, he teaches us—” “Right, right,” she stops me. “Meet me at my apartment. I’m texting you the address now. And don’t do anything yet. Promise,” she says very seriously. “I promise,” I reply.

I take a cab to get to her apartment. I spend my way over there thinking about my next steps. Should I go public, or threaten him? No, this has to go public. He’s not only hurting me, he’s hurting everyone. Then I plug my headphones in the phone and listen to it again. Oh no. I play it again. There’s no explicit mention of what he wants. It’s obvious by his tone, but he doesn’t really say the words. And he’s a lawyer, he’ll find some way to defend himself against this. “S-word!” I exclaim. “Miss, are you ok?” asks the cab driver. “For f-word’s sake can people stop asking me if I’m ok!” I burst angrily. Immediately I take my hands to my mouth. “I’m sorry, I didn’t… It’s been a long day,” I say. The driver smiles and says “It’s ok, miss. Don’t worry.”

I soon arrive at the address my brunette friend gave me. I walk up the ladder to her apartment in the fourth floor. I ring and she opens. There’s bustle inside. I can see the blonde, the brunette and other girls from class I’ve seen but never met. Then I see my friend from school. She smiles at me and I smile back, not understanding what’s going on. “Oh god, you too?” asks the blonde sympathetically. “Me too… what?” I ask distracted. The girls all look at my friend from school. “She has him on tape making a pass at her,” says my friend from school looking at the other girls.

I feel violent letting the others know, but say nothing. “These girls are my friends,” she continues looking at me. “They have been… molested by the professor,” she explains. I look at them. They are truly fired up about the whole thing. “We’ll fire that a-wordhole (a s s hole)!” says one. “Wh-what did he do to you…” I ask my blonde friend. “If you don’t…” I look at my blonde friend for approval, “mind my asking.” My blonde friend gets up. “Oh, that pig. I asked for some private lessons, and when I got there, he made me take my top off and—” She stops, disgusted.

The blonde strikes me as an attention w-word, unlike some of the other girls. There’s one in particular who has remained quiet this whole time. “I-I,” she stutters. “It’s ok,” whispers my friend from school, sitting by her side and taking her hand. “I was r-raped. That man blackmailed me into having sex with him.” She breaks down crying. My friend looks at me, and I quickly understand what she’s been up to.

§ Rapist

My friend from school and I march down the main hall in our college building, following two police officers. They are going to arrest the creepy professor, and I will get the whole thing on film. We get to reception and the police officers ask where he is. “He’s just down the hall to the right, on the diner,” explains a clerk. As we walk, everyone stops to stare. Finally we reach the diner, which is packed. “There, officer,” I say, pointing with my finger. He stands up. “Sir, you’re gonna have to come with us,” says a police officer. “Wh-what is this? What are you doing?” he asks. The whole diner has gone silent now. Everyone is watching.

“Sir, we are arresting you on charges of rape—” a police officer starts. The diner goes wild with gasps of horror and of indignation. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defense—” “No, this is a mistake!” he interrupts as he is being handcuffed. He looks around the room, and I think he understands. The damage is done. His reputation has been destroyed. Even if he was cleared of all charges now, which he won’t, people would always have the doubt. “I hope this teaches everyone that the world has changed, and no man in a position of power can take advantage of a woman!” my friend from school shouts at him.

The crowd at the diner applauds. I look at my friend from school. She’s wearing a radiant smile. We follow the teacher as the police escort him into the patrol car and leave. I stop recording and say, without looking at her. “You set this whole thing up.” She says nothing so I go on talking. “When the brunette told me not to worry about him, during class… You asked her to say that, right? But why have you waited until now to let me know?” She tries to look away. “I don’t know what you…” she says, but I grab her arm to stop her. “No, you don’t understand,” I say. “I’m trying to thank you.” She turns around, but says nothing. “It’s alright if you don’t want to acknowledge it. I know, and that’s enough. How about we hold a little… conference with the teachers, to explain what has happened?”

Now she’s looking at me funny. “That’s exactly what I had planned,” she says and we both smile. We return to our building, where rumors about our teacher are already spreading like wildfire. We head straight for the student rights representative, and ask for permission to invite media channels. They redirect us to different people holding different charges. We meet with the student’s body representative, the head of the teacher association commission, the student council president and vice president, and many other bureaucrats with a fancy title and absolutely no agency. All they want to do is damage control. They try to offer us “benefits,” wanting to keep this whole thing low-profile. I start to drift off during one of the tedious meetings, and imagine my friend from school and I sailing a ship like corsairs while spider magicians try to hypnotize us. “To finalize the process, let us now arrive at a resolute, non-aggressive agreement. It will ensure that no such—” “Stop!” I yell standing up and taking my hands to my head, interrupting the person speaking. “You are very unhelpful,” I say, concluding the negotiations.

My friend from school snaps out of the trance too. I take her hand and we leave. “These people will do us no good,” I say to her on our way down a flight of stairs. “They want to pose as the heroes who rooted out evil from this institution while protecting it.” She nods and says, “We need to go public without them.” Then suddenly I remember. “The tv hostess from the incident with the bullies,” I say. “She’ll help us. I just have to find her number again.” She looks at me funny and says “are you sure she’s the best—” “Ok, here it is,” I interrupt her. I call and put the phone on speaker so we both can listen.

“Who are you and how do you have my personal number?” She’s not very happy now, but she soon will be. “Hi, I don’t know if you remember, but we filmed that special report on the boy who had been beaten…” “Yeah, I remember,” she says. “The arsonist. Wh-what do you want?” she asks.

“A depraved teacher has just been arrested at my college. I have a tape of him offering me to trade sex for grades. We also have two victims willing to speak up.” I stop. My friend and I look at each other, crossing our fingers. I swear I can hear her licking her lips. “Text me where to meet you at this number. We’ll shoot this on-site,” she says. I smile. “Thank you for—” I say but she’s hung up already. I text her the details. “be ther 1 hour,” is all we get in response after a few seconds. My friend smiles and says, more calmed, “I’m sorry if I didn’t let you in on this.” “Don’t worry,” I reply. “I think my phones are tapped anyway. This was the safe way to go. Did you get everything you needed from tol?”

She nods. “How did you become such good friends with the brunette?” I ask her. “Through a common friend. She’s been, well, my rock during these last months, when I could barely speak to you. Did you know she was actually raped?” So far I’d thought they had offered themselves up, so it catches me by surprise. “We’re going to nail that motherf-worder to the wall,” she says passionately. It makes me wonder if she, too, was… But I won’t ask her if she doesn’t want to talk about it. “Thank you for this, truly.”

§ Stand up against injustice

After an hour preparing for the interview, two large vans with a whole tv crew arrive to campus. “Hello, nice to meet you,” she shakes my friend from school’s hand. “And thank you again,” she says to me. Again? Are you kidding me? You didn’t thank me a first time. “We’ll shoot it out here, if you agree” I say kindly. “Hmm, it’s unorthodox, but ok,” the hostess says. We set everything up just outside our building in campus. Even though it’s supposed to be almost winter, the weather is good. People walking by stop to watch. The camera is set facing our building, and we sit in front of the hostess. “Where are the others?” asks the hostess.

“On their way,” says the brunette. “They’ll be here.” “Can I listen to the tape?” asks the hostess. “Sure, here,” I hand her my phone and headphones. She listens to the whole recording with a straight face in silence. She takes a look at it and heads to the van. She hands it to someone there and gives him verbal instructions, but I don’t hear what she says exactly. “Ok, we’ll use a part of it now, more of it in the longer piece,” she explains. “Longer piece?” my friend from school asks. “Yes. This airs in a few hours, the other in a couple of days. Do you have any idea of how good the timing is?” she asks. I haven’t really looked at the news in a while, since I’ve been focusing on the exams.

“There’s another sexual scandal with—” starts the hostess. “Right, right,” interrupts her my friend from school as though she’s just realized. “There’s that disgusting movie producer.” I don’t buy her fake surprise. She knew all along and timed this perfectly. “You girls have no idea the impact this can have if you play it right,” she explains. My friend looks at her phone. “They’re here. Let me go get 'em,” she says before running out. “There’s also footage of his arrest in there,” I say to the hostess when we’re alone. She smiles. “Isn’t it curious how you’re always at the center of tragedy?” she asks me, catching me off guard.

“I know about your past roommate, who killed herself,” she goes on. “I’m a friend of the family.” I don’t like where this is going. I look down. “That was an awful tragedy,” I say. “Yes, but it’s not all. On the way here I also learned about your family.” My heart skips a beat. “I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere,” she says. “If you’re willing to tell it.” She taps my shoulder in show of support. “Please, don’t,” I say, composing myself. “I’ve been through a lot, but I don’t want people to look at me like a victim. I want them to look at me like—” My friend arrives with the two victims, and I shut up.

“Ok girls. First we’ll get you tv-ready, and then we’ll start with the questions,” the hostess says. Then, to me in private, “I would love to finish this conversation. Maybe later, at my hotel? I’ll text you address and time.” She starts to walk away, but then stops and turns. “Your story deserves to be told,” she says sympathetically. I don’t trust reporters, and I specially don’t trust her and never will. As the professionals prepare the other girls, my friend comes closer. “What did she want?” she asks me. “Nothing, just to talk to me about my life before, you know…” I answer. She nods.

The other girls come sit at some chairs by our side. “You,” the hostess says pointing at me, “You will go first. I’ll ask you about the teacher, you’ll say something about how class wasn’t a safe environment. You know, it’s your story. Also mention your past near-rape incident on this campus. Then,” She hesitates for a few moments. “Then I’ll move on to you,” she says looking at the blonde. “You will describe how he forced himself on you.” “Should I cry?” she asks. “I can cry on-demand,” offers the blonde. “Sure, if you can,” the hostess continues. “Now, you,” the hostess looks at my friend from school. “You will go next and explain how you convinced these girls to speak up, and how important it is that people stand up against injustice. Then we’ll move on to you,” she points at the brunette. “And finally to you,” she points to the other girl.

This last girl has been quiet the whole time. She’s been very nervous. “I-I’m not sure this is a good idea,” the last girl says, looking down. My friend from school stands in front of her and gently lifts her face. “Please, don’t make me do this,” the girl repeats. “Remember what we talked about,” says my friend from school. “This is important. You will do it.” The girl nods with a tear in her eye. “Ok,” she says. “Good,” the hostess concludes. “We’re all set up. You just act like that, exactly like that,” says the hostess to the girl. “You’ll put the final nail in his coffin.”

§ Racist

The interview was indeed powerful. Our college came under siege from women’s rights protestors. The college administration building’s entrance has been occupied for days now, since the story broke. After us, many other girls claimed they had been sexually assaulted by teachers, but most of the allegations concerned male students. A wave of resignations cleansed the college’s administration: the rector, the heads of most faculties, the student’s council president and vice president, the head of the student body, and several other redundant bureaucrats were ousted from their jobs. Their replacements were much more sensitive to the issue of sexual harassment. Their first measure was creating a special commission with power to expel anyone suspected of sexual harrass, whether staff or student. After a week, they announced they had found another sixteen solid cases of sexual harassment.

I thought this would be a victory, but my friend from school felt differently. She went up in arms against the college. Right before a meeting with the commission, we organized an in-campus rally with students. “We don’t want some justice, we want justice, plain and simple,” she explains to more than one hundred and twenty-eight students. Instead of limiting herself to sexual harassment problems, she also attacks “rampant, unpunished discrimination on any grounds, whether gender, race, acquisition power, etc.” The large crowd applauds enthusiastically. Then we all leave to meet the commission in front of the main door. They come out in front of us and say “We are not currently pursuing any further inquiries into misdemeanor by faculty members.”

“So is this justice?” My friend asks the crowd. “No!” they reply. “Using a few scapegoats to cover the crimes of oh-so-many?” she again asks the crowd, which yells “No!” angrier this time. “What do we want!?” she shouts. “Justice!” they shout in response. “And when do we want it?” she continues, louder. “Now!” the crowd replies. “How can these entitled white men get away with these flagrant crimes? Do you think justice is blind here, or is she actually an old, white guy with perfect sight?” she asks to the delight of the crowd that applauds her. “So, what do we want, please tell the commission,” she says. “We want justice!” the crowd shouts again, striking the air with their fist to each word. “We want justice!” they start chanting.

We all feel part of something, something greater than ourselves. It feels right, righteous even. “Look, that professor said black people’s traditions are not relevant!” yells a man from the crowd. The professor is caught by surprise exiting his office. A large crowd swarms around him. “Is that true, did you really make those racist remarks?” asks a student. “Please, calm down. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he tries to defend himself.

“The e-mail!” several voices scream at the same time. I look around, confused. I had no idea about this. I thought we were here about the commission. “Look, all I said in the-that e-mail—” “Racist s-word!” a woman interrupts him. “You have no idea, shut the f-word up!” defends the professor a student who was with him at his office. “… was that I don’t see why we should force white people to—” the professor tries to continue. “You are supporting white supremacy!” screams a white woman.

“You are ignoring history, black history. Are you denying there’s racism?” shouts the first female student who accused him. The professor tries to appease her with his hands. “Where, in this college, in the whole world?” he asks. “Here,” say a bunch of people from the crowd. “This college,” say others. “Well, I-I don’t think there’s racism in this college.” Cries of outrage fill the air. I can hardly distinguish what some say. “Shut the f-word up privileged moron!” some shout. “Your education is useless, you are useless!” yells a student who’s with the professor. The professor tries to calm him down. A girl starts crying.

“If, l-look, if you want to have a reasonable debate, let me know. Otherwise—” the professor says, trying to leave. “Look at him, he’s lost the argument so he runs away!” says someone from the crowd. “Racist professors’ got to go, hey hey, ho ho!” chants twice a girl. More start chanting along as the professor is chased out of the building. Finally he gets on a bus and leaves. My friend from school is speaking to some people from the crowd, giving them orders. When I come closer, she dismisses them. I look at my phone. The hostess has texted me saying she can’t make it to our private meeting (what a surprise,) but that a reporter will be where we met in an hour. “Look, I think I’m going to go now,” I say. “I think it went well.” She nods. “It was great, but this is really just the start,” she says, making my skin crawl. I think about asking her what her plans are, but I realize this way it’s more fun.

I leave for my meeting with this mystery reporter. She’s a pretty, young, clumsy girl. So pretty it makes me suspicious. She’s bait. After she introduces herself and tells me she only has sixteen minutes, she puts her recorder on the table and says hurriedly: “Ok, so. Uhm. How about we do a sort of article about like who this…” she starts shaping the air with her hands around me “young, emerging political figure is?” I blush, flattered. “Oh please, I’m not that big of a deal,” I say. She puts the recorder on play, making me uncomfortable. “So tell me, how do you feel about having been in the center of several ‘tragic events’ in the past few years? You and ‘the arsonist’ were beaten, which got national attention, then you were present when your bullies died…” she pauses for a moment looking through her notes. I know, I would get lost in so much crap that has happened to me too.

“… then you helped in the campaign for mayor of your fiance’s sister, who committed suicide just a few months after the elections. You were also very close to ‘the arsonist,’ who only just died a few months ago.” She pauses. “But that’s not all. I have looked up your past.” Now I’m truly uncomfortable, but try to stay calm. “You are the sole survivor of a white, abusive household where the mother caused the death of her four children. Tell me, how does it feel having been part of so many tragedies? Do you feel like you are a victim?” I sigh. “Well, I-I wouldn’t know where to start,” I start. “I mean I, I think I’ve had bad luck, and I’ve struggled with all sorts of problems all my life. But that happens to everyone, I guess. And it’s precisely how to, how you face the problems in your life what defines you.”

“Also, you’re part jewish, part black, is that correct?” she asks. I nod. “Please, for the tape,” she says, chuckling. I chuckle too, nervous. She graces my hand playfully. “Yes, yes.” “So tell me, has that affected you?” “I mean,” I say. “I think people today have come a long way regarding racial prejudice, but there’s still an even longer way to go. In fact, that’s why I joined tol.” She smiles, realizing I’ve dodged the question entirely. “Tell me more about tol,” she says. “What exactly did you do there?” “Oh, well,” I say. “I helped, I guess. I helped with the speeches and with management stuff. Nothing impressive, honestly.” “Now,” she says. “Regarding the interview you gave today about the sexual assault scandal. You had a near-rape incident in college when you started. What would you say to the many girls and women who have been through the same thing?”

“Do not keep quiet,” I say looking at her very seriously. “Stand up to bring them down.” She turns the recorder off. “Thank you for this,” she says. “Today I don’t really have time, but if later today you’d like to meet for drinks, or—” her hand caresses my groin. I feel a tingling sensation and the urge to take her. But I shake my head. “I’m sorry, I don’t really drink or go out. You know, because of my adoptive mother.” She takes her hands to her face in horror. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I’m such a moron. Please, let me invite you to dinner, no recorder.” I see where she’s going, and she’s gorgeous. But there’s nothing I can gain from her and she’s a reporter, which is dangerous.

§ Cleansing

The following weeks, the whole university witnesses its “cleansing.” It starts when the teacher is accused of racism after tweeting “I don’t think white people should be forced to stay out of campus that day,” referring to the commemoration of a date where black people earned certain rights. The commission expeditiously expelled him after a quick “trial” where he did not have the chance to speak in his own defense.

The commission was weak and scared of being too soft on racists, misogynists and rapists. And my friend from school could smell their fear just as I could. Almost every day, there was a new scandal. It was as though every teacher was morally corrupt. And most of them weren’t expelled by the commission, no. Many were demoted and allowed to keep their jobs, but the constant harassment and public humiliation eventually made them quit.

Thanks to the interviews and my relationship with my friend from school, I became virtually untouchable. The teachers wouldn’t so much as challenge me. Some, who didn’t care about me before, now took a special interest and asked if I needed help to review something, or if I wanted a deadline extended. I could have cheated, I could have demanded they raise my grade. But I didn’t because there is a certain pride in personal achievement that I wasn’t willing to throw away.

So I studied and worked hard like everyone else, with no teachers trying to stand in my way. I managed to get through law school. My friend from school soon moved on to more important matters. She continued the work she had done in tol, except without uncle’s support. She was able to hire a lot of talented computer scientist and built a very promising startup devoted to “extracting useful information from social networks.”

During the following months, the whole country became more and more split between left and right. In fact, the whole western hemisphere became split. There were radical parties on both sides in every democracy. Several parliamentary democracies were ruled by failed governments because the votes were split between up to four different “strong” parties. I could feel degeneracy taking over the world. Westerners hating themselves more and more for being, well, westerners.

“Oh, but your husband is a leftist and you belonged to a leftist organization,” you say. So what? Again, what side you support doesn’t really matter. I see policy as a means, not an end. I’ve always found it funny how the western hemisphere just sort of weakened itself. The great colonial empires were wiped out not only because of world wars, but also because their own people despised that image of themselves.

People didn’t want their nation to be great at the cost of other nations that couldn’t defend themselves. So many colonies won independence not just because their masters were militarily weakened, but because they were morally weakened. And that disgusts me. Oh, come on. I probably know what you think of me right now. You probably have the faith in the “self-determination of every People” ingrained in you, and every word I’ve just said is acid to your ears. But I don’t care, because no one is recording this, no one can use this against me. Because, well, you’re the only one I can say this to.

Anyway, back to my life, which is way more interesting than my brain-farts. After college, I didn’t join any law firm, and it wasn’t for a lack of offers. No, I got married to the man I hated the most in the world. He had murdered, lied, and tricked me into killing a man. But worst of all, he was weak-minded. His uncle shared part of my contempt for him, but he was too caught up in his own sense of “legacy.” His nephew had to become a great politician. Anything below that was unacceptable.

Immediately after the wedding we began preparing for his mayor campaign. This time there wouldn’t be any last-minute surprises, like what happened with his sister. He turned out to be decent with politics. He always sold his a-word to the highest bidder, caring little or zero about party line. He was a radical pragmatist, the only political affiliation that lasts a lifetime.

He secured the position mainly thanks to his uncle’s support. Though I like to think I had a hand in it too. After he became mayor, I became the mayor’s wife and nothing more. It’s like I stopped being the protagonist of my own life. As part of the deal, we had sex once, to conceive. I made it as dull and unappealing for him as possible, to spare me having to go through it ever again. Luckily, one time was enough to get me pregnant.

§ Mother

When I learned I was going to be a mother, I cried. I hadn’t in a long time, and it felt great. My husband couldn’t begin to understand why. “I thought you wanted it too.” Of course I did. Having a baby would make me happy, but I was being selfish. What life would we be giving to our child? We’re both deeply broken human beings, how could any good come out of us?

Then there was something else, something darker. A fear, ingrained deep within me. A fear that my child won’t escape the fate my little sister suffered. It endured throughout all the pregnancy, making me believe every contraction was a potential miscarriage, keeping me in constant tension. By then, I barely had any real friends. I was occasionally allowed to speak to my friend from school, but honestly, the person that stuck with me the most was the brunette I met at law school. She became the right hand of my friend from school at her new startup. She often visited me home and talked to me. Everyone’s life was taking off except mine. I was stuck.

Meanwhile I watched my friend from school thrive in different “social movements” that perpetually merged and split again. She hacked her way through subcommittees, committees, groups, lobbies and parties. Eventually she became notorious when her startup was valued at a little over a billion dollars.

Uncle didn’t even let her see me at the hospital when my baby girl was born. He hated her deeply for whatever reason he chose not to share with me. I looked at my baby girl and knew… I just knew I would outlive her. It was a curse from the heavens, having that knowledge. But I vowed that I would make her life as pleasant as possible, even if it made her hate me.

For the next few years, I stayed home caring for her while my husband worked. He and I barely talked because he never spent any time at home. And I didn’t want him to. He humped female secretaries, lawyers, and essentially anything that felt drawn to his position of power. I told him the truth about how I felt: I didn’t care because I had never loved him and never would. All I asked of him was to be discreet.

Obviously, the scandals started rolling through the newspapers. I was a joke, he made me a joke. Our daughter was too young to understand yet, which was the only reason why I didn’t pick up and leave. No, I-I withstood it all. In fact, I grew more and more distant from high society and chose instead to spend my time with my daughter. The first word she spoke, you know what it was? “Nazi.” She heard it from the news so many times that it went before “mommy” in her little head.

