We are both crying.
I’m starting to get sick, I can’t watch this anymore. I go to stand up, but I don’t move. I can’t move. I can’t blink. I can’t breathe.
“That’s enough.” He says, pausing the images. The sound turns off with it. All we hear now is me, crying, and a few other people sniffing, trying to compose themselves. We are professionals. We cry in the headquarters of a government building.
“I don’t s-see why they would send us this. The-there isn’t any real message anymore.” I muster out, turning to my boss. His eyes are red, streams of scarlet dive toward the pupil. He sniffs, face remaining stone.
“That is the message.” He waves a hand toward the frozen image. “That. It’s their-” He stops himself, making sure his voice doesn’t waver. “That is their manifesto.”
Someone gags. We all watch the rookie vomit onto the concrete and then pass out. He falls with a thud, barely missing the sick on the ground. He’s almost a sleeping child, the way he lay unconscious. I swallow, casually turning back to my boss.
“Get somebody,” He says, basically ignoring what just happened. “I don’t care who- just take care of this.”
Someone nods and walks toward the door, swipes his security card, and leaves. Before the doors close I can hear him let out a small cry. The only noise in the empty hallway. It reminds me to wipe my eyes again.
“I need a report sent to the board. Be vague. Make sure every frame is checked for anything we might have missed. No one hears about this before the board.” He thinks for a second. “Finish the report by tomorrow. Before tomorrow- no, finish it tonight. Judith, come with me.”
I stand up, rickety, and follow my boss out of the room. He waits while I fumble with my card, my emotions threatening to break when it won’t swipe properly. I drop it, crying. I can’t believe how uncomposed I’m acting. He picks it up, and in one swift motion, swipes it and hands it back to me. And we leave.
While we ride in the tube to his office, on the other side of the compound, I try and stop my crying. I close my eyes. In the darkness, I watch Abigail slowly die.
My boss is an interesting man. He waits until the security doors close before even breathing at an audible level. His breath is quiet, his eyes are red, his hand is on my arm. I’ve never touched him like this before.
“Please,” He asks. I know he means ‘please stop crying’, but my emotions waver. I begin to feel nauseated. “Judith.”
“I can’t do this anymore.” I confess, watching him move away, his sweaty hand leaving my bare arm. It’s a sad parting, for some reason. “I can’t watch them,” My voice calls as he walks away from me, as if the office is a loud station, people buzzing about. I beg for one more glance backwards. Like an old film.
My boss sits at his desk, looking up at my frozen body. I impatiently look down, adjusting my stance, heels clicking on the tile floor. The necklace sitting on my chest rattles. It sounds so much like chains that I involuntarily gag.
I watch him swivel in his chair and, with his card, open up a bottom drawer of the pearly desk. I sniff as he sets a bottle of brown liquid down on the glassy table top. He motions I move toward him. I shake my head and shut my eyes close. Abigail looks up at me, hands bound behind her back. I step forward.
“You take privacy seriously.” I say quietly. Two glasses clink together as he sets them down. I watch as he pours the liquid into the glass. His hand slowly hands me one. I notice it’s shaking. We are both taking privacy seriously.
Once I throw back the stinging, bitter, banned liquid, I can finally let myself sit down. My boss does the same, swallowing as soon as the glass touches his lips, and then scratches his face. A sign of nervousness.
“It’s your job,” He says quietly. “To watch them.”
“I don’t think-”
“We are going to get her back. She’s not going to die there.”
“She’s already dead.” My voice cuts through his ego. He deflates. His eyes beg me to find a solution, to find a message, to bring Abigail home. “Even if she’s breathing, no one can survive that. No one can come back from that. We aren’t even there and we’re barely living.”
He doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. They don’t have a message, they don’t have anything. We are professionals. And we can’t even begin to handle what is being thrown at us, what we are being submerged in. We’re supposed to be swimming freely and instead we are trying not to drown in fire.