It was then I looked at what I had accomplished. Four years after law school I meant nothing on my own. I had a disgraceful husband, lived among crooks and had made no impact on people’s lives. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life just taking care of my daughter, no matter how much I loved her. No, I needed more, or bitterness would kill me soon rather than later.

But what choices did I have? Yes, I knew sophisticated people and belonged to a powerful family. But I doubt anyone would support me if I ran for anything. I would have to find a way to gain support. Or, perhaps, to redirect support. My husband would run for governor in only a few months, we were all already preparing for his campaign.

So one morning I decided to talk to him. “I want to help with your campaign. Directly. I need to be back in the game, and you know I’ve never asked you for anything,” I say. He’s shaving himself as I speak. We hadn’t spoken more than four consecutive words to each other in weeks. “No,” he says plainly and continues shaving. “I already picked a staff. If you wanted to help, you should’ve asked before.”

I repress my anger by making a fist and pressing with my nails against my hand. “Fine, whatever. I’ll look for some committee to join then.” After he leaves home, I take my daughter out for a walk and text my friend from school through our mutual brunette friend. We meet at a cafeteria. She has seen my daughter in pictures, but never met her because I knew it was too dangerous. When my daughter sees her, she hides behind my legs. “Aww, she’s so cute,” says my friend from school. “You can call me… aunt. If you want,” my friend from school says lending her hand.

“Hi,” my daughter says, shaking her hand. Then we sit down in the cafeteria and talk while I watch my daughter chasing pigeons. “… so what can I do for you?” she asks, watching my daughter play. “I want to get back in the game,” I say. “I want to help run my husband’s campaign.” She sighs and takes a long sip from her coffee. “You know I always thought we would work together on something great?” she says. “I-I always had the feeling we should have,” I say. “But I thought I made the right choice by choosing him and now—”

“You can still change,” she says. “You can leave him and come with me, as you always wanted. As I always wished.” I take her hand. “I’ve thought about it a million times. And maybe, maybe soon enough I will. I have a plan to get natdec’s support and help you. It’s a great plan, and it starts with a position in my husband’s campaign.”

She smiles and nods. “Ok, ok, let’s see what you can manage,” she says. “Just remember if it all fails, I’ll always be there.” “Before I forget” I say, “I guess it goes without saying but don’t make it traceable back to you.” She nods. I pick up my daughter and tell her, “say goodbye to your aunt.” My daughter waves enthusiastically and yells “bye.” My friend from school comes closer to her and removes her own necklace. Then she places it around my daughter’s neck. “This necklace has been in my family for a veeery long time,” my friend from school says, “And now I want you to have it. Just remember every time you look at it, that I can always help you or your mommy with anything.”

I see a tear rolling down her cheek and wipe it with my hand. “Thanks, for everything,” I say. She cries because one of the few things she had wanted was to have a child, but she discovered a few years ago she couldn’t and it broke her heart. I would have helped her getting through it, but uncle would have known. Well, I won’t take this soviet surveillance anymore. I honestly don’t know how I’ve put up with it for so long. From now on, I will decide who I talk to.

§ Favor trading

A nice lady with blonde hair speaks on tv: “… the head of public relationships for the campaign of the incumbent mayor is now involved in a major scandal concerning favor trading and bribes he accepted during his tenure as energy commissary during the—” My husband screams profanity from uncle’s office, making me smile.

“… and we need to know who burned him. For f-word’s sake! This is bad!” he yells. “Get your s-word straight, son. This is a minor setback. All we need to do is find a replacement, someone we can trust,” says uncle. “And we need to clean your image now,” uncle goes on. I walk calmly to the door holding my daughter’s hand, knock, then open the door.

“I’m really sorry to interrupt,” I say. “But we’re going for a walk and wondered if you wanted anything.” “Where’s my favorite lady in the world?” asks uncle, and my daughter runs to hug him. As uncle holds her, he stares at me, as if realizing something. “What if,” says uncle. My husband starts shaking his head dreading what uncle’s thinking. “What if your wife did it?” I contain my smile. “No, no, no,” my husband says. “She doesn’t have the experience. Plus, she has to take care of our daughter.”

I act confused. “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” I ask. “Be the public relationships manager for his campaign,” uncle says. “Oh, I’d love to, but he’s right, I probably wouldn’t be up for it,” I say. My husband smiles smugly, saying “see?” to his uncle. I know for a fact he hates women. Once, when he was drunk, he said “Women don’t become astronauts because you can’t cook in space.”

Anyway. His uncle is not so convinced; he sees something else. “You know, this would actually be good for the campaign. I can already see it. ‘Husband and wife working together.’ It’d make for very good PR (public relationships) on its own, and you need it right now.”

“But—” my husband tries to protest until uncle stops him with a “shush.” “What do you want, dear?” uncle asks. “Well, I-I would love to help-to be part of the campaign.” Uncle smiles, puts down my daughter and takes my hands affectionately. “Then consider it done, dear.” “Thanks, uncle,” I reply. My husband congratulates me by saying “Oh, for f-word’s sake” before leaving the room.

I start that very day. Throughout the following weeks, I schedule talks, meetings and conferences for us. And I can’t stress us enough. After announcing we’re working together, I make myself a crucial part of his campaign, at least in the public mind. He can’t just dismiss me, it would be seen as sexist. We appear together in the different events we attend. The dark clouds over our marriage, his scandals, seem to clear.

But soon enough I delegate most of the actual PR work on my assistant and devote as much time as I can to speaking in front of the cameras. So much that my husband becomes annoyed I may be stealing his spotlight. We have frequent arguments about it and my role in his campaign, but he understands he can’t just kick me out. Using my authority, I convince the members of his staff to run things through me. They start asking me directly about budget, publicity, transport and even security.

And that last part is specially interesting. You see, there are several nutjobs obsessed with my husband. There’s a man who thinks he’s responsible for some conspiracy to cover up UFOs, another who thinks he’s the reincarnation of the devil, etc. Among them, there’s one that is more interesting than the rest. He thinks my husband may in fact have cooperated with “the arsonist” to burn down rundown businesses and cash in the insurance checks. He’s a former reporter who was expelled for chasing conspiracy theories and has a sort of “crazy” halo around him.

However, in this case, he’s actually right. Our security team determines he’s “low risk.” He only rants on his blog about my husband. And even though his motto is “sic semper tyrannis,” and he’s said on several occasions that “… [my husband] should get what he deserves,” our security chief has classified him as a non-threat. But if my husband knew about him, he would give that former reporter a lot of importance since he’s dug up part of the truth. When I see the report about him, a thousand ideas rush through my head. But there’s one thing clear enough: I have to meet him.

My driver takes me to a clothing store where I’m supposed to be buying new suits and dresses. After hurriedly making the purchases, I leave the bags in the store and exit through a backstreet that leads into an alley. There I meet the former reporter. I spot him before he sees me, and notice him fiddling nervously with a cup of coffee, his eyes darting in all directions at once. I approach him. I’m wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses.

“Does-does anyone know you’re here?” he asks. I shake my head. “Does anyone know you are here?” I ask calmly. He’s surprised by my question. “N-no, no,” he says. “Do you know why I’m here?” I ask. “Y-yes?” he says. “Do you, really?” I ask again. “Well, no,” he concedes. “I’m here because you deserve to know everything. You have worked so hard, and I want to help you.”

I come closer to him and speak in a lower tone, almost whispering. He also pulls his ear to me. “Most of what you’ve said in your blog about my husband is true,” I say. He’s shocked at first, unable to understand what is going on. He backs down, frowns, smiles, then frowns again. “Wh-what do you—” he says. “Look,” I interrupt him, “I’m tired of all the lies, of the corruption, and specially, of him. Let me tell you the whole story.”

During the next sixteen minutes, I present an abridged version of the facts for him, of course leaving out my friend from school’s involvement and my own. I tell him about the people my husband killed, the insurance fraud scheme laundered through tol and how there were a lot of people in on it. Perhaps I exaggerate a little the amount of people that participate in the conspiracy by including government officials, and most importantly, judges and police chiefs.

I tell him how my daughter is the result of him forcing himself on me, which is partially true. By the end of our talk, his former disgust and contempt have become pure, undiluted hatred. “Let’s go to the police then, you can testify,” he says. “Testify?” I say sarcastically. “You think that would amount to anything? He and his uncle own the police and the courts.” They do not. “They would squash any investigation before it made the papers.” They would not.

“But if you talk about it publicly—” he says. “… they would say I’m crazy, take away my daughter and stay in power,” I conclude his sentence. “No. That’s not an option,” I say. He sighs. “What-what are you suggesting, then?” he asks. I open my mouth to say something, but I shut up. Then I say, trembling, “Sic semper tyrannis.” His eyes open wide. He understands what I want now.

“So that’s why we met,” he says finally. “No, no way, it’s too dangerous,” he says leaving. “Listen!” I say in a loud tone, grabbing his arm. “Please, stay,” I repeat, more calmed now. This is the crucial moment. He hesitates, looks at the street that is just a few steps away, and finally looks at me. “What exactly are you proposing here?” he asks.

“That you kill him in front of the whole world,” I say.

§ Dangerous liaisons

I give him every assurance that he won’t be personally harmed. Even better, people will hail him as a hero. For once the “tyrant” is dead, I vow to make my husband’s crimes public. Still, he says he needs time to think about it. But time is running out, with the election in less than four months. Every day he spends making up his mind it’s one more day I spend wondering if I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life. I’m playing with fire here.

Finally, I decide I can’t leave it up to fate. I call the reporter that interviewed me after the sexual assault stuff from college. She’s received several prizes and uncovered many plots to enrich powerful companies at the expense of the environment/poor people/the small business. I tell my husband that “she asked to give us an interview, I think we should both go.” But then I schedule a charity event for him that overlaps with the interview, so I end up doing it alone.

We meet at a hotel lobby, only she and I. After greeting each other, I say “This interview is not exactly about the campaign.” She seems confused. “What is it about, then?” she asks about to turn on the recorder. I shake my head. “Nothing on record.” Now she’s interested. “Look, I think my husband has been having an affair and has started drinking again.”

She backs down. “Wow, that’s. Wh-why do you think that?” she asks. “The half-erased lipstick marks, the bottles of scotch he says are to ‘toast with supporters…’ I’ve seen it all before.” Then I stop dramatically. “But I think there’s something else going on.” She wouldn’t bite if I only brought her gossip. She’s a serious reporter, interested in crimes committed by government officials. “I think he has used his office to gain support for his governor nomination, more specifically trading favors with energy companies.”

That last thing is, unfortunately, true. I’ve heard him and uncle talk and meet with people from a couple of energy companies before they got a large contract. “I want you to investigate him, but leave me out of it please,” I say. She hesitates at first, but then smiles. “You know, an informant said something similar some days ago, but I thought there was nothing to it. Now, you saying it is an entirely different story. Ok, I will definitely look into it.”

“Thank you,” I say, shaking her hand. “I have to go now. Don’t try to contact me, please, or he’ll suspect,” I ask, looking frightened. She nods. I return home and immediately look for uncle. I enter his office without knocking, while he’s still on the phone. I look terrified, and he quickly says “I-I’ll have to call you back” to the person he’s on the phone with. “The-that reporter,” I stutter. “The girl. She knows about the favor-trading and the energy companies,” I blurt out. “She wanted my comment on it. I told her it was fake news.”

“F-word!” he shouts, striking his table with his fist. “We need to squash this. She worked for true news network, right?” I nod. “Good, good, I know the editor,” he says. “I think we can contain this—” He waves me off, indicating I should leave the office while he speaks to the editor. “Is grandpa ok, mommy?” asks my daughter, who was listening outside the office.

“Yes, sweetie, don’t worry,” I reassure her. “It’s just boring grown-up stuff. Do you wanna watch a movie?” She smiles and nods. “The one with the monsters,” she says, referring to a cartoon picture we’ve watched at least sixteen times in the past two weeks. But I don’t mind watching it with her, just to see her get excited again.

After uncle finishes his conversation, he comes to the tv and makes a signal to me. “I’m going to make some popcorn, do you want some?” I ask my daughter. She smiles and nods while still looking at the tv. I start making popcorn while uncle talks to me. “Ok, she’ll be fired for whatever reason, but we need to talk to her.” I grimace. “I doubt we can buy her,” I say. “She’s refused very generous bribes before. This exclusive will get her a lot of attention.”

“What then? Do you suggest we threaten her?” he says. “No,” I go on. “I doubt that would work either. Let’s use a scapegoat. Let’s force the energy commissar’s hand to confess and make him get ahead of the story. Meanwhile we need to stall her.” He thinks for a moment. “Ok, I have enough on him. I don’t think it’ll be hard.”

The next day, I schedule a meeting with the crazy man I’m convincing to kill my husband. We meet right after it becomes public that the reporter investigating my husband has been fired. We meet behind an alley this time, out of anyone’s sight. “Do you know one of your colleagues has been fired for looking into my husband?” I ask. “No,” he says, shocked. I show him the news about it.

“She was investigating corruption in his administration,” I continue. “And she still probably is. But now she’s lost the paper’s support, and they’re now claiming she ‘manufactures testimonies.’ This. This is precisely what I was talking about. They will silence reporters, silence witnesses, silence everyone. I need your help, we have to stop him.” I take out my phone. “Look, I’ve brought proof of my commitment.” I play a fragment of the tape I recorded of my conversation with the reporter, explaining the things I knew about my husband’s corruption.

“I knew it! I f-wording knew it!” he yells too excited. “That fff-f-wording bastard!” it seems like he wants to say too much too quick. “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him! He and the other vermin like him is like, they are the, like, evil!” He takes his hands to his head. He seems too agitated, and makes me wonder if he’s a little too insane for my own good. I read he was bipolar, and I think he’s not taking his pills. “Even though I can’t prove it, I know it. It all, you know? It all makes sense.” He walks in a circle for a minute, then comes back. “Ok, I’m in. I’ll do it. I’ll be the f-wording hero this country needs.” He raises his right arm, and chants as he strikes the sky: “Sic semper tyrannis! Sic semper tyrannis!”

§ A postmodernist play with a bang

The theatre is packed. We’re attending a wonderful postmodernist play called “clouds,” where men and women dressed as cars, phones, refrigerators and other commonplace items simulate “mating.” There’s not a single word in the whole two hours it’s supposed to last. But my heart beats like it’s about to explode. I’m dizzy, burning up and sweating.

My husband notices my altered state. “Are you ok?” he asks concerned. “It may be early-onset menopause,” I reply. My lady problems disgust him enough not to ask a second time. We’re sitting next to each other in our own theatre box. With us, there’s two members of our private security detail. “I’m thirsty,” I say to my husband. He sighs. “You didn’t bring any water to swallow down this monstrosity?” he whispers, making me laugh genuinely. I shake my head. He looks at our security guards and signals them to come closer. “Please, fetch a bottle of water, some snacks and any booze you can find.”

They nod and leave. The truth is my husband has been using them as busboys more than security, thinking he’s untouchable. Shortly after they leave, I look at him. Now my heart is running wild. At first he smiles, but then, it’s like he realizes something’s wrong. My hired gunman enters the box. “Who the f-word are you?” says my husband. The former reporter gets in front of us and pulls out his gun. “S-s-s,” at first he’s stuck saying it, “Sic semper tyrannis!” he yells before he starts shooting.

The loud bangs pierce our ears. The sweating bullets pierce our skin. My husband receives several shots, and I myself get shot in my left arm. The crowd below flees the theatre screaming. Our security detail quickly gets back before he has emptied his clip and shoot him. One of the bullets bursts the former reporter’s skull, killing him instantly. I’m covered in all our blood, and look at my left arm in horror. The pain is unbearable. Then I look at my husband, who is trying to speak as blood spurts from his mouth.

“Get a paramedic quick!” yells somebody. They cover me with a blanket and throw my husband to the floor. “Is there a doctor? We need one, fast!” yells someone. I can barely make out what they say, with my head still ringing from the shots and the pain pulsating in my arm. They try to carry me away, but I refuse and kneel by my husband. He’s looking at me in horror as his life escapes him.

I whisper into his ear so only he can hear me while I stroke his hair. His eyes open wide and he tries to raise his hand, but he suddenly stops. I break down crying. Someone pushes me away to apply CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on him, but it’s too late. He’s gone. Shortly after I lose consciousness and fade into sleep. I dream of him being dragged to a burning pit by his feet as he screams at me “w-word!” along with other, more bizarre dreams I forget as quickly as I dreamt them.

I enter a trance where a procession of doctors passes before me, all the while heavily sedated. Eventually, after an unknown period of time, I wake up in my hospital bed. My friend from school is there, holding my asleep daughter. It’s dark outside. I try to speak, but my sandpaper throat only produces a faint growl. My friend realizes I’m awake, so she leaves my daughter on her chair and rushes to hug me. I cry bitter tears, unable to stop myself. She gives me water, then wakes up my daughter, who yells “mommy!” when she sees me.

“H-how long have I, have I been out?” I struggle to ask, my throat still hurting. “It’s been almost a week now,” says my friend from school. “You lost a lot of blood.” She stops and comes closer to whisper: “It was foolish to do that,” looking at me while stroking my hair, letting me know she understands what happened. “Did he make it?” I whisper. She shakes her head. I sigh deeply. “Also,” she says. “Th-the network. It’s ready to—”

Uncle bursts in by my daughter’s hand. She’s run to fetch him. She’s jumping up and down saying “Look, mommy’s ok, I told you she was ok.” Uncle sits at my bed, and my heart rate increases, but I try to control it. He has tears in his eyes. “The f-worder that did this to you… To my nephew… he’s dead. Oh… thank god you made it through…” He hugs me. I feel very violent about it.

The nurse comes in and announces I need to rest. My relatives oblige and leave the room. The light is turned off, and I’m left alone in the darkness. Left to wonder what this means to my daughter. She has lost her father and seen her mother nearly die. I didn’t think about what this would do to her. What if she ever finds out? She will hate me. She will hate me forever. Wh-what have I done?

§ Takeover

A few days after the shooting I’m well enough to receive visitors. At first it’s only people from the campaign and natdec. Then, the people working at my late husband’s campaign set up a press conference for me. I’m still convalescent, with bandages wrapping up my left arm. When I enter the room in the hospital set up for my press conference, it’s already full of reporters and cameras. They all stand up to applaud.

I get to a small stage and stand in front of the microphones. My uncle stands at my left, my friend from school at my right. She’s holding my daughter’s hand, who is at her right. After the reporters take enough photos, I extend my right arm to quiet them down. “As most of you know by now, a few days ago me and my husband were shot, point-blank, by a maniac.” I stop for a moment. “My husband was not perfect. He made mistakes during his term in office, mistakes that hurt our family in specific.”

“But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good man, or that I didn’t love him,” I continue, more determined and louder. “That doesn’t mean his vision wasn’t the right one. And I’m sorry, oh, you don’t know how much, that he couldn’t live to change everything he wanted to change. Not only for him, but for all the people that wanted to vote for him because they believed in his dream.”

“You see, when a politician like him is killed, it’s not only him that dies and their family that weeps. The electorate has also lost something. Something valuable. That… poor, deranged assassin took away the chance to change. I just hope somebody else comes along and carries on with his vision. Thank you,” I conclude, unleashing the pack of rabid reporters that bark their questions, thinking I can understand a single word they say.

“Please, one at a time,” says my friend from school. Almost every hand from the crowd is raised. I point to one of them. “What do you plan to do next?” she asks. “Mourn and recover. After that, I’ll see.” I point to the next one. “Did you know the shooter spoke to an unidentified woman just days before the shooting?” The question throws me off, but I remind myself they’re not looking for me, that I was wearing a wig, that there were no cameras, and that I left no trace.

“I’m not aware of the details of the investigation, I leave that up to the state, in which I have absolute faith.” I point to the next question. “Will you run for governor this term?” The room fills with expecting rumor after the question. “Well, I-I hadn’t really thought about it. But perhaps it’s too soon for me, sorry.” There’s plenty of raised hands, but I don’t think this is going anywhere. “I hope you excuse me, but I’d like to rest now. Thank you for your questions,” I say before standing down from the stage and heading for the door. I hear loud applause behind me as I leave.

My friends and family follow me like an entourage. When we get to my room, uncle asks my friend from school to wait outside with my daughter. She nods and takes her to buy candy. He closes the door and it’s just us. “I-I think you should consider running for governor,” he says, “If you’re up for it of course.” I look at him confused. “But, isn’t it too soon?” I ask. “People will think—” “People will think you’re strong, and a hero,” he interrupts me. “The state needs reform, you have a lot of momentum right now. Do this not only for yourself, but also for your daughter, so one day you can help her like I helped my niece and nephew.”

“I don’t know,” I say, hesitant. By now he thinks this is all his idea. “Look,” he says grabbing my shoulders. “I’m just as shocked and horrified by my nephew’s death as you are. But you have to keep in mind the bigger goal here. My family… well, our family, has held government posts for the past sixty-four years. My father and his father before him worked hard and made compromises to make sure their children achieved greatness. The only one left to carry on this legacy is you and your daughter, and dammit if I don’t make sure she has the best possible chance!”

He takes both my hands. “Run for governor, accrue friends and favors. For her,” he says. “For her…” I repeat, looking down. “But let’s not announce just yet,” I say and he nods in agreement. “And one more thing,” I say. “Anything,” says uncle. “From now on, my friend from school will be part of the family. She can be over anytime I want.” At first he hesitates, but then he smiles and says “You’ll make a great politician.” I spend the next couple of days with my daughter and my friend from school. Someone from the campaign calls during the first night I spend home. Apparently, there’s a new tag that is getting some popularity on social media: #makehergovernor.

It turns out that after my speech, several articles were published praising me and saying I should run for the office. At this moment there are sixteen thousand, three hundred and eighty-four tweets supporting my bid. By the second day, uncle and I are getting calls offering support if I decide to run. That very afternoon I announce my candidacy for governor, explaining how I’ve been “asked” to run.

With less than two months before the election, the campaign that worked for my late husband now works at full steam for me. I attend as many events as I possibly can, accepting certain generous donors as future members of my cabinet. During the first week alone, I struck deals with my future secretary of commerce, director of finance, commissioner of human resources and superintendent of banking. All of them female administrators beyond reproach.

Uncle was right, I do have plenty of momentum to win the election. My small, favor-trading entourage appears with me in public. I’ve met most of the members already in past events, some years ago. They’re all vipers, though not all of them have poison in their fangs. I take social media by storm, and spend a lot of time answering messages personally, sharing tweets from other people, commenting, etc.

Finally election day comes. There are no shadows lumbering over me, no scandals. I stand proud and strong. When the results start dripping in, it seems like it’s going to be a close race. But then, I take the lead. Oh and what a lead. The gap that separates me and the conservative candidate widens and widens. Eight per cent lead, sixteen per cent… There’s champagne and victory celebrations when there’s less than eight per cent of uncounted ballots. The final results are crushing. I receive sixty-four percent of the total votes, a landslide victory. I’m going to become governor.

§ Lawmaker

The last, fatidic words of the conceding governor are: “You people don’t know what you’ve done…” essentially dismissing the electorate as idiots. The truth is, this state had been conservative for a few administrations now. And here I am to change that.

The first thing I do once in office is swearing in my officers. Most of them are donors, as I mentioned. But there’s also a few people from tol. I make each of them enter my office, one at a time, and make them pledge allegiance. Of course, talk is cheap, and I will need more from them to prove their loyalty. But this is good enough for now.

They all smile and kiss my hand offering loyalty with one hand while concealing a knife with the other. All except my lieutenant governor, who would get my position if I was ousted or resigned. He’s a spineless yes-man without political aspirations and absolute loyalty to my uncle. He’s perfect for his position: neither a big help nor a big threat.

Policy-wise, we start working as a team to undermine what the conservatives have done before us. The budget for social programmes is increased, even if at the cost of raising our debt. But that doesn’t concern me, because I don’t plan on sticking around long enough to have to deal with debt. That’s up to the conservatives when they get elected after me.

No, I can simply dole out candy-shaped handouts and let them replenish the candy store by increasing taxes and cutting back my programmes, making them look like barbarians. But the first real challenge I have to face is one I create myself. Demonstrations in colleges to protest racism and gender inequality grow worse. Teachers involved in scandals are viciously harassed. Invited speakers with conservative viewpoints are greeted with “peaceful” demonstrations that cost thousands of dollars in damages to college property.

These existed before me, but intensify after I’m in office, prompted by my friend from school. She’s focusing tol’s efforts on my state, as we agreed. The only reason I can take this bold step is because my state’s upper chamber has a liberal majority. In fact, they blocked most of what my predecessor tried to do, and he was too weak to fight them. I’m not.

College demonstrations grow worse during my second month in office. So I meet with as many members of the state’s senate as I can, prompting them to take action. I propose giving the state power to decide if an event should be cancelled on the basis of “being a threat to the citizens’ security.” It’s essentially what colleges already do, but as a state power.

Of course, they look at me like I’m crazy. “We don’t want to commit political sudoku,” explains a liberal senator in private. Uncle is also reluctant at first. When we talk in my office about it, he agrees with the senators. “That sort of legislation will never pass,” he says. “None of them wants to get into a freedom-of-speech fight with the government. Specially not with so much of their terms left.”

“Look, this law is imminent,” I say. “You can either make them support me now and look progressive, or you can oppose me and look like a trite dinosaur.” He throws me a concerned look. “I said no,” he says sternly. “No means no. Without me, you don’t have the support, so drop it, ok? We’ll revisit in a couple of years, when—”

“No,” I interrupt him. “I will push this law through the senate, and believe me, it will pass. I am governor, not you.” He doesn’t look very happy. “Are you out of your mind? And here I thought you were reasonable, but it’s like I don’t know you at all! We’re a party that fights for social welfare and redistribution of wealth as much as certain civic freedoms. What you are proposing is worthy of a banana republic.”

I sigh. “Uncle, I’m sorry but you don’t get to choose here. I was hoping you’d see the light on this, but you’re not ready yet. Don’t worry, you will.” I stop and sigh. “Now, please, I have a lot of work to do.” “Work, huh?” He says, chuckling. “You know,” I say irritated, “there’s a spanish idiom that goes ‘breed crows—’” He finishes the idiom: “’… and they’ll gorge your eyes out.’ Yes, I know the idiom,” he says. “Well, then,” I say, “if you end up losing your eyes it won’t be my fault.”

§ Freedom of speech

Only four days after my little chat with uncle, a young student was killed during a college demonstration gone wrong. In fact, it was similar to the one where I met “the arsonist.” A renowned conservative speaker was coming to speak to an anti-alt-right college now that the controversy was getting national attention and he wanted to bask in its golden rays.

A protest was arranged against him at said college. But also a large counter-protest with several “far-right” elements, as the counterfeit news networks like to call them. There was barely any police, as usual in these protests, since the head of the college and the local mayor didn’t want to look “repressive.” There were just two patrol cars for approximately five-hundred and twelve protestors on each side.

The anti-speaker demonstrators were raided by anti-demonstrators as they blockaded the entrance to the hall where the speaker was supposed to speak. The anti-demonstrators appeared about sixteen minutes into the original protest, and after exchanging insults with the other side, engaged in a brawl. Everything was recorded by several phones. What the videos didn’t show was how exactly the girl was trampled to death.

I was, of course, ready, even waiting for this. It was precisely the impulse we needed to push the legislation through. Social media and news networks quickly become flooded by people denouncing the “far-right” for doing it, the “alt-right” for condoning it, and the right in general for allowing it to happen. The tag #nomorecampuswar explodes the day after the conflict, with all the high-voted tweets being liberal. Any right-leaning tweets and comments on the issue simply seem to… vanish.

I quickly call for a press conference, and the vulture reporters all flock to me. I personally speak to the parents of the dead girl and convince them to join my crusade. We gather at a conference room. Uncle also agrees to come, realizing he has to move. The dead girl’s parents stand next to me with tears in their eyes as I speak into the microphones: “Today we have witnessed a completely unnecessary and senseless loss of life that could have been avoided.”

“I have been trying and trying to convince the state senate to vote on a new law that would give the state the power to stop these talks if there’s a reasonable threat to the safety of our citizens.” I stop for a moment, then pick up, angrier and slower. “I am specially appalled at the incompetence of the mayor and the head of college. If they had been more reasonable, this tragedy would not have happened. But now, a young girl, top of her class, with a bright future in front of her is dead.” I emphasize that last word. “Her parents will say a few words now.”

The mother is just crying, unable to speak. The father still can’t believe he has lost his daughter. He looks like a broken man. “I—” he starts with a shattered voice. “I will never… We will never get her back. All we can hope for now is tw-two things: justice.” He stops to wipe a tear. “And that this never happens again.” I shake his hand and hug her. Then they step away from the microphone. The reporters squawk questions to the parents, but I wave them off with both my hands. There’s no treat for them just yet.

“Now listen to me,” I go on, still angry. “I’m going to call the senate’s attention on this issue once more. If they fail to listen to me, or to the thousands of people that are already asking for this bill… then we need to consider if they represent our best interests. Thank you all.” They flap their hungry beaks, begging me to answer their questions. I point my finger at a woman from the crowd.

“Don’t you think this measure would interfere with basic freedom of speech?” she asks. I smile. “It wouldn’t hurt anybody’s freedom of speech any more than it is being hurt now. Many colleges have had to call off these events for the same reasons. The only thing that would change is that the state would be in charge of stopping them before they got out of hand instead of these fallible local administrators.”

I point to a man with my hand. “What do you have to say about the enormous increase in college demonstrations after you were elected?” he asks, and I smile. “The reason is simple: the conservatives have let this fire get out of control because they were afraid of actually doing things. But don’t worry because I’m not afraid to act, and I assure you I will put it out. Thank you.” I can’t stand these birds of prey a second more and wave goodbye while I can still smile.

The president says during his own press conference that “[blah blah blah] … freedom of speech is something we care about in this country, and even if some senator or state forgets about it, the supreme court will make sure they remember it well.” He looks a little overconfident in the supreme court and their support. Maybe he hasn’t been paying much attention to their rulings or comments lately. For example, the judges who think “[the constitution] … is a dinosauric document that imposes a government structure that simply does not work anymore.”

That is somewhere down the road, though. For now I have to push the bill through. But don’t worry, I will.

§ Weathervanes

I set up a war room next to my office. There’s a huge board there with all the state senators and their attitude toward the bill. They can be “for,” “against,” or “weathervane.” The distribution is interesting: 8 confirmed against, 8 confirmed for and 16 weathervanes. I have to make wind blow in my direction. Except there’s a front of backwardness trying to block me, led by a conservative senator.

“Mimimi, this is not a totalitarian regime that regulates free-speech, mimimi…” he complained during a televised debate (though I may be paraphrasing.) “What about child pornography?” I replied. “It’s not protected by free speech. Do you think that’s a totalitarian measure? Or calling on lunatics to bomb schools, yeah, to you that’s probably free speech.”

I can’t help going back over my debates. Maybe it’s because I’m nervous about the vote. I look at the board again, as if expecting the numbers to change. I have to convince more than eight weathervanes and I only have two weeks. The board in my war room also has the committee each of them is on. Economy, transportation, health, education… The four weathervane senators in appropriations see me as a “dangerous squanderer of state budget.” They can’t see past my looks and righteous attitude to realize I only spent so much on social programs because I needed a bargaining chip that I’m now cashing in. After all, what is a governor’s whim compared to the economy?

My agenda for those two weeks is as tight as the vote. Every day I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with some state senator, committee representative or lobbyist. It all boils down to compromise and favours. Promote this, implement this measure, agree to reduce spending by this much. After much effort, I manage to secure the support needed for the vote two days before the actual vote. There will be four abstentions, eight against and the rest all fors. It’s closer than I’d like, though.

The day of the vote, nobody outside our state government gives a damn about it. Social media networks are two orders of magnitude more concerned about a football star leaving his team. I scour the faces of the senators as the votes are cast. When the final tally is announced, I smile and celebrate. There’s only a one-vote difference. You know what this means, right? They broke their promises to me. They tried to undermine my authority and they almost succeeded. But the road to hell is paved with “almosts.”

I look again at the faces of those who have changed their votes. This time I’m not smiling. I will remember this. The conservative senator who almost succeeded in his coup shakes my hand. “Well played,” he says smiling. I leave the senate floor after being congratulated by my staff, party members and senators. Once in my car, I drive back to my office, where I take down the war room’s board. I sit on my chair and write in a piece of paper who are the senators that changed their votes. This will make up my first list, a tradition I don’t intend on losing anytime soon.

I drive to tol’s headquarters. My friend from school basically lives there now. She greets me and congratulates me on my victory. Then I say “Burn that conservative motherf-worder,” referring to the conservative leader that rallied opposition against me. She smiles, surprised. “Already? Isn’t it a little soon?” I shake my head. “I want to show those backstabbing s-words what happens when you f-word with me.” She takes my hand. “Let’s sit down, ok.” I open my mouth to say something, but I sigh and obey.

“Why are you so upset?” she asks me. “The vote,” I say. “I had a wider margin, but a few of them changed their votes. I sat with them to eat, listened to their crap and agreed to help them. Then they stabbed my back. They don’t respect me, they think I’ll disappear election come.” She laughs. “Oh come on, don’t worry about them, they—” “They almost killed me out there,” I interrupt her, showing her how scared I was.

Now she’s more serious. “Ok, here’s what we can do. We have some stuff on him.” I smile. Now we’re talking. “What exactly?” I ask eagerly. “How does having sex with an underaged girl sound?” My eyes are open wide. I did not expect this pleasant surprise. “Is it true?” I ask, excited. “Kind of. He was underaged at the time as well, but still older than she was.” “I can already see it,” I say. “The news will read ‘Senator abused minor.’ Will she come forward?” She nods. “Good, good. You’re right, let’s not rush things. His time will come.”

§ Constitutional appeal

The best things for the government in the long run come at times of crisis. Special committees are formed with special powers to handle special situations. The situations disappear, but the committee members often remain, even after the committee changes its purpose or dies. My new “Committee for Campus safety” is a good example. Two days after the vote, the college storm is still raging. Whether a professor is caught making an offensive remark or an unwelcome speaker has a speech scheduled, the college is “engulfed in the flames of warfare,” as reporters like to dramatize it. Every petty squabble nowadays means something is “engulfed in flames.”

A week after the committee is formed we’re finally at the height of the crisis. Now the ungreased cogs of bureaucracy have turned and my committee is ready to act. A big speaker is scheduled for tomorrow, as well as a large protest and counter-protest. I instruct my committee to block both protests, avoiding violence at any cost. The committee announces their decision to block the speaker’s talk, and I support it publicly.

Of course, the day of the talk there is barely any protest against the speaker. There’s only police and the angry mob protesting he has been banned. Dressed with bandanas and swastikas, some radical protestors hurl stones at the police. The less radical are caught in the fray between police and the radicals. They are quickly dispersed by mob-control measures, causing no victims. That afternoon I give a press conference with a gloating smile. “… today shows that my proposal, so harshly criticized by the conservative members of this government, has saved lives. And spared our ears from another self-righteous sermon.” Some reporters laugh. “Ok, I will take questions now.”

“The speaker has filed suit,” says a nice blonde reporter lady. “… and it’s likely that the Supreme will rule on this. Do you think they will override this law?” “I have absolute faith in the Supreme to make the right choice,” I reply confidently. Also, by the time they have to decide on this, I’ll have had enough time to prove it works. Other reporters ask questions, nothing important. Finally, I leave the press conference and meet my friend from school to celebrate our success.

On my way out, I come across the conservative senator that rallied opposition against me for the vote. I stop to shake his hand. “No hard feelings?” I say, smiling. “Sure,” he says. “It’s just politics.” I’m about to leave, but it’s too tempting. “How about dinner next friday?” I ask him. “I think we should discuss the docks affair.” He thinks for a moment, then replies. “Ok, my secretary will contact yours.”

We part ways, smiling. Only two days later the story of his underaged affair breaks the news. He makes the mistake of trying to explain himself, but all people can hear is “sex with a minor,” which paints a vivid mental image. I announce publicly that I refuse to work with “a man who has abused minors.” At the same time I convince other senators to denounce him publicly and refuse to work with him.

Pressure on him builds up quickly. During the next week, his home is haunted by reporters, his children tormented at school. The members in the committees he’s in refuse to work with him. His golf club, where has been a member for thirty-two years, refuses to let him play. Even his friends stop returning his calls. Finally he breaks down and resigns. Now my enemy is destroyed and I can be at ease. What his former colleagues fail to realize is that in the long-run, this hurts them.

Yes, they may not look like bad guys to some people now. But what will happen when their dirty deeds are washed in public? If they turn on each other every time, who will be left in the end? In any case, these are things to come. For now I just focus on doing a good job as governor. I don’t just sit around enjoying the perks of my office. No, I deliver what I was elected for. I urge state committees to enforce my policies. I bring bills to the state senate and with the aid of my minions, push them through.

Roughly one year and over sixty-four state-cancelled speeches after my controversial bill passed, the time comes. The slow appeal process has finally reached the Supreme, which will rule whether my bill was constitutional or not. As you remember, the incumbent president smugly dismissed it as “limiting free speech.” What he knew but feared to show is that the Supreme hasn’t exactly been adhering to the constitution lately.

Near the date of the ruling, more college protests break out. And some of them aren’t even organized by tol. Other states have to deal with the issue too. The day they will announce the ruling comes closer. Few people know what’s going on. They may have heard an alt-right guy ranting about it on social media, but that’s all. If they hear about it, it’s only the distorted version presented as news in some liberal “tonight show.”

As I pace nervously up and down my office, waiting for the decision, I think of what we could’ve done different. Maybe we acted too soon? My friend from school assures me after sipping from a glass of scotch. She’s joined me as we wait. With us we have my brunette friend from college. She’s now my personal secretary. She was my rock during my rough marriage years, when I couldn’t talk to my friend from school. She’s drinking freedom vodka in silence. She’s the one who helped me whip the votes, setting up the meetings with senators and such.

“It was too soon, too soon,” I say, breaking a sixteen-minutes long silence. My friend from school hands me a glass of scotch, but I refuse. “You know,” she starts, “… alcohol was made for precisely this.” But I won’t touch it. I fear it more than losing the Supreme’s vote. I watch my rock pour herself another glass of freedom vodka with amazement. She’s almost killed the bottle in one sitting.

“You can really hold your liquor, you know,” I say. She nods. “Did you know uncle ordered me to hire one of his half-latino, half-black, half-asian minions? But I wanted you because you are incredibly talented and best of all, trustworthy.” She toasts to me like drinking needed a justification. “… and also, because you’re a woman.” Freedom vodka flies out of her nose as she bursts in laughter. As we all laugh, the phone rings.

“This is it,” I say, my face pale. I pick it up. I listen to the words carefully, then I put down the phone. “It passed!” I announce. The two women jump out of the seats from sheer excitement, only to realize they’re too drunk and have to sit back down. I sit between them in my office couch and wrap them both with my arms. Thank you both so much. I couldn’t have gotten here without you. S-word, I feel the tears about to leave my eyes.

§ Under siege

Now, you’re probably wondering why I care so much about a silly little law. A silly little law that lets the state decide if a speaker should be allowed to speak or not at public institutions, such as colleges. Except it’s not really the state, but a commission of liberal politicians that wouldn’t dream of putting people in danger with the plus of shutting down alt-right speakers.

You see, to me it’s all about the long game. Now that my law is constitutional, other liberal states will pass similar ones, nipping opposition in the bud. At the same time, the alt-right will try to demonize us and we will do the same with them, for instance calling them “alt-right.” This will help polarize people, which is more urgently needed than people think. Right now, there’s a great divide between citizens, and it has to be sharper so matters can be solved.

Some hundred years ago, there was a new country made up of different people split by their view on some matters. The situation was unsustainable, and finally violence erupted. After the dust settled, so did the matters that split those people, which were sealed with blood. Now we are in that same situation, spending too much time in petty squabbles and fancy debates without agreeing on important matters. Open struggle is the only way forward.

The week after my victory, I feel unstoppable. It’s like the world is at my feet. But then, and there’s always a “but then,” my house of cards starts to lose stability. On monday, I receive a strike notice from the police trade union. “Due to the excessive reduction of wages by the state government, we have no choice but to call on all law enforcement and corrections’ personnel to peacefully strike on the eighth of august, at 4:00 p.m. We hope this—” Blah, blah, blah.

The rest of the letter-shaped stab in my back is just formalities and pretty words. I call my rock. She gets into my office. “Get here tol’s president.” That’s how I call my friend from school outside here. “Oh and tell her it’s urgent,” I command. Then I reread the piece of paper. “You may want to read this first.” She hands me in another letter. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s another strike notice, from health care employers this time.

Two strike notices? And out of the blue? This is strange, too strange. I examine the second notice. They’re both for the same day, approximately the same time. This is not some random strike, this is concerted. My enemies rallied these people against me, the government incarnate. I stand up and go make some coffee to think clearer. Why now? Maybe it’s because of my victory in the Supreme… But it doesn’t make sense, I raised some of the union’s salaries to get votes for my bill.

Thank god I didn’t raise general taxes, even though they tried pressuring me into it. Maybe this was long-time coming. My rock comes in with another letter. She doesn’t have to tell me what it is. “Another?” I ask. She nods her head and says, “Firefighters.” Of course, if police went on strike, so would they. But we’re in the middle of summer, and a firefighter strike actually puts lives in danger.

“This is not good,” she says. “Find out if there’s more,” I command. “Pull every thread, turn every stone, I need to know now!” She nods and leaves my office. I pace up and down as my heart begins to beat quicker. I feel surrounded… And I know there are more strike notices to come in, I can feel it. Someone is gunning for me.

But who? Who wants me out? I turn on the news. They’re already reporting the upcoming massive strike. “… police, firefighters, garbage collectors, health care and public transportation staff will all participate in the massive strike that will take place next week—” I mute the tv. My house of cards has completely crumbled and is being stomped by grinning morons. I stare at the faces of the labour representatives that accuse me personally on tv.

I unmute the tv and listen to their poisonous stabs. I let it all sink in, their ill-conceived hatred, their condescension toward me, their treason. Then, when the news cycle starts over, I open my laptop and type in who they are and their position. I call my rock who is on the next room. She comes in. “Drop what I asked you to do before. We need to know who orchestrated this… this—” The words choke on my throat. “Coup?” she finishes. I nod. “I’m on it,” she says and leaves again.

Again alone, I think about the people I’ve f-worded over. I’d lie if I said it’s a small list. However, the list of people with enough power or influence to do this is not so big, so I decide to start there. I walk up to my secretary. “Cancel all my meetings for today. Only let through my rock and tol’s president. I’ll be at the war room.”

§ An offer you can’t refuse

After eight hours straight, my rock, my friend from school and I have composed a list with thirty-two members. They are neatly written on two large whiteboards, along with their position and possible influences. I feel like it’s an army of backstabbing rats, too powerful for me. “There’s… there’s too many,” I say looking in horror. I feel the world spinning and have to lie down on the couch.

My rock is drinking freedom vodka. I take the glass from her and take a long gulp. It tastes like rat poison but I take another, and another one, … “I’m doomed,” I say after a while. “I’m—” My friend from school slaps my face and takes the glass from me. “No!” she says. “You’re not giving up. You’re not going to destroy yourself like she did.” Not having eaten in a long time, I feel the effects of alcohol kicking in, warming my belly. “Well,” I reply. “You know, she had like, you know, help—”

“Stop it,” she says. “Wh-what any of it matters anyway?” I ask. She helps me get up, walks me to her car and drives me home. There she makes me drink water to avoid a hangover and puts me to bed. I wake up and for a moment don’t remember the s-wordstorm we’re in. Then it all haunts me. I wake up and go to the kitchen. There I find my friend from school, who apparently stayed in last night. She’s working on her laptop. “Good morning,” she greets me. “Are you ok?” she asks.

I hesitate to say “Yes.” I’m not sure I can handle the pressure. Then I think about what would happen if I gave up like mother, like my dead girlfriend. “Yes,” I say more convinced. “I’ll fight them with all my strength. And even if it kills me, I’ll take as many with me as I can.” She smiles. “Just what I wanted to hear,” she says. “Now sit down, I have some ideas.”

I sit by her side. As she discusses what people I should go to first, uncle comes in and greets us. He called me yesterday to offer his support, but we hadn’t really spoken yet. “Listen dear, if there’s anything you can do for me, let me know,” he says, taking my hand. “Thanks, I say.” Then my friend and I go on talking. “Ok, the first thing I’ll do is meet with trade union heads. Luckily I can avoid this crisis partially or completely.”