“There’s no message,” I say. The words catch in my throat. My boss pours himself another glass, and very cooly downs it. He does everything in one motion, like he plans things three steps ahead. And yet, he still hasn’t figured out how to breathe in fire. “Why did you ask me to come in here?”
“I need your help.” He is a deflated balloon. He is an empty can of person. He has given up.
“Judy, stop.” He sits up, eyes wincing at the effort. “You know her better than anyone here. You’re brilliant. Any idea you’ve got, anything. Please.”
“We talked about you calling me Judy.” I look at my hands in my lap.
“You,” I sigh, twirling the ring on my finger. Watching it spark in the light. “You called it a manifesto. Everyone thinks it’s sheer torture. I think maybe… it’s a metaphor.”
I look up and see him staring coldly at me. I focus on my ring again, trying not to come to terms with what I’ve just said.
“We watched her wa-” My voice cracks. I breathe. I can do this. “We watched her watch herself…” Breathe. Tears well up in my eyes again. The fire still burns in my heart. “Maybe she is a symbol, a representation for something else.”
“For what?” He’s angry. I know it’s not at me personally but I can’t help but feel stings of hatred.
“I, I don’t know. Us?” I say. I twirl the ring. Look back up. Even I don’t fully understand what I’m saying. His eyes are embers. “Them, maybe? They want to show us cruelty. Maybe they want us to understand something other than a direct message.”
“There was nothing indirect about that recording.” His voice is grave, crumpled under dirt. His upper lip pulls upwards, just a tad, and then he violently presses his hand against his eye, catching the tear before it falls onto his stone face like rain on a statue.
I close my eyes. Abigail is strapped to the table. I swallow.
“Sir,” I look up.
“A metaphor?” He shakes his head, running his hand through the short hair. “Who are these people?”
“Sir, I,” I swallow. “I don’t know, it’s my best guess. We can-”
“Judith,” He interrupts, filling again with flames. I close my eyes. “We need something for the board. A message. Indirect or not.” His voice speaks but all I can hear are Abigail’s screams as she watches herself scream. As she sits, hands tied behind her back, eyes clipped open, watching the recording. Watching herself. I swallow. “I need something, Judy.” He begs. “Anything.”
“I trust you. Write up your metaphor ideas, do whatever. But you can’t quit on me.”
“Sir, I think-”
“What is it?”
I stand up and fall over into his trash can, right next to the pearly desk, and get sick right in front of him. The banned liquid burns my throat and my eyes well up with tears. I grip the metal can, leaning my weight on it to stand up, and fall again, sweaty hands slipping.
My boss helps me stand up, holding onto my arms. We stand inches apart.
“This is what they want.” I swallow again, staring into his fiery eyes.
“This,” I motion down to the sick in the trash, beyond the office toward the unconscious rookie. “This is part of that message. She wasn’t just watching herself. She was reliving it, she- she was living it. Look at you,” I say breathlessly through the flames. “Look at your eyes. It’s everyone. All of us- we all have to live it.”
My boss wipes a tear from my cheek, his thumb moving like the world’s slowest strike of a match. I can feel his fingerprints, the ashy remnants of phosphorus. We stare at each other, holding the frozen pose in a boiling room. We are immovable.
“I will get started on the report.” I whisper. My voice makes the silence more apparent, makes the wind from the fire blow my hair in front of my face, fencing off our shared gazes. The flames once again lick at us, poke our thoughts. We are two marble figures in a lake of fire, frozen and immovable.
“Thank you.” His hand falls from my face. I nod and step away, heels clicking on the tile like the rocking of a table on concrete. “She won’t have to live this much longer.”
I wince, swiping my security card. The door whooshes open, putting out the fire, a short breath to a small candle.
I step out of the room and the doors close behind me. Composing myself, I brush of my lips, smooth my hair back, and wipe the phosphorous from my face.
I could see the death in Abigail’s eyes. We are the ones who need to stop living this.
Thanks for reading.
Stay tuned for part three.