My secretary sets up my first meeting today: a lunch with the police union head for the state. Right from the moment I sit down to speak, I can feel his contempt. He deliberately uses the word “sweetheart” to trigger me, like I’m that easy. I calmly offer to match the demands of the trade union. He laughs at me. “Look, sweetie, the strike’s going down. Now, if you want to get down on your knees and—” “Disgusting prick!” I say standing up. “I’ll have your balls for this, you’re lucky I didn’t tape this.” F-word! I dropped the ball hard there. He smiles as I leave his office.

Next meeting is the fire department’s union head. With a lot of words, and more politely, he says “f-word you.” I’m meeting the garbage collector’s trade union head during dinner. As my driver takes me there, I realize the state postal workers have not yet declared if they’re taking part in the strike. “Call the piece of trash and cancel dinner,” I say to my secretary. Then I speak to my driver. “Please, turn around, we’re going somewhere else.”

The driver smiles and says “Yes, ma’am,” showing he’s on my side. I give him instructions to get to the state’s postal workers union headquarters, which is on my city. Once there I talk to the union head’s secretary. “But, you have no appointment?” she says like a confused deer. “Oh dear,” I say before entering the president’s office, who was about to leave for the day. The secretary follows me. “You can’t go in there,” she says after I’ve gone in there.

“It’s ok, you can go on playing games on your phone,” says the president and she obeys. I have the feeling he knows why I’m here. “Please, do come in,” he says tiredly. He walks slowly up to the bar and starts pouring two glasses of bourbon. I watch him from a chair in front of his desk. He’s so old it seems he’s about to crumble into a pile of dust once the spell keeping him alive breaks. “Eight percent pay increase… on top of the four percent you took from us.” He says, cutting straight to the chase. I like that.

“What do I get in return?” I ask. “Hmmm,” he says as he brings me a glass and toasts. We both take a gulp. “I’ll tell you who tried roping me into this sham strike.” I think about it for a few seconds. “Eight percent total increase and you back me publicly.” “Woah, easy there,” he says, putting his hands up. “Look, I’m just looking out for my union. If I tie myself to your wagon, how do I know I won’t end up on the bottom of the cliff?”

Without drinking, I stand up. “You know, you’re right. It was silly of me to come, you don’t need me at all. I can take on you too, what’s one more of you trade unions to me anyway? I’m sure after the post office workers know you turned down an 8% pay raise and set them on strike for months only to get me fired, yeah, I’m sure they will back your clever decision. Thanks for making me see things clearer.”

I step out of his office. “Do you want to book another meeting…” his secretary asks me. “Miss?” She asks from her desk as I keep walking away. My secretary follows me like a lap dog. As I’m walking to my car, once at the parking, the union’s president rushes to me. “Please, don’t leave, I want to discuss your proposal.”

§ Bait

The postal workers union’s president (our secret ally) gave me a terrifying piece of information. Natdec’s regional commissar, essentially a puppet for people with actual power, contacted him. Now I know it’s people from my own party that want to burn me. It must be a high-ranking officer gunning for me. But who? Maybe uncle knows. I must speak to my friend from school now. The driver takes me there quickly, and she opens her apartment door after I ring.

“I just landed the postal office union. The president told me we’re being screwed by someone high-up in natdec,” I say. “F-wording ingrates…” she says, disgusted by the very word “natdec.” It has upset her since uncle retired funding for the old tol. “Now, remember, they’re just a means to an end,” I say. “Those f-wording hypocrites think they can—” she goes on as I sigh. “Can we please focus?” I interrupt her, irritated, and she pays attention to me.

She suddenly realizes something. “Don’t tell your uncle yet,” she says. “Why?” I ask. “He could tip off whoever is pulling the strings if he starts asking questions.” I nod. “I shouldn’t tell him about our secret ally either,” I say. “I’ll tell our secret ally to keep quiet for now.” She smiles and says “I have an idea. What if we use our secret ally to find the traitor?” I look at her, marveled. “What exactly are you proposing?”

“Alright, now, we know it’s someone high-rank, right?” I nod. “Our secret ally has refused to help them… so far. What if he suddenly decided that, for the right price, he could change his mind? Maybe he’s heard rumors, maybe he just feels he’s hold on long enough. Then all we need is to follow him and see who calls him or goes to see him.” I nod. “I’ll tell him that—” “Not yet,” she interrupts me. “It’s best if it looks like he jumped on the train at the last minute.”

Her plan troubles me. “But if we spread rumors about me being close to surrender,” I say, “more people will turn against me.” “So be it,” she says. “That way you’ll catch them off guard when you cut the serpent’s head and we turn this rebellion upside down.” I think about it for a minute, weighing the risks and rewards. I don’t have anything better to find whoever is behind this.

“Ok, can you handle it?” I ask. She nods. “They’ll get overconfident,” she says. “Everyone will say you’re on the verge of surrender. Also, I’ll have my rock feed counterfeit news to some reporters.” “I also have reporters in a few counterfeit news networks that would eagerly publish anything we feed them,” I say. She smiles thinking of the same network as me. “I’m a little scared about this though, it doesn’t leave me in a very good position.”

She grabs my shoulders and says. “If there’s someone who can pull this off it’s you.” “It’ll be a lot of pressure…” I sigh. She nods. “Just imagine what a victory it’ll be if we stop this before the strike begins,” she says. After a couple of hours discussing our strategy, I leave for home. I sleep four hours before I head back to the office. My rock joins me there. We make lists of people who can support me, of people who owe me favors, and of people I can owe favors to.

Then we spend the day on the phone and meeting people in person. From noon till dusk I try to rally support, injecting myself coffee after coffee to stay focused. The number of people treating me like a political leper is appalling. I add all of them to my blacklist. Ironically, I find more support in the conservatives than in my own party. They understand that a general strike in summer is simply bad. Without police, there will be riots and looting. Without firefighters, fires will get out of control. Without garbage collection and with the scorching heat, our streets will be disgusting.

Finally the fourth of august comes. We’re four days away from the beginning of the strike, and I’m starting to feel anxious. The press reports that “… according to internal sources, the incumbent governor will resign before the start of the strike if no solution is found. Trade unions have publicly agreed to negotiate terms to stop the strike, but only with someone other than the incumbent governor, as they claim she isn’t open to dialogue. Maybe it’s time citizens demand she steps down, now that—” I turn off the tv.

What a load of crap. I’ve offered those greedy union puppets more than they’ve asked for, publicly. But it’s ok, I can stand being grilled by the press. I feel like a juggler, trying to keep the plates spinning. Every time there’s a new rumor or story on the press, my few supporters waver. But today is important because there’s an important benefit gala to support some rare children’s disease. Or maybe it’s to support research to fight that disease? I always confuse the two.

Anyway, our secret ally has already sold me out as I commanded him to do. He’s called natdec’s regional commissar to say he’s willing to negotiate so his request reaches his masters. Me and my friend from school are also attending the gala, which some are calling my “political funeral.” We’ll watch whom he talks to, but we must not be too obvious.

As my driver takes me there, I feel like this is it, I’m fighting for my life. What’s there for me if I lose? Some manager’s job at some company? Before I became governor, I thought power was hardly worth it. But now that I’ve tasted it… I want more. I’ll admit it, I want to survive this at any cost. I want more than a simple bill in state congress and a few ephemeral social programmes. I deserve it for all the crap I’ve put up with during—

“Are you ok, ma’am?” asks the driver noticing I’m distracted. “Yes, thanks,” I reply. “What do you think about the strike?” I ask. He smiles. “Well, ma’am, I think they picked on the wrong governor.” Damn straight. “Thanks for the support,” I say. “It’s… it’s more important than it looks.” He tips his hat. Shortly after we get to the gala. I take a deep breath before I step out of the limousine.

A couple of reporters flock to me, poking for answers. “When are you going to resign?” “Aren’t you ashamed?” “What do you have to say about—” But their buzzing gets lost when I enter the building where the gala will be held and they have to stay outside. I smile at them from the door and force myself to remember their faces. I’ll look them up later and add them to the blacklist.

As I walk around the gala, people stop to stare. I’m wearing a dress that reveals my legs. But that’s not all people look at. They see me as a political corpse being buried. They don’t use their masks of false pleasantness on me anymore. They simply grin at my misfortune. But I keep my chin up and show them I’m not afraid. It’s the perfect excuse to watch our secret ally.

I spend most of the party with my friend from school, receiving stabs from the hyenas. “Hopefully next year you’ll have more time to attend galas. I’m sure any non-profit would be lucky to have you,” says one of the women in the board of whatever foundation organized this party. I just smile and take it. Everyone there assumes I’m going to give up. Even our secret ally probably thinks the best for him is to just take whatever they offer him.

After four painful hours, no potential traitor has approached our secret ally. “Are you girls up for dinner? I have a few friends that may be able to help you,” says uncle, who’s also attending the gala. I want to stay and keep watching my bait, but my friend from school says “Don’t worry, my rock can take over.” Uncle’s friends are two rich couples with more appetite for gossip than relevance, but at this point I’ll take anything.

Finally the evening is over and I get home to my bed. But I can’t sleep. I feel the walls choking me, there’s no room for me to breathe.

§ Environmental terrorism

During the final stretch before the strike I spend all my strength trying to stop it. The striking unions refuse to talk with me in private and accuse me of refusing dialogue in public. The few conservatives who supported me have accepted the strike is imminent and are now demanding my resignation. Almost everyone turns against me, too many people to fit into my lists.

Then the day comes, the eighth of august. I wake up in my apartment and turn on the tv. Policemen and firefighters are gathered in a big protest occupying my city’s streets. “We must put an end to these draconian measures our governor has imposed on the population,” speaks the official strawman at the front of this general strike, natdec’s regional commissar. I want to throw up. I feel like a french king about to be overwhelmed by the masses of riffraff that call themselves “revolution.” But I’m not french, so I’m not going to surrender.

My friend from school has slept at my apartment and enters my room when she sees I’m up. “Hi, how are you—” she says. I mute the tv. “I-I’m going to make a statement,” I say without looking at her. Her face turns even paler than usual. I smile thinking she’s so white it’s almost like she’s a noblewoman trying to make her social status stand out by being whiter than everybody else. “But if you break down, you know I can’t… you…” she babbles, afraid. I just keep smiling.

“I don’t think I can do this alone,” she says. “I need you to survive. Please—” I take her hands. “Ok. I promise,” I say. “I will live through this.” I call my secretary and have her arrange a press conference at the square in front of the building where I have my office. A demonstration against my speech is quickly organized, so that by the time I get to the press conference, the square is packed with angry people.

My bodyguards clear a path for me to get to a small podium set up for the conference. I’m booed by most of the people in the demonstration as I walk there. Once there, I fiddle with the microphones as I wait for the crowd to quiet down. “When you elected me for this office,” I start. “you trusted me to make good decisions. You trusted me to look out for your interests.” I stop for a moment to look at the crowd. They’re expecting me to resign. I bet my friend from school is terrified right now.

“And that’s precisely what I’ve done,” I continue, striking the podium with my finger at the last four words. “I implemented social programmes that were necessary. But that needed funding, so I had to cut down salaries from our overpaid, bloated bureaucracy.” The shouting and booing from the crowd begins, so I raise my voice to impose myself, as I feel anger burning inside me. I hate the ungratefulness of these spoiled brats. “And I offered them the chance to negotiate, but they spat on my face!” The crowd tries to drown me with booing.

“Now!” I yell, imposing myself. “If you think I’m going to back down, you’re wrong! I’ll fight this strike until my bones break because you deserve someone who’ll fight for you. If they want to go to war with me, so be it! I’m never. Standing. Down!” I strike the podium with my fist at each of my last words. Then I look at the crowd.

I don’t think anybody expected this. People are outraged, crying out nonsense or plain flailing their arms and screeching. Suddenly, a rock hits one of my bodyguards. At first I don’t understand, then more rocks follow and it’s clear what’s going on. My bodyguards escort me out as a fight breaks out between protestors. There’s no police to stop it and the fighting gets out of hand. People run away from the crowd in horror. Smaller mobs with bandanas splinter from the main crowd and start looting nearby stores.

My friend from school and I watch the news following the looting from my apartment’s tv. Uncle is out, trying to rally support for me. He’s been so good to me through all this. I should show him my gratitude when it’s all over. “Mommy, do you want to play with me?” interrupts my thoughts. I throw a threatening look at the babysitter, who rushes to take her hand. “Sorry sweetie but I’m busy now.” They go back to her room. I feel bad for not being there for her, but I have to take care of this. In the long-run, this is in her best interest because I’ll be able to give her a political career.

One hour into the lootings, I decide to call on the national guards to restore order. They quickly arrest the looters and restore order using “nonlethal riot control measures.” Word spreads on social media about the violent nazi protestors that took part in the protest against me. I post messages saying “Bullies won’t shut me up,” and similar stuff.

When night comes, several fires start in a forest near my city, and it quickly spreads thanks to the dry weather and strong wind. I stay up all night, coordinating with other states to secure other firemen brigades to put out the fire, as ours are on strike. Meanwhile, social networks denounce our firemen for not doing their job and costing the city a lot of money in the form of the salaries of firemen from other states. What’s worse, they hate them for allowing an environmental terrorist strike (a fire) to happen.

By the second day, things are looking better for me. Both me and my friend from school are plagued by headaches and exhaustion, but the winds of public opinion are shifting. A couple of counterfeit news network talk about the “courageous stand of a half-jewish woman” and how it was “violently trampled by neo-nazis.” They just want to sell with a title that reads “Jewish governor woman abused by neo-nazis.” These days the word “abused” has been abused beyond recognition.

As my friend from school and I interleave watching the news with strong-arming the members of the state government into supporting me, my rock comes into the room smiling. “They found a dead woman in the mountain that burned last night.” Me and my friend look at her. “Please, please tell me she died because of the fire. Please, just say ‘she burned alive.’” My rock smiles. “It looks like that, but it’s not sure yet.”

“Yes!” I shout out of excitement. We have to move fast. My friend from school is already on this, preparing to bolster the news on social networks. While she calls someone, she mutes her phone by placing her hand on the speaker and says “We’re going with the story that she burned alive because nobody would help her, I’ll set it up.” I nod and point at my rock. “Get me the firemen’s union president on the phone.”

§ Triggered

The firemen’s union president is standing in front of me, separated by his oak desk. His office is like him, small, simple and fugly. Maybe he wants people to underestimate him. I don’t because I know him from charity events and I’ve also researched him. He has four adopted kids from mudhut countries and is the chairman of two charities to feed children from “developing” (aka mudhut) countries. Since I’ve stepped into his office, neither of us has spoken a word. “I want to make amends for our previous failed discussions,” I start. “After all I only want this strike to end so we can all move on.”

He’s clearly uncomfortable having me here. “And that’s precisely what I want too,” he says smiling. I smile, now I know he has a camera or microphone somewhere. “Look,” I say. “I know I’m not in a good position to negotiate, but I’m appealing to your common decency. Please return to work.” He sighs. “Already a woman died because you wouldn’t do your job, how long—” “A cop friend told me she was dead before the fire,” he interrupts me. “You can’t really blame us for that.”

The hell I can’t. “I think your cop friend may be covering up for you,” I reply. “Just like they found her, they’ll keep finding bodies as the fire spreads while you sit idly by, watching.” He doesn’t look very good. “Look,” he says, putting both his hands on his desk and coming closer to me, “that woman died from a heart attack and people will know the truth.” I laugh. “Truth? Truth you say? Okay, your cop friends may be able to justify one. But what will happen when more people die because you couldn’t do your work? Just look at this report…” I reach for my purse which is at the desk and whisper so only he can hear: “I’ll leave a car full of burnt children.”

My heart beats wildly, but I try to stay calm. He backs away from me in horror. “Say that out loud!” He yells. “Say what?” I ask. He shakes his head. “What you just whispered in my ear.” He thinks I’m room-temperature IQ so I just smile. “I didn’t say a thing, I was just looking through my purse.” Then, looking stranged, “What game are you playing?” I ask naively. He doesn’t look well. “Are you ok?” I ask. “Get away from me, get out!”

“So you refuse to listen to the offer I’m willing to make? I’m willing to raise another—” “No! Get out!” He shouts at me. His secretary comes in. “Is everything ok?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I say. “We were just talking, and he just… I don’t know, lost it.” “Get out!” He snaps at his secretary, who quickly leaves. “You… you…” But he bites his tongue. “Yes? Can you finish that sentence, please? Say the word, I know you’re dying to.”

I pull my phone and move it close enough to show him a picture of a charred car with corpses inside. Then I say “I’m taping this conversation so—” “You sick c-word!” He interrupts me. I smile. He finally said it. “You f-wording twisted c-word,” he says. I just go on talking “… so that people know how you unions have been completely unreasonable.” “… you’ll go to jail for this s-word!” he screams. “… now you’re also being sexist. I believe you should apologize right now—” I say. “I’m going to put you in jail for this s-word,” he goes on.

“Ok, I’m leaving now,” I say as I open the door. “Get back here, give me that phone!” He yells, but I’ve already opened the door and his secretary can see us. He rushes to take it from my hands. “Stop! You’re hurting me!” I complain. His secretary watches the whole scene. He finally tears it from my hands, and I scratch my own arm during the struggle. “Oh my god! You made me bleed! Are you insane?” He finally has my phone, but surprise surprise, the picture is gone because I deleted it right after I showed him.

There’s a small crowd assembled outside already, lured by our loud argument. The more witnesses the merrier. “Help, he’s gone insane, look!” I say showing them my left arm, which is by now covered in blood. “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong!” He screams in desperation. I take refuge behind a tall, rugged man. We’re all looking at him now as he speaks. “She-she showed me a picture of burned children to-to…” He wants to say “provoke me,” but he’s too distracted by my gloating smile, which only he sees because everyone is looking at him.

“Look at her, even now!” I’ve put back on my “scared to death” face by the time the crowd looks at me. “You are sick,” says a woman, looking at him. I leave, aided by two women. “It just so happens” I was going to meet a reporter right after the meeting to discuss the strike. She finds me in the lobby at the entrance of the building as I come out of the elevator.

“Oh my… What happened?” asks the reporter. “I-I,” I start, too shaken to speak. “This is outrageous,” says one of the women helping me. “The union’s president called her a c-word, and we heard it. Even saying it is too triggering…” she goes on. She has to be comforted by the other woman, who picks up even more enraged. “That man like literally scratched our governor to steal her phone!”

The reporter smells blood and it opens up her appetite. A state union president isn’t exactly big game, but it’s definitely good for her career. That’s why I chose this young little piranha that has gotten into a national newspaper by using scandal and rumors to tear down decent working men. She came highly recommended by my friend from school, who has already worked with her. “You see, I was taping our conversation to prove unions do not want to collaborate with me, as I’ve been saying all along.”

She smiles. “I always thought you were telling the truth, you know?” No she didn’t, but it’s ok. I don’t need her for her honesty precisely. I let her sweeten my ears with fake support. “… and was hoping the strike would end favourably for you.” This from a woman from a major newspaper allegedly here to write an “unbiased account of the strike from both viewpoints,” as she explained over the phone. “I don’t suppose you have the—” Oh, finally.

“Yes, I have the tape,” I interrupt her. I look at the two women who have helped me. “Thank you very much. I think I can take it from here. Please give my secretary your contact information and I’ll thank you properly another time.” They nod, shake my hand and go meet my secretary. “Now,” I say looking at my reporter. “I’ll give you an exclusive interview and the tape instead of the article.”

Her eyes open wide with lust. “You belong to me now. I’ll feed you news from time to time, and you’ll publish them. I’ll give you interviews, but we’ll agree to the questions.” There’s two options now. Either she infers premeditation in my actions and I have to let her go, or she shows pragmatism and loyalty. “I can get a crew down here in sixteen minutes.” Second option then. I lean forward and whisper in her ear, dead serious. “But never, and I mean never, betray me.” She nods because she wants status, power and wealth at any cost. She nods because she understands that I can give her all that.

§ Defeated

The interview is a powerful advertisement in my favor. I paint myself as a victim of the patriarchy, with rich white males gunning for me at the expense of the state. Unfortunately, it may be too little too late. When I get into my limousine, the driver pulls down the window that separates the front from the back. Or how I like to think about it, the commoners from the aristocrats. “Ma’am, you should hear this,” he says turning on the car’s radio.

“… she cannot be allowed to continue in office after these outrageous charges have come to light. We have no option but to pursue the impeachment of our governor!” My heart skips a beat, and my throat almost shuts down. “Wh—” I choke. “What charges are those?” I ask the driver. The door at my left opens and my secretary comes in, sweating from running to tell me the news I already know. I show her my hand so she doesn’t waste time.

“They’re accusing you of insurance fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud while you worked at tol.” I feel the world spinning. I knew this day would come, but I thought I would have time to prepare, that I would see it coming. Everything is crumbling down on me. And the limo won’t stop spinning. I take the first thing I find, my secretary’s purse, and puke on it.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry, really,” I say to her. She looks at her purse with disgust. “It’s… fine, don’t worry.” I lie on my back, taking up a whole row of seats. “I still believe in you ma’am, nevermind what those senators are saying,” says the driver. I smile. “Thank you, you’re too sweet.” “What do you want to do?” asks my secretary. They’re both waiting for me to return to life, but I don’t feel like it. I feel defeated, dead even. I can’t do anything. “Call tol’s leader, tell her I’m on my way,” I say. My secretary nods and pulls the phone from her pocket, luckily untouched by my vomit. “Yes ma’am,” says the driver. “Uhm,” says my secretary, “your uncle asked you to come home, he wants to talk to you.” Great, like I want that right now. I shoo her away with my hand.

As we speed across the city, I feel like I’ll soon wither and disappear. The charges are real. When they dig deep enough, they’ll find gold. Then I’ll be impeached and convicted, and I can’t let that happen. Oh god, how did I get here? I’m on the cliff, looking at the abyss. No, I have to resign. I have to spare myself all this. Maybe my daughter will have a shot that way.

She’ll have to distance herself from me though. Since resigning is as good as admitting I’m guilty, she’ll have to… avoid any memory of me. I won’t be able to appear in public with her. Maybe she’ll even refuse calls from me. I feel so much pressure, it’s like I’ve sunk to the bottom of the sea. I explode in tears. It just pours out of me in gushes of salty pain.

Finally we get to my friend from school’s apartment. “You both have the day off,” I tell my secretary and driver. They barely nod and I avoid any eye contact. I go up, my eyes red, and step in. She opens up in sweatpants. She’s been crying, and has no makeup. She looks awful. I hold her as we cry. “We reached for the stars…” I say. “No one can say we didn’t try.”

She holds me tighter. After a few minutes, we step inside. We sit down in the couch in front of the tv. She has opened a bottle of freedom vodka and is already halfway through it. I join her drinking. She lays her head on my shoulder. Tv is showing reporters waiting for me at my apartment. “Look at these fools,” I say to cheer her up. “They think I’m going back there.”

She smiles, and for the moment that’s enough for me. “You know what the good thing is?” I say. “Hmm,” she murmurs. “After I resign tomorrow, there’ll be no investigation. You can still make it.” She takes a gulp straight off the bottle. “I don’t think I have the strength for it,” she says. I take her shoulders in my hands and force her to look at me. “Yes you do,” I say. “You won’t let this or anyone stop you. I’ll be there for you, just not as we’d hoped.”

Tomorrow everything will change. I will be confined to private life. Maybe some company will want me… but to work as what? At least we have enough money for this life. I sigh deeply, partially to stop myself from crying again. I compose myself. I think of all the things I don’t have to do or worry about anymore. “You know,” I say, “there’s a kind of peace in knowing it’s over.”

“You mean because you don’t have to fight it anymore?” she asks. I nod and we stay a minute or two in silence. “Maybe I’ll write a book,” I say. “You could travel…” she says. “We could travel,” I reply. “And take my daughter with me. She’s growing up so fast and I barely know her. Oh god. I’m a terrible mother—” She takes the bottle from my hands. “Now, I think that’s the alcohol speaking. Let’s take a walk, try to clear our heads.”

“Ughh,” I complain, but she’s already up and helping me get up. I’m a little dizzy, the room spinning around me. “You know,” I say beginning to tear up, “you look just as beautiful as the day I met you. I still remember that little girl who talked to me even when I was a social pariah.” She takes my hand. “Come, let’s walk.” She hands me a redhead wig and sunglasses. “So they don’t recognize you.”

I try them on. I look like a porn actress. An aged porn actress… We get out of her apartment and just stroll across the city. I check my phone, more than eight lost calls from uncle. There’s all kind of people outside, rushing past us. We walk for a while before we sit down in a bench on a park. I’m cracking up, she can barely hold her laughter as well. Finally we burst laughing. “You—” I start, still laughing, “… you’d think we’d have some kind of revelation after this big defeat, that we’d be humble and down-to-earth.” I stop for a moment. “But oh lord, how fugly can people get?” We both start laughing again. My ribs hurt from laughter, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

“Right?” she says. “To tell you the truth,” she says before whispering into my ear, “they kind of disgust me.” I can’t stop laughing for a while. It feels good to let myself laugh without control. Finally our laughter trickles down into a smile. “We’re not like them and never will be,” she says looking at the city. “Well I’m glad,” I reply. “I’ll help you run tol, you do my part. It’s what we are, what we’ve always been.” “A predator’s heart…” she says. “… knows no remorse,” I finish.

We eat hot dogs from a street vendor, then we walk for a hour or two, most of it in silence. Finally I stop. “I think it’s time to go home, face the music,” I say. “Want me to join you for dinner?” She asks. I shake my head, barely moving it as my whole face trembles. “Hey. Keep your chin up,” she says, holding my chin with her hand. I smile and say. “Thanks for everything.” I haul a cab. We hug before I step inside it. “I’ll get to your apartment tomorrow,” she says. I wave her goodbye as the cab speeds away. I give the driver the address and he nods.

After I take off the wig and glasses, he throws glances at me, realizing who I am. “Yes, I’m the governor,” I say. “Oh, what an honour.” He seems nervous. “You know, my wife and I don’t believe you’re guilty and really admire how you stood up to those unions.” I smile and say “thank you but—” “I can’t wait until you prove them all wrong,” he goes on. I feel bad disappointing this man and all the people on my side, but I can’t fight impeachment.

When we get to my apartment’s street, I try to pay the cab driver, but he refuses. “You ride free with me. Good luck,” he says. “Wait,” I say. “Give me your business card, if you have one.” He pulls out a small card from his wallet. It has all his info. “My people will contact you,” I say before I start making my way to my apartment. I feel silly having asked that man for his card out of routine. Tomorrow he’ll be disappointed in me, like so many others.

Finally I get to my apartment and open the door. Uncle is in his office, my daughter is with the babysitter. “Mommy!” she says when she sees me. I take her in my arms and say, “I’ll spend more time with you from now on, I promise.” She stares at me with a weird look. She doesn’t exactly trust me, and that’s scary. “Pinky swear?” she says. We pinky swear. “Now let’s have some dinner, sweetie.”

I step into the kitchen and start preparing salad, with my daughter assisting me. The kitchen’s door opens and uncle comes in. “I was worried sick, where have you been all day?” he asks. “I had to… clear my head.” He’s anxious, fiddling with a spoon, but he tries to conceal it. “Sweetie, can you give pops and mommy a moment to talk while you watch some cartoons?” he asks her. She extends her hand so uncle gives her his phone and she can play. He obliges. She takes it and runs out of the kitchen to turn on the tv. Uncle closes the kitchen door. “I called, several times,” he says. “What are you going to do next?” He sounds concerned.

“I’ll resign tomorrow,” I say, determined. He sighs with relief. “Well, you know, it’s what’s best for everyone,” he goes on and kisses my cheek. “You know,” I say as I cook. “This way I’ll have more time to spend with my daughter. The truth is I’ve been neglecting her and…” He puts his hands on my shoulders to stop me. “Now now, you’re the best daughter-in-law an old man like me could’ve asked… and you’re also a terrific mother.” I turn around to look at him. “Thank you uncle, thank you for your support through all this. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it as governor…”

He kisses my forehead and leaves to join my daughter on the tv. A while later she comes to the kitchen, looking for sweets. She pulls up a chair, climbs on the counter and opens the top kitchen cabinet. After a few seconds she pulls out a package of cookies with pride in her accomplishment. I get her down and sit her on my knees and we both eat cookies. As I think of the things we’re going to do together, I hear a vibrating sound. I look at the counter, it’s uncle’s phone, my daughter must’ve left it there when she went for the cookies.

It’s so close I can read the alert. It’s a text message from “fisherman” that reads: “if the fish isn’t cooked by tomorrow, the fire is ready.” Immediately I look away. My heart beats faster. I reread the words in my mind. “Fisherman.” I know who that is, it came up as I was looking for my enemy in the party. It’s how his buddies talk about natdec’s regional commissar.

His buddies.

§ Usual suspects

I put my daughter on the ground, almost pushing her, and rush to the toilet to throw up. I start hyperventilating. I can’t control myself. How can I have been so blind? How could uncle have been so careless to not disable notifications? Nothing makes sense. I feel hatred filling me up as I understand his reasons. He told me not to go through with my bill. He called it “worthy of a banana republic.” I thought we only had a disagreement, but in the back of my mind I knew he was holding a grudge.

And now he has stabbed my back with a chainsaw. He put me here, in this impossible situation. “the fire is ready.” If I don’t bite (resign), they will cook me with fire (press charges on tol’s arson scheme.) They must have some proof or witness, counterfeit or otherwise. Would he really do that? To his own daughter-in-law? What kind of a f-wording degenerate is he? Is there anyone on my side? Am I completely surrounded by enemies?

This is too much, I can’t allow this. First I have to know for sure, and I must be quick. I breathe deeply in and out, then wipe my tears, wash my face and redo my ruined makeup. I open the bathroom door only to find uncle standing there. “Hey, are you ok?” he asks. I’m very tense, but I try to calm down and look normal. I smile. “It’s just lady problems.” He says nothing else as I walk past him.

I go into my room and take one of my burner phones. I text my rock: “Uncle is behind the strike. He’s friends with fisherman. Need confirmation.” I take a couple of burners with me and return to the kitchen, where I start cooking up a scheme. My daughter has already taken his phone from the counter, so he has no clue I’ve seen the message. The dinner is in sixteen minutes, but I need more time. Apart from the salad, I’m roasting a chicken in the oven. The truth is I’m not a very experienced cook, so I decide to turn up the heat to burn it. It’ll buy me some time.

“Get me the phone records on—” I start typing to my secretary. Immediately I stop and remember uncle suggested her to me. Right now, I can only trust my friend from school and my rock. “Uncle is behind theee—” I start typing to my friend from school, but the sound of steps coming to the kitchen interrupt me. I slip the burner phone back inside my purse.

“Hmm, smells wonderful,” says uncle. “How much longer does it—” “About sixteen minutes or so, I’ll call you,” I cut him dryly. Then I force a smile. “I’m sorry, it’s the tension,” I say. He smiles. “Don’t worry, I totally understand,” he says before leaving. I sigh with relief. In a few minutes, the chicken will start to become charred. I finish my text to my friend through my burner phone. I edit the message so it reads “Uncle is behind the strike.” I hit send.

“Doesn’t it smell like it’s burning?” asks uncle from the tv. Of course it does, I’m burning it. “No, I just checked,” I say. I wait until I hear him stand up and walk toward the kitchen. I turn down the heat and open the oven. “Oh god no I burned it,” I say before he steps in. “How does this keep happening to me?” I complain. The smell of charred flesh invades the kitchen, and soon the whole apartment. Uncle enters the kitchen.

“I’m so sorry,” I say, “I’ll go outside and buy one already cooked. We can still eat the salad.” He frowns. “Why not just order—” he says, but I interrupt him. “No, no, no, I want to get it myself. I feel bad for burning this one and I’d like to take a walk.” He smiles and says “Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to improve your cooking after tomorrow.” I smile back and say. “You know, you’re right.” Condescending, backstabbing motherf-worder. I make time “getting ready” so I can wait for my friend from school. Finally the door rings. Someone opens it and I hear her voice.

I exit my room and meet her. “… think I’ll retire from tol soon. It’s going nowhere with the—” she’s saying to uncle when I come in. “Hi, I have to go out, get another chicken. Wanna join me?” It’s not really a question. “Yeah, sure,” she says. “I still think you could order from—” says uncle, but my friend from school interrupts him “No, it’s better this way.”

Once outside, I start whispering in hush tones. “He got a text from one ‘fisherman’ that said ‘if the fish isn’t cooked by tomorrow, the fire is ready.’” Her eyes open wide. “I have my rock looking into it, but I can feel it in my gut. I knew he was holding a grudge.” “It makes sense that it’s him,” she says. “I don’t want to go out this way,” I say. She smiles and for the first time today, she doesn’t look defeated. “Me neither. Let’s show everyone what we’re made of.”

During the thirty-two minute trip to get the food and get back to the apartment, stopping also for unnecessary sauce, we plot our comeback. As the elevator rushes us to my apartment on the top floor, I hold her hand. “It’s all-in,” I say. She presses my hand tight. “That’s how legends are born.” The burner I use to communicate with my rock buzzes. “Uncle had chance to talk to every union leader. His secretary confirms he has met ‘fisherman’ eight times this week.”

“It’s him,” says my friend from school after reading the message from my phone. She rings the door and I hide the burner in my purse. We step into the apartment and close the door. It’s my turn now.

§ The scorpion

As we have dinner, I can barely restrain my heartrate from going through the roof. Still, I try to act like everything’s normal. Instead of chicken, we brought home several rations of pork chops from a restaurant that uncle loves, and we all eat our fill. We discuss the fake plans for the future. I make myself look as agreeable and defeated as possible. Finally, I put my daughter to bed, and ask uncle and my friend from school to stay a little longer. Uncle’s wife, the baked potato, silently follows the conversation with her eyes.

Once I’ve put my daughter to bed, I go to the kitchen and prepare some coffee. Then I return to the table and sit down in front of uncle, with his wife at my left and my friend from school at my right. “… it’s like I always say,” is saying uncle, “it’s the new generations that don’t understand the importance of respect.” After I’ve given everyone their coffee, I say, “Funny you should say that.” He takes a sip from his coffee. He doesn’t know it, but the one I gave him has additional caffeine. I didn’t ask if he wanted coffee so he wouldn’t have the chance to say no.

“How so?” he asks. The pause makes him somewhat nervous. “Well,” I say. “Because we talked about precisely that when we went to fetch dinner.” He seems calmer and sips from his coffee again. “Specially about how you have helped me and respected me even though I went against your wishes regarding that bill,” I say. For a moment he doubts, then he says, “Of course, you’re the mother of my granddaughter, you’re family.”

“Right?” I say. “That’s what I thought too. We can always solve our problems because we’re family. We can work them out.” He seems uncomfortable. Just as he’s about to open his mouth, I say, looking at my friend from school “So how come you ratted all my plans to the regional commissar?” Uncle’s eyes are wide open. “What do you mean I ratted you out?” my friend from school answers. “I’ve been there for you, always. I swear—” “You threw me under the fire-insurance-scheme bus so you could get a-away scot-free!” I interrupt her, striking the table with my fist.

She begins to tear, and I keep ramming. “You’ve been by my side all these years for what? Scorpion! You-you’ve stung my back and sunk us both.” She’s crying. “P-please, it wasn’t me, stop it.” She grabs me but I push her away. “Don’t touch me, I don’t want to see you ever again.” “Please—” she begs. “The only one I can trust right now is uncle, he’s the only one who tried to save me from disgrace. He’s the only one who understood the value of trust.”

My friend from school wipes her tears, stands up and looks at me. “You know what? Have it your way. I’ll leave now and go to the police and I’ll tell them everything.” Uncle stands up. “Now, let’s just calm down and—” we ignore him and keep arguing. “Go ahead, you ruined us both anyway!” I yell. “Fine, I’ll tell them all about the insurance scheme,” she starts. “Good!” I reply. “And about how we framed and murdered ‘the arsonist,’” she goes on. “Sure!” I yell even louder. “Girls, stop, let’s be reasonable here,” uncle tries to budge in. “Also about what you did to your husband, I’m sure everyone will want to know that one!”

“Wait what?” asks uncle. “Nothing, nothing,” I say. “What did she mean? Did you… did you cheat on him?” he asks, outraged. I smile and say “No, uncle, I didn’t cheat on him.” “Do you want to know what she did?” asks my friend from school. She’s not crying anymore. “Are you sure?” I ask. He doesn’t look good. “I had that sleazy scumbag killed.” His face turns pale. His baked-potato wife looks at me in horror. “No, it’s not possible, you couldn’t—” He says, but I interrupt him. “I met with one of the looneys,” I go on. “No, stop,” he begs. “I told him he was a monster.” “Please, don’t do this to me—” he says, sitting down. “Hey!” I interrupt him. “Look at me when I’m speaking.”

He looks at me with heart-filled hatred. He looks ready to rip my heart out. “I did it and I would do it again. Your precious nephew was a disgusting, coward murderer. I spit on his grave.” Then I spit on the floor. “I knew it, I f-wording knew it,” says uncle. “It was just too perfect for you. Somehow I knew, deep down I knew it was you. F-wording b-word.” I smile. “There it is. How you truly are, just like your nephew.” He threatens me pointing with his finger. His wife starts crying, or at least tries to. “Don’t you dare say another f-wording word about him. I’m going to—” but he restrains himself.

“To what?” I ask. “You killed me politically, this is just payback.” His face turns to amazement. “Did you… Wait—” he says, confused. “We know it was you who rallied the protests,” says my friend from school. “You two are f-wording crazy. Good thing you’re done.” I smile and sit down. “You are pathetic,” I say. “Just like your nephew—” “I told you, don’t talk about him again!” He yells standing up. “… and just like your little niece.” He and his wife look at me. “No,” he says, his anger instantly boiling away. “Hmm, your niece, yes, she was weak.” “No, no, no, you didn’t,” he says.

“Maybe I omitted some… facts about what happened that day.” He takes his hands to his face. As I talk, I pull out my phone and start going through it. “You see, after I left her I came back because I felt bad. I stepped in and saw her at the sofa staring at the bottle of pills. I sat down and we talked about how she had messed up. Her ‘plans’ for the future were a simple, normal life. Maybe have kids, get a regular job.” I play an audio clip on my phone. The sound reaches everyone in the room. “It was right then I realized she was… expendable, and when I realized where the conversation was going, I started taping it, just in case.”

The voices sound distorted, partly because it was filmed through my pocket. “… there’s nowhere to go from here,” says my dead girlfriend. Uncle’s eyes light up, hearing his niece again. “Our lives are over,” says my recorded voice. “We might as well lay down and… No, I better not say it.” “Say it, finish that thought,” she begs. “And… die,” says my trembling voice. “Those pills, hand them over,” I say on the tape. “No!” she cries to me. “Do it!” my voice commands again. Finally the sound of the pill bottle cracked open. “Don’t do it,” she says again, crying now, then louder.

“I chucked about sixteen pills then,” I say. Everyone at the table stares at me in disbelief. “Oh… my… god…” my dead girlfriend stutters as she cries. “I love you,” says my voice. “Come with me, we’ll be together.” The phone echoes her whimpers. Then there’s the sound of me running to the bathroom and puking my guts out, flushing the toilet and returning to her. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I thought we…”

“I changed my mind,” says my voice. “But I-I t-took the pills,” says her shattered voice. “The thing is, I don’t love you,” says my voice. “You b-word!” shouts uncle, but I simply turn up the volume on my phone as I smile. “No… y-you don’t, you don’t mean that…” my dead girlfriend stutters, crying. “You are weak, you always complain… you disgust me.” “For f-word’s sake!” yells uncle, standing up. “Stop!” my dead girlfriend says again, but then simply starts crying as I speak. “I only used you for who your uncle is, I never cared about your stupid face. And seriously, you’re really boring in bed, always going for my boobs like, what the f-word? You don’t know how many orgasms I’ve faked.”

“That’s it!” shouts uncle going for me. His baked-potato wife is between us, so he has to push her chair aside to chase me. That gives me time to start running. Our apartment is so large he chases me through his office, the kitchen, our living room, my bedroom, the guest bedroom, and back again. He runs after me knife in hand. He wants to kill me. But he doesn’t realize he’s old, unused to exercise and pumped with caffeine (of which I also put some in the pork chops, woops.) After a couple of minutes he has to stop to catch his breath. I stop too and speak to him.

“Aren’t you scared your heart will explode?” I ask. “Sh-shut up!” he struggles to say. “I put some cocaine in your pork chops, your heart rate must be through the roof!” Then there’s silence as he catches his breath. “F-wording… I’ll get you when—” “All those obstructed arteries blocking your blood, slowly bringing you to collapse.” I hear his breathing getting more difficult. He’s come close to me. He throws himself at me, but instead falls flat on the living room’s floor, face-down.

I flip him like a pancake and stand over him. I step on the hand holding the knife until he releases it and I kick it away. His eyes are out of his sockets, he’s holding his left arm with his right. My friend from school joins me. She has set his wife’s chair so she can watch. “Die,” I say calmly. “Die,” my friend from school says. “Die,” we start chanting. “F-word youu!” he finally says before his face collapses into a blank stare.

§ Fake news

Yes, I lied to you. I didn’t tell you everything about my girlfriend’s death. So far I had only whispered it to my husband, when he was dying. But see, you weren’t ready to hear it back then. I pick up my phone from the table and pause the audio clip. I also pick up a recorder I had left lying about to record this special conversation. “What do we do with mrs baked-potato over here?” my friend from school asks, pointing at uncle’s wife. The woman is crying for… well, for many different reasons. “She can’t talk,” I say. “It would be suspicious to kill her. I’ll keep her for now.” My friend from school comes up to me, still trembling. “It was such a rush… at the end.”

“I told you,” I say, still shaken up myself. I pour two glasses of freedom vodka and offer one to her. Then I raise mine, toasting. “To victory,” I say. “Against all odds,” she goes on. “Mommy?” I hear my daughter’s voice. Freedom vodka flies out of my nose. I turn around and see my daughter staring at uncle’s corpse. “What’s wrong with grandpa?” S-word. “Everything is going to be fine, sweetie. Grandpa’s not feeling fine and mommy’s gotta call an ambulance.” Oh god, how long has she been standing there? Did she… did she hear anything I said?

I call the paramedics. Meanwhile, my friend from school writes uncle’s confession on a piece of paper and my daughter sits on her lap. I try to hug her but she refuses me. It’s like a cold stab into my heart. An eternity later, the paramedics arrive. By then uncle is long gone and his confession of guilt about the insurance scheme lies on the table. The paramedics helpfully report that uncle “has left us.” I make myself cry, and my friend from school also fakes a few tears.

The police is notified of uncle’s death and they come to ask us some questions. “… yes, you see,” I explain to an officer, agitated, “We-we had an argument but I-I didn’t think… Oh god, I didn’t think he would just… collapse like that, you know?” I make sure to look into the officer’s eyes and look genuinely repentant. After asking me and my friend from school some questions, they ask me for permission to question my daughter. I agree.

“Sweetie, did you see what happened to your pops?” asks the officer. My daughter shakes her head. “I only heard him talking loud with mommy.” As she opens her mouth again, my heart races. “Is he ok?” she asks. The officer looks at me. “No, sweetie, I’m afraid not,” I say. They carry uncle away in a body bag. All the autopsy will tell them is that he died from a heart attack. He was, afterall, old and decrepit. Finally, the officers leave, but our night has only begun.

“You organize the media coverage,” I tell my friend from school, “I’m gonna prepare a speech and rally the support we need.” She smiles at me. “It’s our time,” she says. First I take my daughter back to bed and wait with her until she falls asleep. Who knows what she has seen… or understood. But I don’t like it. She has seen… me, what I really am. Only my friend from school can stand it. And well… you of course. One day she will understand what I did, and she will hate me for it. She’s sleeping now, so peacefully, so…

No! I won’t fall into this self-pity crap. I did what I had to do to survive, to win. “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror,” remember? That’s me. As long as she’s healthy and well, she can hate me. I can’t act like everyone wants me to and still win. This is not some shoddy superhero movie where you can have your cake and eat it too. This is unfair, crude, real life. I close the door. My friend from school is waiting for me, offering her hand. “Shall we?” she asks. I smile and take her hand. “No regrets.”

We leave my daughter with the babysitter and leave for my office. My rock is already there. I told her on the phone I was coming. “Uncle’s dead,” I greet her, almost too cheerfully. “He left a letter confirming he was behind the insurance scheme. Police have it now but we have a picture of it.” She thinks for a moment. She doesn’t have to ask to know it was us. “This… simplifies things,” she says. “I had an alternative plan, but this is better.” My rock reaches out to my former supporters and tells them the good news. She also asks each of them to be by my side during tomorrow’s press conference.

Yes, I’m also organizing a press conference. I will lure all those greedy vultures to feast with me on the corpses of battle. Tomorrow, the union leaders will find themselves without leader, like a serpent without its head. They can flail and twist, but they can’t hurt me anymore. And let’s not forget the puppet congressmen who tried to sack me and wrongfully accused me. I would love to see their faces when they wake up tomorrow to this new order.

Several cups of coffee later, the press conference is all set up and I’ve written a draft of my speech. Of course I won’t actually read it out loud, I’ll memorize it. It has to look like I’ve been mourning the old fart all night. The first rays of dawn come through my office window, and I stand up. I feel great, like I haven’t felt in a long time. I’m in control now. I’ll show those backstabbing rats what happens when you aim for the queen and fail.

I dress myself in battle clothes: a black mourning dress, red lipstick and black heels. The press conference is on the same building where I have my office, so I just walk down the stairs before it starts and wait to make it look like I’ve come through the back door. I’m holding a handkerchief on one hand, which I use to wipe my tears. I instructed my bodyguards to stay out of the picture, you know, to make me look less rich. I climb on the podium with tears in my face and look at the flock of vultures before me. They have looks of genuine pity on their faces. Good.

“Ready?” asks the man in charge. “Yes, let’s start, please,” I say. I wipe the tears off my face. “First of all, I would like to thank you all for coming in such short notice.” The crowd nods sympathetically. “You see, I—” I start. “I have no words to express what my uncle meant to me.” Tumor. “He did so many good things for me, and for other people… Last night he confessed to me and to my closest friend his involvement in the insurance scheme that I’m now being investigated for.”

There are gasps of amazement in the crowd. “He even wrote a letter confessing his terrible crime.” The reporters start talking to each other loudly. “Please!” I speak up. “Please, let me finish.” They settle down. “After that, we had an argument, a heated argument…” I stop to wipe tears off my eyes and let go a sad laugh. “You know, I always told him ‘Do your exercises,’ ‘Eat healthy.’ But he was so stubborn he wouldn’t listen…” I smile as a tear comes down my right eye. “Because I still loved him, despite what he did. He was, he was family. Oh, but his heart couldn’t take it. He just, he just collapsed.”

Here I stop to wipe my tears. The crowd is silent. I sigh deeply. “There will be a funeral for him this week. Please, please, attend, and don’t think of him as a criminal. Remember him for all the charities and organizations he funded, for his efforts to preserve the beautiful green zones of our city back when he was mayor. Yes, he made mistakes… But who among us can say ‘I am without sin’? So please, remember him as he was: a human, flawed, but also generous and kind. Thank you.”

After I’m done, the crowd generously bathes me with applause. I stretch my friend from school’s hand, who has been by my side throughout the whole speech. After that, reporters raise their hands. “Yes?” I say, pointing at a young female reporter. “If it’s not too soon to ask,” she says, “how do you think these news affect your upcoming impeachment?” I shake my head. “Please, don’t, don’t ask me about impeachment or my office. That’s all secondary to me right now. I need to mourn and rest.” The vultures nod in fake sympathy.

A few questions later, I decide it’s enough and let my friend from school take over. As I’m leaving, my rock approaches me. “The regional commissar wants to meet.” I shake my head. “Now they’ll have to wait.”

§ Never, ever, ever

Natdec’s regional commissar comes to me a couple of hours after the press conference. He’s distressed, although he tries to hide it. Now that his master is gone, he doesn’t know what to do. Nobody at natdec wants to take responsibility for the strike, specially now. “… so what do you say if we reach some middle ground and stop this strike?” he says to me at my office. “No,” is all I reply. His face turns pale. “Wh-what do you mean no? I thought you—” “That was before my uncle died. Now terms have changed.”

He looks at me like he’s seeing me for the first time. “You’ll keep your position, don’t worry. As long as you help me get the union heads to bend the knee.” He nods. “We’re meeting at the conference room on the floor above, at 4. Be there.” He nods again and says “Thank you, thank you,” then rushes out of my office. A few minutes later I meet the head of the postal office union, our secret ally. I reward his support with the only pay raise across the unions. We seal the deal with a handshake, making him a hero among his own.

When the clock strikes four, I enter the conference room. It’s packed with confused and scared faces. There’s union leaders and secretaries, national union representatives, natdec commissars… There’s a smell of expensive suits, coffee and tobacco that disgusts me. I sit at the head of the table and take a good look at them. “I was glad to know you wanted to meet me,” I start, “and reach a middle ground. I have been asking for precisely this. I offered good conditions to end the strike, but you wouldn’t even speak to me. You all—” The head of the garbage collection union lets go a loud “Ha!” interrupting me.

“Hey,” I say to him. “We’re not among reporters here, you don’t have to act. I know someone very stubborn didn’t want you to give in to my demands. But today is only the fourth day of protests and what do we have.” I enumerate each item on the list by extending a finger from my left hand. “An angry mob that attacked me personally and other riots; fires out of control that have actually killed people; trash lying where people used to walk; massive traffic jams—” “You can’t blame it all on us!” protests some union secretary. I look at my rock, and she adds the secretary to the blacklist. “Oh, but I can,” I reply smiling. “This… disgusting personal vendetta against me didn’t work.” Several people roll their eyes, like I care. “Now I want unconditional surrender.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” asks the head of the garbage collection union. “D-do you think this is the f-wording world war, a-and you are the H-man forcing the allies to sign some bulls-word armistice in a boxcar?” Of course I am, except I’m not as crazy as him. “Are you seriously comparing me to the H-man? I don’t think you understand your situation. Look outside! Look at the social media! People hate you and the professionals you represent. I have seen several videos before this meeting that I thought were very interesting.”

I turn on the tv and send a video to it from my phone. A fireman delivers a speech at a high-school while kids throw insults and food at him until the principal shuts down the speech. “If you spent just a tiiiny bit of time online,” I say, “you would know your firemen, cops, garbagemen and other traitors are at an all-time popularity low. People wonder why your salaries are so high and there are so many of you if you don’t do s-word.” I stand up and point my finger at the smug union leader who insulted me. “So don’t mistake for a second who has the upper hand here.” He opens his mouth to reply when the head of the postal union cuts him. “My union is ready to get back to work.”

The people present start whispering, alarmed. “Thank you,” I say. “I’ll offer you fair conditions for your gesture.” “We want to get back to work as well,” says the firemen union head. They’re all suddenly reasonable negotiators. However, I’m not. I cut down their salaries even below what I originally intended, to show them what happens when you mess with me. All but one agrees, the garbage collection union head. He insults me again and leaves the conference room. Fine by me.

I smile and leave the room, victorious. The impeachment committee is reviewing evidence and voting in sixteen minutes. I get on the limousine and take my rock and my friend from school with me. I communicate my truce to the senators I can find. They all seem pleased and express their support like the faithful weathervanes they are. However, I can’t reach the committee members, who are in a private session. Finally, the time for the vote comes. Reporters, senators and spectators all join in the occasion.

And there’s me. Before the vote, I’m given permission to say a few things. I step to the podium. It just feels so familiar by now. “These past few weeks… Well, these past few days have been the hardest of my life. Four days ago, unions rose against me in what looked like an unstoppable strike. I was publicly accused of terrible crimes I had nothing to do with. And just yesterday… yesterday I lost my beloved uncle, after he confessed to being guilty of the charges I’m now facing. I won’t lie to you, it’s been tough.”

I stop for a few seconds and compose myself, then speak building up energy with each sentence. “But I won’t stand here and cry. I’m tired of that. No, people get a raw deal all the time, and I’m no different. Briefly before I entered this room I signed an agreement with the heads of the unions to cease. this horrendous. general strike!” I strike the table at each stop. The room claps and cheers, even the reporters. “Now, this may be the last thing I do as governor. If that’s so, I’ll be glad to have served our great state and fought with all my strength. Thank you.”

The air is filled with genuine applause. I smile as I walk back to my seat. After tedious impeachment proceedings, the vote starts. I try to look calm as the senators vote. Then I see the result. I’ve won. I’ve survived this. Somehow, at an enormous cost, I’ve won. The impeachment action against me is dead. There will probably be an investigation, but it will crash into flames because all evidence will be “lost.” I exit the room, smiling as I hadn’t in a long time. Outside the vultures are waiting to ask me questions for their articles.

Once it’s all over and I’m back at my apartment with my friend from school and my rock, celebrating with drinks, I speak to them very seriously. “Now, listen please. This. This can’t happen again. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstance. Do you understand what I’m saying?” They nod. This has been the worst experience of my adult life. And I intend to repay entirely those who took part in it.

§ Chapter Four: Victory

§ At all costs

Allow me to fast-forward again. My victory against the unions received national attention. I was praised as a “staunch chief” by newspapers written for newspaper writers. The party offered me the chance to run for senator, and I took it. I was elected without much trouble and have already served four years. I still have two left to go. My exploits as senator are their own, separate story. If I had included it here, you wouldn’t have the time to finish it all. Anyway, I’ve made a lot of powerful friends and enemies, fought to push legislation and followed party line, like all senators. But I’ve also tried to stand out by not being technologically backwards. For example, by asking good questions during senate hearings of technological tycoons. Except during the hearing of my friend from school, where I helped her avoid investigation as much as I could.

You see, I’ve told you so many things about myself you probably think I’m the most important person in my story. Well, that is actually my friend from school. Her private technological company that provides information about social media to other companies (and government agencies, but don’t go around saying that) has made her a prominent technology leader. What started as a tool to help spread tol’s message has far surpassed both our dreams. Of course there’s still tol, which grows by the day. Although not all its members are strictly-speaking “human.”

I mean, I don’t know much about computer science and still I got the hang of what she explained to me. There’s so many data on how actual social media users behave that you can emulate them properly by now. Millions of bots that tweet and act like people are crawling through the web, posting opinions and replying to other people and bots. I’m sure we’ll eventually converge to a situation where all social media traffic comes from bots hosted on a second-world server they share with the popular game of the moment.

The specifics are not important. What matters is that she’s become relevant and wealthy. So much that she’s going to run as one of the liberal candidates for the next presidential campaign. And guess who’s running with her? Yes, we dreamed of this when we were young, of becoming president and vice-president, together. Now it’s starting to look like something real. We have power, money and some support. But that’s just the cake. The icing on top is that the last president, a conservative, was ousted from office after a corruption scandal.

The other candidates are not… well, you know, not exactly charming or impressive or persuasive. At least the ones we know of. Though there’s still a month to prepare before we begin campaigning. Also, I’ve told you so much stuff about her and me that I forgot to mention what other things have happened, even before the strike nightmare. After two rough moments with four major shootings that left over 256 dead and many more injured in total, the lawmakers really stepped it up, helped by a surge of support from social media.

First, assault-style rifles were strictly banned. The conservatives couldn’t really oppose this as their only use was to kill children— which is what they were used for. A few months later, background checks before buying a gun were greatly increased. The last liberal administration spent billions in a new federal bureaucracy that decides who gets guns and who doesn’t. Additional gun-control laws essentially banned anything beyond pistols and shotguns.

To most people, this shows how civilized we are. To me, it signals something far more realistic and important. The right is weak, weaker than it’s probably ever been. They are slowly being pummeled into submission. The things they defend, like guns and religion, make less and less sense as we move forward in time. This. This combined with the last president being impeached is what makes me so sure that it’s our time. She and I have spent decades working hard, making allies, accumulating influence. More than that. We have done what was necessary at every step. We have stopped before nothing to get to this point.

Of course, it has come at a price. She is my only true friend. The rest of people are either “useful” or “dangerous.” The friends I used to have are all dead, some of them by my hand. My daughter is afraid of me. She’s studying in a boarding school abroad right now, and it wasn’t even my idea. When she stayed with me, her stomach ached and she didn’t want to talk to me. I realized some time ago that she will never love me, so I’ve made my peace with it. On the holidays, she only visits my friend from school. But my daughter barely speaks to me.

In fact nobody speaks to me in confidence but my friend from school. What about my rock you ask? She’s my assistant, not my friend. She is as loyal as can be. Hell, I have no doubt she’ll work for me until one of us dies. But we don’t have intimacy. I spend a lot of hours each day surrounded by people. They want my opinion, help or advice. Some I can bear, but others… It’s not like before. I’ve always heard the voice on the back of my head, whispering things. “That’s all bulls-word,” “He should drop dead right now,” and much, much worse. I mean, I guess that’s normal.

But now it’s getting out of hand. The more time I spend without actually talking to anyone, the louder and more violent the voices get. They scream “No. No. No. All she’s saying isn’t right! Die. Die!” I can’t help it. I feel a strong contempt for others. I don’t care about their lives, I don’t like their opinions. Still I keep my smiling mask on like I have since I was a child. But that mask, that mask is beginning to crack. And I-I don’t know what will happen if it breaks.

§ Ban guns

The primaries start with a bang. Literally. A conservative candidate is shot dead by some loony. We have a platform that stands out from the rest. We are liberal, yes, but more than that. We are going to introduce a bill to enforce the use of certain new pronouns, like other countries have already done. This doesn’t interfere at all with the constitution, since freedom of speech is not in jeopardy. It’s simply that if someone makes public their preferred pronoun, other people have to use that pronoun. It’s already common practice, we’re just making it an official part of the legislation.

We’re also making federal the right of states to stop social events that could potentially be harmful to public safety. This is just about extending the law I pushed through my state’s senate to all the country. By now there’s already eight states that have similar laws, so it’s only natural we do this. Another interesting measure is our proposal to create a commission to watchdog public employees’s behavior on social media. Racist, abusive or intolerant behavior on any branch of the federal and state government will result in termination.

But most importantly, we have pledged to “ban guns.” Of course, this is the most controversial point of our campaign. Conservative newspapers and tv shows laugh at us, saying how crazy it is. People take it literally, thinking that is what we want. That point of our campaign alone has made us popular worldwide. But what people don’t seem to realize, and we’re not even the first candidates to do this, is that we’re bargaining. We don’t actually want a blanket ban on guns.

We want to make the right to “keep and bear arms” optional for each state through an amendment to the constitution. If we accomplish that, it will be translated into an outright ban on guns on the eight liberal states that, incidentally, most support us. Popular conservative talk shows and online discussion boards ruled by the right dismiss us as “leftist fascism.” Additionally, they are spinning several conspiracy theories about me and my friend from school. Some claim we’re cold-blooded killers that framed “the arsonist.” Others say I had my girlfriend, husband and uncle-in-law killed. How crazy is that?

Of course these rumors only make the right look like tin-hat loonies and increase our notoriety. We’ve been getting crazy letters and calls for some time now. In the two weeks since we announced our candidacy and platform, we’ve been on the news every day. It’s always either something my friend from school has said, or something someone famous has said about us, usually to dismiss us. There are a lot of viable candidates eager to get the party’s nomination since everyone believes our party will automatically get elected independently of the candidate, all thanks to the impeachment of the last conservative president.

The primaries start off with some televised debates. At first they don’t pay much attention to my friend from school, well, my running mate. Then the moderator, a nice blonde lady, tries to bait her by mentioning something she said about the only other female candidate. “… don’t you think calling her a ‘wreck’ perpetuates harmful stereotypes about women?”

My running mate barely gives her time to finish the question. “No, it doesn’t,” she replies. “She was careless enough to expose sensitive information while she worked as senator.” She turns to look at her. “I wouldn’t trust you to watch my car, let alone my country. And I don’t even like my car.” The crowd laughs. “As I’ve said before,” complains the candidate, “I was hacked by a highly-trained spy.”

My running mate chuckles. “Yes, by a sixty-four year old housekeeper who knew how to open your laptop without password and copy the folder called ‘SECRET’ to her USB drive.” The other candidate tries to complain at the same time the moderator swerves to change subject and their voices crash into each other. My running mate just stands there, smiling at the crowd that smiles back at her.

The candidates debate over domestic security and its ties to privacy concerns. A couple of them get their horns locked ramming against each other as the crowd watches. There are a few issues where other candidates have more to say, like taxes, welfare and foreign policy. But when the issue of hate speech pops up, my running mate takes the chance.

Other candidates only have canned responses like: “I vow to support policies directly aimed at eradicating any sort of hate speech, wherever it crops up;” “Hate speech is rooted in deep insecurities formed during childhood; consequently, I believe the best course of action is to strengthen our education budget.” Shockingly, that was said by a law professor from some liberal college who now wants to play president.

My running mate replies more succinctly. “No more hate speech.” She only needs four words to convey an idea so transcending, so important, that the moderator uses an equally intelligent response: “What?” “Under my administration,” my running mate replies, “hate speech will disappear.” “Nice,” jumps in another candidate, “so you essentially want to screw over free speech and create a totalitarian regime?”

“No, if I wanted a totalitarian regime,” my running mate replies, “I would support you, since you seem very cozy with fascism, allowing nazis to deliver public speeches at schools.” Then she puts her left hand’s index finger under her nose like it’s a moustache and lifts her right arm. She says “Heil!” like she’s the H-man. The public finds it specially funny since the candidate who asked the question has a small shade of hair under the nose. They applaud like wind up monkeys.

A few exchanges of verbal fire later, the debate is over and we return to our shared apartment. I turn on the tv and take a tour through the channels. They all mention her appearances at some point or other. She lays on the couch with her eyes closed, exhausted, while I rub her feet. “They don’t know what’s coming to them,” I say. She simply smiles.

§ Skeletons in my closet

The next weeks we spend campaigning across the country. Of course we don’t spend the same time on each state, we’re not idiots. We focus our efforts on the first state to vote in the primaries. If we carry that state, we’ll likely snowball. After I deliver a speech at a liberal college in a liberal county from a liberal state, I take questions from reporters at a small press conference with audience.

Everything is fine until a reporter asks me this: “What do you have to say about your involvement in the death of your foster mother?” It’s a middle-aged man that looks somehow familiar, though I can’t pin down who he is. He must not be very important. “Please, I don’t like talking about that episode in my life,” I reply, still smiling. “And about the inconsistency of the angle of the entry wounds of your dead step-brothers with your statement?”

I don’t like the kind of questions he’s asking. The other reporters look at him with disgust and curiosity. “Again, I can answer questions about other topics—” “You killed them,” he says. The cameras start taking pictures of him. At first I’m stunned, but then I regain my composure. “I will only say this for now, which is what I said in my statement. My step mother was a deeply troubled woman, and I still mourn the loss of my siblings. Now, if you excuse me, I’ll—” “Murderer!” He screams, interrupting me. “They can’t see it, but I can. And I have proof!”

Two members of my security staff stop him from coming closer to me. “I apologize but I can take no more questions. I need to rest now.” As I get into my limousine, I look at my rock, already there. “He wasn’t a reporter,” she explains. “He must’ve stolen a pass.” “But who is he?” I ask. “Well. You’re not gonna like this,” she says. I’m already not liking this. “Remember the family your step mother attacked?” I nod. “Well, not all of them died.”

“What, the youngest boy?” I ask. “I thought he was in a comma.” “He was,” she says. “For eight years. I don’t know yet what he did after that.” “Find out. Soon,” I say, alarmed. Deep down I always knew what happened back then would come back to haunt me. Those are some spooky skeletons in my closet. That day I deliver another speech I had scheduled, even when all I want to do is cancel it and handle my new looney.

My rock reports to me that same evening. “We know where he’s staying. The problem is, we don’t know what he has on you.” “I don’t care,” I say. “I want to meet him. Tell him I will answer any questions,” She shakes her head. “This ain’t it chief,” she says. “Arrange it,” I reply, mad as hell. Nobody can go looking into that right now. Not now. A couple of hours later, my rock takes me to a room in the hotel I’m staying in, alone. I tell my security staff I’m going for a walk around the hotel for a couple of hours. “I’ve taken him in through the back door,” she explains.

I open the door and find him there, sitting in a chair, smoking. He’s fat, his hair is a mess and he hasn’t showered in days. I can smell him. He’s deeply disgusting. In fact, there should be camps where people like him are… “concentrated.” I sit across him, and my rock stands by the door. There’s a laptop in the middle of the table. “Open it,” he says. I obey. The pictures and documents immediately pop up. His desktop is a mess of hundreds of stacked icons, bloatware and spyware-navigation bars. He appears even more disgusting to me now. I close it down.

“Tell me what you think you’ve got,” I say, “and I’ll stop you if you’re wrong.” “Fair enough,” he replies and opens the laptop, placing it so we both can see it. “It all probably started when your mother—” “Stepmother,” I interrupt him. “Ok, your stepmother, ran over my mother. You were there. That was when you fell and hurt your head, but your mother lied to the doctors.”

He waits for me to reply, but I just stay silent. He continues, encouraged by my silence. “You hated her, and with good reason. Or maybe you were already nuts, who knows. In any case, you sent her those f-worded-up pictures to let her know that somebody knew what she had done. And—” he chokes from the excitement of saying this to me, “… my family died for that. Instead of going to the police, you sat and watched her spin out of control. You just, you just f-wording sat there and watched.”

He’s crying now. I just stare at him in silence. After he wipes the tears from his eyes, he continues. “But you’re even more evil than that. You did something that proves to me all this is true. The bullet wounds on your two brothers don’t match what you said.” He quotes from the computer, where he has photos of my statement to the police. “You said, ‘I heard shots, watched the twins die and mother knocked me from behind.’”

I nod. “But the thing is,” he says, “if the twins were looking outside the window and the bullets came from outside, the bullet impacts would have been perpendicular to their chests. Yet that’s not what the autopsy showed. One of them was shot in the back, and that bullet later hit the wall. The shooter had to be inside the house, at the lower floor. The other twin died from a bullet that went through his head. The police decided your mother killed both, and your version corroborates that. But I don’t think she did. It was you.”

I chuckle. “My guess is you just lost it. The deafening sound of guns firing. The stress of being in that terrible situation. Your regret for not stopping it all sooner. The—” “Ok, ok, I get it,” I interrupt him raising my hand. He opens his mouth to speak again, but instead lets me explain myself. “Today I’m feeling both generous and tired. I’ve carried this and other things with me throughout my life. So tonight I’m going to give you the gift of knowledge.”

He licks his lips like a dog about to devour a big, juicy steak. “I shot the twins,” I reply. He rubs his hands, excited. “Are you ready to make a statement?” “Ha!” I laugh. “A statement? What do you think this is, a shoddy police show? No? The only reason I’m telling you is because you’re not getting out of here alive.” I rise from my chair and come closer to him. He looks scared. “The first twin didn’t know what hit him. The second called for his mommy and I made sure the b-word watched his brains blow out.”

I get even closer to him as I speak. “I did it to hurt mother, just as I killed her eldest son. Now. Are you satisfied? Do you want to know who else I’ve killed?” “You are f-wording psycho—” he says, pulling back. “Are you sure you don’t want to know?” I say. “Over thirty-two innocent lives. I’ve framed, burned and deceived every sort of moron!” I take a knife from my pocket and stab the table in front of him. He’s so close to me he can feel my breath when I speak.

“Take it and kill me if you have the balls,” I say and poke his forehead with my index finger. “It’s your only shot.” I poke him again. “Stop that!” He complains. “I’m not a murderer like you.” “Of course not,” I say. “I’m a magnificent tiger. You’re a slow, fat, disgusting zebra about to be slaughtered like the rest of your family.” I poke him again. “Shut the f-word up!” He screams. I poke him harder. He punches me in the face. A drop of blood comes out of the corner of my mouth. I smile. “You are pathetic.”

“You’ll see now, b-word,” he says, grabbing the knife. I spray him with pepper spray and run for the door. “Help, somebody call security!” I scream once in the hall, then wait next to the door. He comes out, disoriented and still holding the knife. “He’s trying to kill me, help!” I scream again. People start coming out of their rooms and gasp in horror.

He slumbers towards me. I run just slow enough so that it looks like he can catch me. I run up the stairs to the upper floor. My security team is there. When he reaches the upper floor, my security team is already aiming at him. “Fire,” I say to one of the men. Two bullets pierce through his chest and he falls to the ground, dropping the knife and gasping in horror.

I come closer to him. “Please,” I scream, “someone call an ambulance, this man doesn’t deserve to die!” He lays on the stairs, bleeding out as I hold his hand. “Hold on, you deserve a second chance,” I say out loud. But a few minutes later, to my relief, he’s dead and gone.

§ Stop doing that

“You really should stop doing that,” my running mate says as we are driven in our limousine. “What?” I ask naively, knowing perfectly well what she’s talking about. “More people will ask questions,” she says. “It’s not worth it—” I run my fingers through the bruise in my face. I like feeling the pain. “I disagree,” I say. “Nobody can touch me now. Anybody who tries to peddle the same kind of conspiracy bulls-word about me will look like another obsessed nut.”

She doesn’t seem pleased. “Don’t you think you’ve done this to too many people? I mean, nobody is a victim as many times as you. Your brother, a teacher and a college boy tried to rape you; your mother, those bullies that attacked you twice, this reporter and another madman tried to kill you; you’ve been wrongfully accused of an insurance scheme, and there’s more. Do you see where I’m going with this?” I nod. “I’ve had a tough life,” I say. “Too tough. Notoriously tough. Unbelievably tough. Maybe not now, but they’ll come asking questions at some point. And playing the victim won’t save you.”

For a moment I want to tell her to go f-word herself. But that’s because I know she’s right. I needed this victimhood-intervention. “I can’t do this kind of thing anymore, can I?” I ask her. She nods. “But—” She takes my hand. “I know, I know,” she says. “You love it. The expectation when you place the trap. Your heart rate racing as you lead them. And finally, the satisfaction of watching them realize you’ve won.”

“It’s the best feeling in the whole world,” I reply. “And it’s what I do best.” She squeezes my hand tighter and pulls me closer. “Yes, but you have to let it go. You have to be more subtle now. You’re going to be the vice-president.” I sigh, “I guess…” A few minutes of silent ride later we’re at a tv studio. We’ve been capitalizing on my attack, using it to explain how “bullies” have to use their fists because their words are empty, and outright calling the conservatives “bullies.” We call the liberals who don’t actively call out bullies “accomplices.” We labeled one of the candidates “Nazi collaborator,” in part because his grandparents were french collaborators. He naively and misguidedly sued us and focused his efforts on explaining how he’s not a nazi. You can probably guess how he’s doing on the polls.

The “attempt on my life” has been very good publicity indeed. Along with our polemic statements, we’ve ended up looking like the liberal ticket. The others are not nearly as notorious as we are. When the primaries finally come, it’s no surprise that we steamroll our opponents at the first state, my state. Then we quickly snowball through the rest of states. We seem unstoppable. We start talking like we’ve already won the general elections. And then it happens.

All the damage we’ve done through the decades, all the corpses that burden us finally get their revenge. “Controversial liberal candidate responsible for trafficking with user data.” The scandal explodes on our faces when there’s only a few states left to win. A reporter accuses my running mate of selling user data to dictatorships and banana republics which then targeted and “disappeared” dissidents.

“That f-wording reporter,” says my running mate as she paces up and down our apartment. “I’d f-wording kill her if she wasn’t so. f-wording. popular. We need ideas, and fast.” She looks at me, then at my rock. She’s genuinely afraid. “We’ve already sued her for libel and we’re still f-worded,” I say. “There’s no… hard-evidence, right?” My rock asks my running mate. “Oh please,” my running mate answers condescendingly.

“She was a reporter back at her banana republic, right?” I ask. “Yes,” replies my rock. “Then why don’t we find her, contact her government and politely ask them to repatriate her.” My running mate takes her hands behind her neck and puffs. “It’s too risky,” she finally says. “And they’ll say we did it,” adds my rock helpfully. “Wait, wait, I have a better solution,” says my rock before going back to her computer and looking for something. “Here, look.”

She shows us a file with information collected about the reporter. “Her sister is still in jail back in her home country. Aaand…” She opens another file. “Her mother has racked up quite a debt. 65,536$ split between mortgage, car and…” she chuckles, “telemarketing crap.” “What are you suggesting?” I ask my rock. “We pay off her mother’s debt and set her sister free. Then it will look like she was paid to write the story. We accuse conservatives of trying to set us up like their friends, the cops, do.”

“Do we have the contacts to set her sister free?” I ask my running mate. “Yeah, that’s not the problem.” “Oh, this is actually good.” I say. “Let’s set up an interview for tomorrow and have one of our puppet reporters break the story in the middle of the interview.” After a while, my rock and I convince my running mate that it’s the way to go. Then we set the plan in motion. The reporter’s sister is released and shipped back to the reporter. The reporter’s mother’s debt is repaid in full. Then we contact one of our puppet reporters. She investigates and calls us to confirm the story. We tell her when to publish it.

During the interview, we answer questions and start selling the story that this is fake, a libel and a deliberate attack. Then, the reporter interviewing us asks this: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s a new story that just broke out.” Here it comes. “One of your former employees,” she says looking at my running mate, “has declared that he was fired after discovering that your platform had been trying to influence the results of the election.”

Cries of outrage come from the crowd. I feel a knot in my throat, when I should probably feel a stabbing pain in my back. I mentally add this reporter, no, better, her whole network, to my list. “Wh-who is this former employee?” my running mate asks. “Oh, I hardly think that’s relevant,” says the reporter. “And he has chosen to remain anonymous,” she goes on. “Do you know how many people we’ve had to fire, specially males, because they didn’t fit in my company?” says my running mate. “Sexual harassment, racial slurs and general incompetence are only some of their faults. You understand that you can’t trust the statement of a single, disgruntled former employee.”

“Oh, sorry, it looks like I got my information wrong. It’s a current employee.” I swear I could rip out her guts right now. “Well, he may be disgruntled for whatever reason and has decided to take it with me now that I’m running for president. Or perhaps he has been paid off by—” “Yes, I can see you selling that story. It looks like the reporter accusing your company of selling private data to dictatorships was apparently also paid off according to a new story. Don’t you see a pattern here?”

My running mate opens her mouth to speak, but it’s too late, the reporter has already raised her hand to silence her and is looking at me. There’s more gasps of contempt from the crowd. And they’re aimed at us. “And what about you?” she asks. I don’t like this. “You have publicly stated that you were the victim of something… how many times now? In at least four times you have faced a lethal threat:” she counts with her fingers as she makes the list. “some bullies when you were young, the madman that killed your husband, the madman that tried to kill you a few days ago… and even your step mother.”

I feel like I know what she’s going to say next, and I don’t like it. “Nobody is a victim that many times. Not to mention a fire in your apartment, your dead girlfriend, being ‘wrongfully’ accused” she quotes with her fingers to make explicit her skepticism “… and the list goes on. It’s like a trail of bodies has followed you since—” “Stop,” I command her. The crowd laughs. “And you morons shut up!” I scream at them, standing up. “Yes, I’ve had a tough life, unlike you, princess. And I’ve survived it all because I’m strong and don’t sit around crying. Now, are you getting anywhere, or are you just going to sit there and insult me?”

She stands up to challenge me. “I think you’re a liar, a murderer, and a disgrace to your office.”

§ The final campaign

Thanks to all the votes we had racked up before the scandals we win the primaries. Though it’s a pyrrhic victory. A large portion of our own party has disowned us. Our biggest, or rather, only supporters are the radical left. There’s a new investigation into the death of the last madman that came after me. Opportunistic senators want to remove me from office.

My running mate doesn’t get a better deal. She’s being accused of playing an important part in my uncle’s scheme as well as collaborating with national intelligence agencies to spy on our own citizens, and even of having framed “the arsonist.” But we haven’t pulled our candidacy, no. We’re weathering the storm, whatever it takes. Let the committees and commissions and other useless bureaucrat nests investigate and probe us. They won’t find a thing.

The conservative press and several social networks crack open their thesaurus to find insults to use on us. It feels like we’re completely surrounded, on all fronts. Except now there’s no single enemy gunning for us, like with uncle. Everyone wants us to fail. Look, I know you may be thinking I’m repeating myself. I said I wouldn’t be put in this position again, yet here I am. I thought I would have reached power when I was younger, not so late in life. Yes, I’m not perfect.

But stick with me. Stick with me at least for this fight. Can’t you see what will happen if we win? We will have so much power we won’t know what to do with it. Only this election separates us from ultimate power. If we can muster the strength to win, no one will defeat us ever again. That’s why I’ve put myself in this position once more. If we lose, we’ll disappear from memory. But if we win… hell, we win it all.

Now that we’re smeared with disgrace, there is only one way forward: make the opposite candidate look worse than us. We have begun a defamation campaign. In fact, we’re not even trying to defend ourselves further than saying we’re innocent. Our opposing candidate is a rich white old male. He made himself rich and now he wants to play president.

But he’s not like the other rich white old males. He’s not another dry mummy; he’s actually charming and funny. He makes what the liberal newspapers call “outlandish remarks.” No wonder nobody reads liberal newspapers. His attitude and ours is actually very similar. We accuse him or his campaign of racist/sexist/misogynist/offensive remarks/acts and he accuses us of thievery/extortion/conspiracy/murder/framing. And the funny thing is most of it is true.

If we had gone on the defensive, we would have lost. But now, our debates are heated exchanges of insults. In social media as well. We exploit the fact that his father was governor and introduced him into politics calling him “nepotist.” He accuses us of the same and worse, since uncle was a criminal. There is barely any talk about specific policies other than as an insult. It’s all about verbal combat.

And thanks to that, people in social networks also become more radical. It’s not about whether or not you accept some policies and reject others. If you are even moderately liberal, you see conservatives as white, old bigots who want to protect the gold they’re hoarding from immigrants. If you are even moderately conservative, you see liberals as vampires sucking the blood out of the decent working men to throw it away in kumbaya policies and “immigrant assimilation programmes.”

While we fling insults on the tv screen and my running mate campaigns herself to death, we have large teams of people devoting their entire days to online meme warfare. If you think that’s a laughing matter, you’re wrong. Tv is dead, long live the internet. A large chunk of internet users are young people, many of whom can now vote. A large chunk of that chunk spends a lot of time in social networks where memes live. So we manufacture memes and throw them out into the wild using our bot network. Most of the memes die, but some stick and even make it to the news. So when one morning we turn on tv during the morning as we have breakfast, I almost choke laughing when a nice lady with blonde hair calls a duck meme that represents gold-hoarding conservatives “a symbol of anarchism.”

That evening my rock meets with our secret weapon. Because despite all our efforts, the actual polls (not the ones conducted by our own liberal newspapers) show us that the conservative candidate has a strong lead. At some level, I wanted it to come down to this. This is the point where reality beats fiction. I believe this will work, just as it has been working up to now. It took some convincing and hard work, but finally she’s ready. I’m talking about a witness who is going to accuse the conservative candidate of sexual assault during high school.

§ Election day

The next morning, during a rally in one of the liberal states, the article is published, quickly followed by a live interview. We have people in the rally who start chanting “rapist, rapist!” I watch it all from my tv. Oh, this takes me back to college times. The conservative candidate tries to appease the crowd, but the chant grows into a riot and he soon has to be evacuated by bodyguards. I smile, pleased.

The next thing I do is set up interviews with the girl accusing him and other rape victims. I wear a pin, they share their stories, and yadda yadda. After the whole thing, a new upsurge in the hashtag #MeToo takes over the social networks, where women and non-binaries share their rape and near-rape stories. There’s only two weeks left before the election now, and the tide seems to shift on our favor.

But we haven’t won yet. The conservatives manage to find evidence that incriminates my running mate. At the same time, there’s a federal investigation into her illegal activities. Only a week before the election, the investigators announce that they can’t pursue the investigation because otherwise they would be interfering with the elections, which has a precedent. I joke with my running mate, saying “It’s like we’re running not because we want to get to the presidency, but because we want to skip jail.”

We bring in a second accuser against the conservative candidate. Now it’s not an isolated incident but a “serial rapist,” and the leader of a small “rape circle” characteristic of “the patriarchy.” The two women accusing him quickly get a few millions in advance from a publishing group to “write” a book about their experience, which is then rushed to print by ghostwriters. Of course the book will only have effect after the election, but the women are rich already.

The days feel exponentially longer as we approach the election. To tell you the truth, there’s a lot of busy work, courtesy meetings and chores I have to do. The road to power is paved with boredom. That’s partly why I don’t go into more detail about what exactly I do: I have some respect for your time. But really it’s just an exhausting endless stream of managing people… Well, and conspiring in my case.

The day of the election finally arrives. We were supposed to spend the day in a big fancy hotel, but instead we choose to watch the results from a huge homeless centre. We bring the caterers with us and set up large screens. It’s a surprise move to show how down-to-earth we are. Our security team warns us about the risks, but we dismiss them. The message is more important.

People turn on their tvs and see us sharing caviar with the homeless like good communists. Actually, good communists would throw the homeless into a gulag and make them break rocks thirty-two hours a day, but people don’t know that. The race is close. Several times the lead changes from the conservative candidate to us and back. As we approach the end of the tally, it’s not clear at all who’s going to win.

Indeed, it’s not until the next day when all the votes are tallied that we learn the incredible news. It’s a 0.5% lead in our favor. The conservative candidate does not concede and instead accuses us of “rigging the elections.” It would honestly have made complete sense, except this is not on us. Of all the things we’ve done, we’re actually not guilty of this one. I mean, at a local level, there has probably been some rigging, as always. But we haven’t had a direct hand on this, and both sides are just as guilty.

We celebrate our victory, even though it’s not clear-cut at all. After protests in several conservative strongholds, the votes are recounted. After a couple minor local counting scandals and errors, we still come out victorious… with a 0.25% lead. The turnout is 32%, a historical low. The last few years it had been below half, but this is too much. We’ve won by a little over 524,288 votes.

During the time before inauguration day, our enemies create rumors of impeachment and repeating the election. But nobody wants to impeach the first female president, specially not after the last president was also impeached. Still, when we appear in rallies, it’s easy to feel the discontent in the faces of our audience. They don’t feel like we’ve earned it. And honestly, neither do I.

But that’s success. You can’t impose your conditions on it. You must be ready to sacrifice everything. Out in the jungle it’s not the strong that survives, but the cruel. Only those who are willing to sacrifice everything and everyone else to impose their will reach the pinnacle of the life of crime. Now, on the weeks leading up to inauguration day, I can feel the opposition heating up. And they’re not basement dwellers who furiously type half-baked opinions on hive-mind forums. No, they’re actual people with real jobs and families.

A great man said long ago “class war is sharpening.” Although separated by more than a century, here we are, in the same situation. And the only path forward is the same it was back then.

§ Not provably corrupt

The myriad of faces stretch before us as we swear to uphold the constitution. A large portion of them hate us; some to death. Others are not sure whether we are criminals or victims. Then there’s the small, radical group that knows we’re their messiahs. As the president is sworn in, I think about the irony of the moment. We’re swearing to defend the constitution we intend to disfigure.

But we’ll have to walk over both conservative-infested houses of congress first. For now though, we have to focus on survival. Thanks to the investigation into the president and the discussions about impeachment, our approval ratings are extremely low. We need to rack up support fast. But first things first. We step into our new office, the highest office there is. It’s only her and me for a moment. I breathe in deeply. “Do you smell that?” I ask her. She smiles back at me. She doesn’t have to say it. It’s power.

The first thing she does in office is to sign an executive order to reduce the amount of border control officers and remove barriers for immigrants. This puts the hispanic caucus on our side and makes us look progressive. But we need more support. We order an independent investigation into the deaths of black people at the hands of policemen during the last eight years (the term the last administration lasted.) The president appears in a public conference saying that “… unlike past administrations, we know real lives matter.”

A couple of days later, during the first meeting with a foreign prime minister, the news breaks that she’s under investigation by an impeachment committee. She looks like the fool queen, backstabbed by her greedy court. We accuse the representatives and senators who accuse us of being bad losers. They take over the previous federal investigation into the president and start interviewing new witnesses. Few believe we’ll make it to even the first year. Few know us well enough to judge.

The riots in the streets get out of hand. There are violent protests demanding our resignation, even outside our presidential residence. The date for the beginning of the trial is set, and we intend to fight them. We haven’t gone this far to surrender. We will never surrender, not while we’re together. People don’t want this investigation. The last president was corrupt, we’re not. At least, we’re not provably corrupt.

Finally the day of the trial arrives. This is it. If we run through these burning coals and come out alive, we’ll be untouchable. The prosecution presents their evidence. There are documents signed by her recording large donations to tol. Then they show that the source of most of the money is from ghost companies that all owned businesses which burned down and collected the insurance money.

They also establish motive. The money wasn’t only used to fund tol. A large chunk disappeared in “diets” and “reports” from experts, all legal. But according to them, it went to the pockets of the president, who used it to launch her multi-billion dollar company. She paid several people, including the man known as “the arsonist” to do her dirty work and paid off insurance officers. Too bad none of them is still alive to testify. Most of them died of “heart attacks” and similar afflictions. The prosecution hints that she had them killed, but the defense makes the prosecution take it back.

Then the defense presents an alternative version: uncle conducted the described shady business practices and framed my friend from school for his crimes. Uncle told her the money came from organizations that supported natdec at large, and she believed him. But she never had anything to do with the insurance fraud scheme. After heated arguments and cries of “thief!” “shame!” the senators leave to deliberate.

The senators need a supermajority (more than half) to convict her. I know they don’t have the numbers because we’ve been working to get as many people on our side as possible. The latino caucus and the radical left are our strongest allies. The largest problem we face is consciousness. The conservatives can’t take us down alone, they need help from the liberals. If enough of our own senators really believe she did it, and they are willing to sacrifice control of the executive for it, then we could fall.

That’s why we need the latino caucus and the radicals to keep them in check, to whip their votes. The deliberation debate is a slow process that drags on. My rock, the president and I wait for the result in the president’s office. “This might be it,” says the president. “We may not make it.” “Don’t talk like that,” I say. “We’ve said that before, we’ve given up before. We’ve faced worse odds and still came out on the other side. So don’t despair now.” “I should prepare a concession speech,” she laments, not listening to a word I’ve said.

“Don’t you dare,” I threaten her. I come up to her and make her look at me. “Hey, no. No chance, not now. We’re not guilty, we’ll never concede, is that clear? If we’re evicted from here, we’ll raise hell. We’ll paralyze the country, turn brother against brother.” She hints a smile. “So don’t even think another word about conceding. We won’t lose this.”

She takes my hand and presses it hard. “I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t survive this place alone,” she sighs. A tear rolls down my face. I think of all I’ve sacrificed to be here, with her. This is the work of my life, it has cost me everything I had. Even my own daughter, who only appears in public with me but who has refused to talk in private. She hates me and always will.

“They have reached a verdict,” announces the president’s secretary after entering the office. It’s like everyone is there to witness the event. After the ceremonial statements, the senators announce they find the president innocent of all charges. She smiles and sighs with relief. I smile too, looking at the faces of the conservative senators who plotted this. They’re all in my list now.

The next days we feel at the top of the world. Being acquitted gives us an aura of innocence, even if only temporarily. We attend ceremonies and events, discuss legislation and receive foreign prime ministers. During the anniversary of the end of the civil war, as we’re watching the fireworks from a small stage, one of our convoy cars blows up. The crowd screams. I panic and look around. A burst of rounds take the bodyguard next to me, his blood covering my face. Another explosion and I’m knocked down.

§ Fireworks

I feel dizzy, my head heavy. All I can hear is a ringing noise. I look down. Part of a car plate is stuck in my left thigh. The pain is strong, very strong. Something blows up. I search for the president with my eyes, but I can’t see her. There are several dead bodyguards in the small stage where we were, and more civilian corpses from the audience. I open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. Then I see a man with an assault rifle and a bandana. I look into his eyes and he looks into mine. He points his gun at me but a shot in the chest takes him down. Suddenly two men are carrying me.

All I can think of is that this is real. We haven’t planned this. These people hate us enough to have tried to kill us. Is the president ok? I hope she is, she has to be. The bodyguards rush me to a car and drive away to the safe location. I’m on the back of the car, covered so I can’t be seen from outside. My heart is racing so fast I fear it might explode. I know the people in the car are trying to speak to me, but I can’t hear a word they say, still deaf from the explosions.

Eventually we reach the safe place and they move me again. I’m taken to an underground bunker. I feel my head spinning and the urge to throw up. Finally they place me on a table and sedate me. I wake up in a room with no windows. Mother is there, smiling at me. The twins are there too, just watching. I’m paralyzed and can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out. Mother comes toward me and I know she’ll do something horrible when she gets to me. Then it’s as though time stretches and she’s coming to me for hours as I keep trying to scream.

Suddenly I’m in a dining room, my old dining room from… F-word! Uncle is crawling toward me. I’m sitting, paralyzed. I want to scream “No!” “No!” but my mouth is sealed and my feet and hands are bound to the chair. “Are you ok?” asks a familiar voice. “She’s coming back,” says another. My eyes hurt, but I still open them. “Thank god, she’s alive,” says my rock. I don’t understand anything. Slowly it comes back, the attack. I gasp to speak, but my mouth is sandpaper.

My rock gives me an ice cube to suckle. It tastes like heaven. “Wh-what happened… is she ok?” I ask. The faces look away. “We were attacked… We’re still being attacked. We need you.” I don’t get it, but it doesn’t sound good. I look around the room. “Where is she?” My daughter takes my hand with tears in her eyes. “She died, mother.”

I. I, “No,” I say. The tears well up in my eyes. “No, that’s not possible, she—” “She received a shot to the head during the firefight. She died there.” I feel like I’m drowning. This can’t be real, I must still be in my dream. “Leave the president to recover now,” says a doctor. Wait, what? I, I can’t be the president. Not without her. She’s the president. Someone tell this moron!

They leave me to “rest.” I’m high as a kite and hallucinating with my dead friend from school. An infinite period of grief later, doctors and nurses appear, accompanied by my rock. They give me something that clears my head. “Come on, we need you up, you don’t know what it’s like out there.” I’m pushed outside on a wheelchair. My wounded leg is bandaged up and I feel a pain pulsating from it. They take me to a room full of high-ranking military officers and all the state secretaries.

First I’m quickly sworn into presidency. “Madam president,” addresses me one of the military officers. “We need you to make a press conference ASAP. The death of the former president was not an isolated incident. Eight states have declared that they do not recognize the authority of the federal government. A group of military officers led by a rogue general has declared that they had to ‘step up and defend democracy.’ There is talk of a ‘new election’ in those states.”

“You have shut them down, right?” I ask. Their faces are dismal. “The acting president didn’t want to commit to any course of action,” he replies. Of course, I forgot we have a spineless jackass as house speaker, who is next in the succession line after me. “When is this election?” Their faces are even more concerned. “It’s going on now. People think you’re dead or about to die, and they wouldn’t have recognized you as president anyway.” I need time to think. “Everyone but my rock clear out. I’m going to prepare my address to the public.”

They leave us alone in the room and we start working on the speech. They made the mistake of assuming I was finished. Huge mistake. Two hours later, I’m facing a live camera on the basement, like a terrorist. I have to speak from a wheelchair and I’m wearing no makeup. “Two days ago took place the worst day in the history of this democracy, of my life.” I start. “The president died. I almost died. And now, a part of the country has turned its back on democracy.”

I stand up from my seat, trembling with pain. The cameraman focuses on my face. “You have turned your backs on democracy. And I won’t let that happen.” Blood starts pouring through the bandage though I don’t see it. “I will stop this unconstitutional ‘vote’ immediately. I will catch that turncoat general and judge him for high treason. I will send troops and restore order. I. will. defend. this. democracy!”

After my public address, I reconvene with the loyal military officers. First of all, I put as many people from the military on my side. Apparently my speech didn’t make its effect on some of them who refuse to obey my orders. Eight military bases claim they only answer to the turncoat general. So I authorize an operation to simultaneously strike all eight bases with tactical bombs.

The operation is carried out during the night. At the same time, soldiers are deployed to the congress of each rebellious state to restore federal rule. The congressmen were trying to barricade themselves in there, but the soldiers come through windows using smoke grenades and flashbangs. The next morning, the country wakes up to a whole new situation. I, and nobody else, am the undisputed president.

During the morning, one general brings me a file with intel on the location of the turncoat general. “Do you want me to send a team to capture him?” he asks. “Good, good,” I reply. “Above all, capture him alive. Do not let him die, under any circumstance.” After the news breaks of my operation to bomb our own bases and seizing the state congresses, the rebellious leaders, including the turncoat general, urge “the People” to take their guns and “resist the tyrant.”

My actions confirm some people’s fears that the federal government is out to get them. Chaos breaks out in several parts of the country where survivalists ransack stores for ammunition and supplies to then run and hide in their bunkers. I get reports of hundreds of deaths resulting from this mass hysteria. Protestors swarm to state congresses and other places to demand my resignation. Federal officers and policemen are shot in the street by armed militias. Looting and lawlessness take over.

During the afternoon, I address the country once more, this time better dressed and made-up. “We’re at the height of a war that started as an argument and has now turned red with blood. But mark my words. This war will not last long. This war will only have one victor, and it will be democracy. Democracy will defeat all those who oppose it, as it always has, as it always will.”

§ Brave new world

I step into Congress with my head held high, waving and shaking hands. Today, one week after the strike that took the president elect’s life, Congress is voting my bill to amend the constitution. I’m asking for a ban on the private ownership of guns. I announced it yesterday, and several (liberal) states have already applauded my decision as being “brave” and “worthy of a genius.”

The liberal states, where money really is, all want a quick end to this conflict. The economy has destabilized, with panic setting in and crippling the stock exchange markets. Probably millions will lose their houses over the next years. But that’s a price I’m willing to pay to achieve my goals. Right now, everyone wants stability and order, at any cost. So that’s what I must achieve.

I look around the new Congress. You see, the representatives and senators from rebellious states all left as an act of protest against me. Some moderates and turncoats from our party also left. It was the wrong decision. They thought it would make a point. “Oh, Look at us, virtue-signaling we’re not going to take part in this nonsense.” All they managed was to give me more power and to add themselves to my blacklist.

Their seats were filled with people more… loyal to the federal government and democracy. Which is why when I step into Congress, I already know my bill is going to pass. I just have to sit there and watch them go through their tedious bureaucratic hoops. They talk, they vote, they discuss, then they argue, discuss, debate and finally deliberate. It’s official, guns are banned across the country. Now it only needs to be ratified by the states.

The liberal states and the state congresses occupied by soldiers ratify within a week. Some states take longer, but it’s ok. Their time will come too. Meanwhile, I use the hundreds of thousands without job as part of a temporal taskforce that collects private guns. A whole new committee is formed to handle the “speedy handing-over of guns by unwilling citizens,” as the senators eloquently call it. They end up forming local militias that go door to door, taking guns and a small fee in cash or jewels.

Logically, there are incidents. Many private owners shoot the gun-collectors that visit them, dragging on the process. Others claim they sold or lost their guns. Their houses are searched for guns and ammunition, and those hiding something are sent to the new provisional prisons. Oh yes, the enormous rise in the number of arrests leads to a huge influx of new inmates to the penal system. People hiding guns or aiding rebels are speedily tried and sentenced to a term not inferior to sixteen years of prison.

All those who collaborated in the uprising are sentence to even higher sentences, including capital punishment for those who fired or conspired to fire on federal officers. Then there’s the special case of the turncoat general. The benches at the trial are filled with people screaming insults at him throughout the trial. He suffers a speedy trial at the hands of a ravenous prosecution that convicts him quickly. The sentence is capital punishment, but I publicly intervene and pardon his life, reducing his sentence to life in a max-security prison. Of course he never gets to prison. He’s secretly executed in a dark cellar and his remains incinerated. There are some enemies that you just can’t leave alive.

The move works wonders for my public image, specially after the many protests of “human rights violations” and other nonsense. My team pushes the propaganda that I’m against all this violence, that it’s sort of independent of me. I respond to scandals about my militias being highway robbers by condemning their ringleaders to high prison sentences. Meanwhile, regional party chiefs reward “efficient” militias (i.e. that don’t get caught stealing) with higher positions in the administration. Even though I know about this practice, I can neither encourage nor stop it. I have too many enemies already to also fight my own administration. Corruption is bad for a country in the long-term, but I need to survive in the short-term.

As weeks go by, the conflict dies down. There’s a lot less buzz in social media about the militia and gun owners. It seems like my presidency can finally begin. Except I notice an increase in the number and… passion in the liberals’ demands. My party, journalists and scholars feel dissatisfied with how the coup against my presidency ended. Yes, guns are now banned and removed from most states. But they want blood, they want what I would call “cruel and unusual punishments” for the opposition.

There’s an outburst of hate after a shooting in a postmodernist museum that leaves sixteen dead and adds bullet holes to the “art” kept there. Ravenous scorpions spit venomous articles on both printed papers and online blogs. This translates into a radical liberal senator pushing a bill to make everyone who supported my removal from office liable to fines and even prison sentences, depending on the gravity of their words.

But that’s not all. An LGBT+ and women lobby “ask” the senator to include other provisions. People who have “discouraged, criticized, mocked or otherwise demeaned women or any member of the LGBT+ community by writing or voice” will be liable to criminal sentences and fines. The same goes for those who have defended “rapists, bigots or otherwise apologized rape or discrimination.”

As much as I don’t like the people who do that, I can see this is not a good idea. For one, it’s a retroactive law, which should make lawmakers’ hairs crawl. If people are punished retroactively for this, any act that was lawful in the past can suddenly become a capital offence. Sadly, there’s barely anyone willing to criticize it. The reasonable senators all left as an act of protest against me, remember? Almost all conservative journalists were caught in the weapon-seizing act and imprisoned. I also had a lot of them from my blacklists thrown in jail. The militia planted guns in the property of the reporters that criticized the militia. Right now they are languishing in some northern potato-growing prison.

The new opposition is silent because there is no opposition. The liberals feel emboldened by this and want to test the waters with their anti-discrimination law. Of course it passes congress almost unanimously. I publicly support it, as my counselors advise, because I can’t oppose it. It poses several problems: identifying who is behind an online nickname (though the social networks help us with that) and pursuing charges through the slow bureaucracy.

A startup appears with a technological solution: “the Whitelist.” The people guilty of these crimes are added to their database, showing their offence, social security id and address. Still, there are many people, including notorious citizens, who have used racial slurs or made sexist comments in the past and gotten away with it. There’s a case in particular, of a white male student who referred to a black lesbian student as “gay landwhale” and she was so depressed by the bullying she received from other students that she committed honorable sudoku by jumping out of an eight-storey building.

The parents of the dead girl only managed to get the student expelled, but now they are pressing criminal charges. The notorious case reached the Supreme Court after the state found the student guilty. And now the Supreme has ratified the lower court’s decision. The student will serve no less than sixteen years in prison.

After reading the court’s decision, I close the computer and take off my reading glasses. This is how it starts.

§ Monkeys with AK-47s

Eight months have passed since she died. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I would trade all of this, all this power to have her back. I can’t do that, though. The only thing I can do is make prisoners. Slowly but surely, the people in my lists, as well as million others, are now part of the Whitelist. Those who avoid prison will have an impossible time getting a job now.

Businesses start firing staff preemptively to avoid a future scandal. It becomes standard business practice to employ white males, even schooled ones, in menial positions and ban them from using social networks. During the next months I publicly endorse fantastic new bills. The “Empower women” act requires companies to have at least half (rounded up) of the staff in management be women, including the CEO position. The “Women hygiene” subsidizes women hygiene products completely while imposing a 32% tax on male hygiene products to “pay for it,” but taxes don’t work that way and I know the revenue will have to come from somewhere else.

My daughter technically lives with me in the presidential house, but she spends most of her time out of my sight. She doesn’t talk to me and refuses to participate in politics. She hates me for putting her under the spotlight without asking her. Some foreign powers don’t like me that much either. A potency that was an enemy during a past war is now poking with its hacking finger at us, stealing credit card information and private users data.

Reporters and exiles in other nations accuse me personally of being a “tyrannical despot with no respect for freedom in any form,” to quote one of them. They can’t get the picture. It’s not me, I’m not pushing these reckless laws through congress. Of course I could veto them and look out for the future, but I don’t like the future. What interest does the future have? Should I hope that the world somehow restores what, some past golden age?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. There’s nothing good ahead and nothing good behind. Increasingly, men get off with cartoon girls instead of actual, flesh-and-blood women. Though to be fair, women are increasingly more dangerous. Thanks to my wonderful “Sex act,” if a woman claims that a man has talked to her in an “inappropriate sexual manner,” he will enter a public pervert database. It’s ironic. I’ve used that or helped using that trick in the past to advance myself, plain playing to win. But now it’s law. Now every girl with some ambition can do it lawfully.

Ugghh… Do you wanna know why there are no more dialogues in what I tell you? Why the pauses are so long, of weeks and months? Because I don’t have meaningful conversations anymore. The only person I can stand is my rock. She still treats me like a close friend. But the rest… All of them are either bloodsucking sycophants or rabid radicals. If I listen to them for more than four minutes, the voices in my head start screaming.

Then there’s the crippling depression for losing her. I mean, I thought I would get a chance to move on at some point, enjoy success a little. But I-I can’t. She died and I couldn’t even say goodbye. I couldn’t tell her how much she meant to me. I don’t know why I should keep telling you stuff, to be honest. Maybe so somebody will understand who I was, but who cares.

The thing is, right now I prefer to just finish my wine in peace and reminisce.

§ Degeneracy

Degeneracy takes on many forms. My whole life I’ve seen it creeping into all the nooks and crannies of the world. Social justice rising to be the only ideology, its only opposition memes posted anonymously on online forums. People with morals so sick and twisted they hate themselves for a stupid list of things: having “unliberal” thoughts, having “sinful” thoughts (which are actually very much alike “unliberal” thoughts,) being descendants of white oppressors, being white, male or both…

People hate themselves, and I hate people. After today, there won’t be a single person I will be able to talk to. Because you see, degeneracy takes on many forms. One of them is stage four kidney cancer, which my rock got as a gift last christmas. We were still celebrating my practically unopposed reelection when she learned the news. It slowly grew during this past year until it was beyond the point where she can survive.

So here I am, at 4 am in the morning, wondering about degeneracy and how we’ve come to this point. My rock is sedated on the bed. She’s ok now, but she had an episode a while back. I doubt she’ll live much longer. “Hey, I’m not dead yet,” she whispers from her deathbed. I smile at her and hold her hand. “Do you regret—” I start, but she interrupts me. “Don’t. Don’t go there. It won’t lead you to a good place. Remember what she always said.” Oh yes, “A predator’s heart knows no remorse.”

I smile. She’s right, of course. “Still, what if we had left when they were accusing her of the insurance fraud scheme?” “Huh,” she exclaims before coughing hard, “… for all your wisdom you don’t get it chief. She was a wolf, just like you. You can’t expect a wolf to sit down and graze like a fat, purple-haired sheep, can you?” I shake my head, smiling. “Sure, she would have lived longer. But it would have consumed you both knowing you were so close only to surrender.”

“But I don’t want it,” I say. “Then resign,” she says, almost laughing at me. “Now, you know I can’t do that. I can’t throw away what I’ve worked my whole life for. What she worked her whole life for—” I break down in cries and soon she accompanies me. I really can’t believe she’s going to leave me alone in this world. She’s got the good end of the bargain, finally resting in peace after a successful career. It’s us who stay behind that suffer the death of the ones we love.

“You’ve reached the stars, and I’m glad I could help you do it. I don’t—” she stops to cough, “… I don’t mind this cancer thing so much because of that. You can’t see it now, but you will be remembered for a long time to come. This new world that I’ve heard you b-word and complain about, you shaped it this way. At least people will think you did.” I open my mouth to tell her I would trade my legacy, my power and my life for one more hour with her and my friend from school, but I decide not to. I simply smile and keep holding her hand.

Then I stare at her for a while. I can tell she’s in pain, closing hard her eyes trying to bear it. A few minutes later another episode starts. She’s in deep pain, but only for a short time. The nurses and doctors quickly say the words I had been fearing to hear for the last week she’s been in critical condition: “she’s gone.”

§ The sins of the mothers

I step out of congress with a fake smile on my face. Today, the two-term limit on the president has been voted out of the constitution. I’ll be up for reelection next term. I get into the limousine and start drinking my freedom vodka as I’m driven back home. The news report my legendary public appearance. I hadn’t shown my face in almost a year.

Newspapers, social media, tv… They’re all filled with ovations for my decisions, with praises of how I’m the “brave genius president.” The exiles have become tired of criticizing me, and people have grown weary of listening to them. All the people in my blacklists are either dead, homeless, pariahs or a combination of those. The country mostly runs itself through the great state machine. I only have to hold private meetings with other world leaders from time to time.

I can’t stand regular people. Leaders I can tolerate because of who they are. But for the rest… After two minutes I’m physically ill. You may despise me at this point, but you’re the only thing I have left. I can only speak to you now, even if it’s only these brief pieces every few years. I need to get a few things off my chest.

First of all, I feel no regrets for the “crimes” I’ve committed. My rock was right, I am a wolf in human shape. Every man is prey. If I had to lie, deceive, frame and kill, I would do it all again. There will be nothing when I die. I will be remembered, but it doesn’t matter because, hell, I’ll be dead! I am proud of myself, maybe the last proud person to live. I used my wits to get this far, I deserve it.

Second, I must tell you what the future looks like. And trust me, because I helped shape it. The disgusting degeneracy is not going to stop growing and spreading like a cancer. Purple-haired whiney landwhales are the future. Every time I see one my stomach turns. But I swallow my disgust and hatred as I’ve done my whole life. You, however, you will have to bear it the rest of your life. I doubt you can find a sanctuary away from them anywhere. But hey, go ahead and try.

Oh look, my daughter is knocking. Tomorrow she’s getting married and I can finally see her after two years. “Yes, come in.” She steps in. I notice she’s finally a woman, a beautiful woman I know nothing about. Only what I’ve read on gossip magazines and online articles. “I, uhm, mother… madam president,” she’s anxious, just like every time she talks to me. “You… have to take the picture for the uhm… album.”

“Why have we never had a real conversation?” I reply before taking another sip from my freedom vodka. She makes a grimace. “Come on, can you give me one good reason?” She’s very uncomfortable. “Fine, mother. I’ll-I’ll just return when you’re sober—” I grab her by the arm, pressing hard. “Don’t you treat me like a drunken moron and answer the f-wording question!”

I let her go in horror. Oh god. I’ve become… I’ve become mother. I take a step back from her. But then I feel the urge to push her on. “It’s because you heard me, right? You heard what I said to uncle.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about… please—” “You were there, you heard me telling the story of how I killed your father and his sister. Say it, for once in your life, have the decency to say it to my f-wording face!” I shake her violently, but she only cries.

“Please madam president… please,” she begs, sobbing. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about. I always-I always thought you pushed me away because you didn’t want me.” She breaks down in cries in one of the office chairs. I go to the liquor stand and pour myself another glass of freedom vodka. My hand is trembling, my mouth dry. She seems sincere. So… it was my fault. I did this. I drove her away. I always assumed she heard…

“You’re lying,” I lash out. It’s impossible. She must’ve heard. It’s her fault. It’s all their fault! “You know damn well what I’m talking about. Get out, get the f-word out! I don’t want to see you ever again!” I scream at her. Then, smiling. “You’re weak and pathetic. I don’t even think you’re my daughter.” She runs away crying. It’s for the best, for the best. It was her fault, she hated me. It can’t have been me, no. It was her. Her.

§ Goodbye

Yesterday, the defense secretary warned me of widespread problems in the army. Most of the experienced soldiers and generals were traitors and turncoats sacrificed during the purges and now languishing in the camps. Their positions were taken by less-experienced people, and the training methods revisited to be more “inclusive” of the new members to the army, including people with disabilities.

Our last few covert operations have failed. The experts consulted to assess the state of our military all agree: several potencies could potentially invade us. In response, I reduce the military budget even further and archive her report. She stares at me after I communicate my decision. She wants to say it’s a bad idea, but she knows she can only obey.

On to more interesting things. I’m talking to you because today is the sixteenth anniversary of the death of my friend from school. My only true friend. She understood me. I could talk to her. Now there’s nothing and no one left. I’m on my fourth term, and it’s becoming more and more tedious. Living is becoming more and more tedious…

After the ceremony I return to the “castle,” i.e. the presidential residence. I haven’t appeared in public for over two years now. I’m becoming more myth than human. What I represent, what I’ve defended, is becoming embalmed and worshipped as pure truth. It’s all deeply disgusting. I sit down and pour myself a freedom vodka, which is how I spend most of my time now, drinking, reading and sometimes writing a testament of my political life. I’m hoping drinking will kill me sooner rather than later.

As I drink from my glass, my chest starts to burn. At first it feels like I’ve had a bad meal. But then I feel it. It’s not just another drink, not just another day. I look at the glass, then at the bottle. It’s poison. I’ve been poisoned. It’s so ironic I start to laugh loudly. Of course nobody comes into the office, they’re too scared of me to dare.

I know who it was. One of the members of my court. The vice-president finally found the balls or the support to reach for power. It’s funny. Did you know I had at least one family member of everyone close to me labeled as an enemy of the state? I did it after a wise leader did before me, to make sure they were tame and loyal, that they didn’t bite the hand that fed them. Maybe it isn’t even poison. Maybe it’s just my body finally giving up on life.

Yet here I am, with my back against the floor of my presidential office, spurting blood from my mouth. I try to call for help but my throat has now shut and I can only make a gurgling noise with my own blood. I stop fighting it and smile a tired smile. I think… I think I died with my friend from school during the attack, that all this has been a death-dream. At least it has felt like one.

I can almost see her now. Standing next to my little sister, smiling. I reach out to them with my hands, but I feel like sinking, deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper…

§ Acknowledgments

Thank you to everyone who has paid for this book. Your support makes The Victim possible and allows me to keep self-publishing.

Thank you to Artem Rudenko for designing and developing this website. Also, thanks for the logo design.

The font used in this book is a subset of IBM Plex Serif, designed by Mike Abbink and released under the SIL Open Font License 1.1.

Got suggestions? Want to express your outrage? I’m at fpluis@outlook.com.

§ If you want to help

Tell your friends about The Victim. Tell your family. Tell your neighbors, your enemies, your pets. It’s free and it helps a lot.

You can always give me money. Since I don’t and won’t run ads nor sell private user data, the only other way to support this book is to give me money. Note that this is not my full-time job. The more success and revenue this book generates, the more time I will spend writing paragraphs instead of code.

If you don’t care about me personally, think about your contribution as affecting the whole publishing ecosystem. Self-publishing is very time-consuming and takes skill or money. Successful self-published books prove to other authors that they don’t need a publisher. Giving me money, you would be voting for self-publishing with your wallet.