6,000 Words

Half a block away I could feel it already, the old giddiness, the limb-tingling bliss at being about to dance, to sweat, to shake my body beside other bodies, and that’s when I knew I was in true mortal peril. I walked slower, then stopped, and took ten deep breaths, until the urge subsided. I waited until I felt nothing.

Don’t be fooled, I told myself, arriving at the end of the long velvet-roped line. An old hotel, transformed for one night into a living museum. This is all a sham. Come morning it will disappear again. And no matter how many times they promise tonight will have no consequences, you know they’ll be watching. Once they know what you are, they’ll follow you until they find something. Mess up once and it’s the camps for you.

Already a bassline was thumping from inside. Donna Summer? No. Too early in the evening for Donna. Donna you saved until the place was packed. Memory kindled long-dead smells, forbidden artifacts: pleather and hair products, sweat and smoke and scotch, poppers and nail polish and spilled beer.

Above the archway, a banner: DEGRADATION EVE. Projectors covered the place’s entire majestic façade in swiftly-churning images. Disco divas and Playboy bunnies, arched backs and permed hair, fashion spreads and money shots. Alternating with bloody fetuses and ravaged wombs and brutal vid-clips of assault. To remind us all how vulgar and vile and degrading things had been, before.

You were a fool to have come, I told myself. She won’t be here. You’ve kept your head down and your ass safe for ten years, and tonight you’re endangering yourself for nothing.

But I had to know. And if Ummi didn’t show up, here, tonight, I could finally be certain she was really gone.

Cops strutted across the street. The western fringe of midtown Manhattan still throbbed with an ebbing Saturday buzz. Curfew would come soon. Already the officers had stopped a group of construction workers for on-the-spot dupe scans. One by one the men pressed their cell phones against a nightstick for half a second. The State’s backdoor Bluetooth channel would be copying every byte of data and running it against state-of-the-art sin-scan algorithms for offending content. Vintage or imported images of women with bare arms, for example, or knees, or hands. Texts with suspicious phrasing. App log-times during worship hours.

The line behind the velvet rope was for Observers; a dressed-up anxious crowd, frightened and excited by the proximity of the forbidden. Women in their wimples; men in the drab charcoal-and-olive palettes of Party power players. Laughter, nervous and swiftly stifled. They had come for the spectacle of it, to smell the stink of sin, to watch an elaborate reenactment of the Bad Old Days. Lots of them had brought their children. And then, as one, their spines straightened and their faces became deadly serious: instructions, no doubt, coming in through their earbugs.

My Participant badge let me breeze past them. I scanned faces, tried to imagine what was happening behind each one. People my age knew what to expect, could remember the time when this happened every night. I wondered what the younger ones thought. Some were still toddlers at the time of the Revival, and had spent their formative years hearing stories of the barbaric degeneracy of places like these.

One man cruised me, his eyes bold and firm, and I felt an inner tremor of terror for him.

Do you have a death wish, man? How have you survived the last ten years? You don’t know who the hell I am—I could be secret police, or some random zealot citizen. Even the possibility of ‘deviant mental activity’ could get you hauled downtown and hooked up to the Fruit Machine for testing.

A gaggle of Participants bunched up at the entrance, signing waivers and waiting for body scans.

“You look scared,” a man said, tough, straight, with Jersey vowels. No doubt it was the nostalgia, not the money, that induced him to volunteer as part of the spectacle. Club Night with the Fellas, ‘banging chicks,’ whatever it was that boys like him did then.

I asked “Aren’t you?”

“Petrified, bro. Had an aunt, back then, was a Born Again. When I was ten she took me to one of them, whaddaya call it, hell houses? Like haunted houses, but, you know, all religious and stuff. Adulterers burning in hell, drug addicts peeling their own skin off? That kind of stuff. Scarred me for life. And tonight that’s going to be me. Traumatize some little kid who never saw nobody dance before.”

Scanned and waivered, we were each provided with a one-night Amnesty for any forbidden acts in which we engaged while inside the designated space for dancing. In digital and hard copy.

“Got a cigarette?” asked a forty-something woman in a bright pink wig and a short skirt still creased from the drawer (or, more likely, secret under-the-floorboard stash) where it had spent the last decade. Bizarre to see her knees, when on any other night baring the ankles was enough to earn you five lashes. I laughed, out loud, at the incongruity of it, like seeing a ghost, these six or seven re-educable offenses she was committing at once.

“Be careful,” I said, handing her one.

She tucked the cigarette behind her ear and winked at me.

Whitney Houston called out from inside: one long whooooo-oooo—

As one, the crowd gasped. Participants and Observers. None of us had heard a recording of a woman’s voice in years, outside of scratchy cassette tapes and secret computer files we could be re-educated for owning. The kids on the line looked nervous, the way you do when you do something technically illegal. Jersey Boy and Pink Wig cheered, as did a couple other Participants, chests already puffing out with long-forgotten freedom. I wouldn’t let myself. I would keep my focus. I wasn’t there to have fun or feel free: I was there for Ummi. I went inside.

Graffiti covered the walls of the low-ceilinged hallway: slurs for women, for a good time call—, promises of sexual savagery. The stink of actual piss was in the air. Recorded voices barked threats and catcalls. I breezed past the slow trickle of Observers moving through checkpoints meant to make them spend as much time as possible in this grotesque hall. Whitney Houston sounded flat and muted through the wall, a ghost voice, singing about losing control, about men, about power, and powerlessness. A door opened and the beat got sharper, and I passed through.

“Clive,” someone said, and I was shocked at the hot rush of hate that shot through me.

“Clive!” he said, again, and I turned, terrified, because I hadn’t counted on this variable. My self-control only extended so far.

“Jeremy,” I said, gritting my teeth, trying to smile, failing.

“I saw your name on the list,” he said, drunk, pathetic, with a politician’s fake cheer, in the mopey-dog voice I had first heard at planning meetings for protests of the very people he now worked for. “But I didn’t think it’d be you. Some other Clive Loff, I told myself.”

“It’s me.” I looked at Jeremy, possibly the most powerful closet case in the Republic, and his proud smile, and a horrible thought hummingbirded into my brain. “Did you help put this together?”

“I did,” he said, and my suspicion that Degradation Eve was intended in part to flush out deviants and get good blackmail shots hardened into certainty. Jeremy had always been good at getting ahead, especially if other people got hurt in the process. It was why he was where he was.

“Good to see you, Clive,” he said, and extended his hand. I held on, willing him to make eye contact, but when he did I couldn’t ask the questions I wanted to ask. Why are you doing this? How do you live with yourself? And what the hell did you do to Ummi?

Chubby Jeremy was gone. This Jeremy had lost so much weight I could see his cheekbones. Working inside a system that wants you dead will do that to you. He’d have been hot, if he didn’t look so sallow and beaten. And if I didn’t hate him as much as he hated me.

He paused, waiting for something more from me. Finally he added, “I can’t believe I’m actually going to be able to dance, without worrying about getting arrested for it.”

“Don’t they work for you, Jeremy? The ones who do the arresting?”

“It’s not—” he said, then frowned, fiddled with his hands. I recognized the face he was making, the strenuous mechanics of rationalization. Back then he had worked for the most powerful woman in city politics, who rose to power by saying what men wanted to hear, a family-values schoolmarm vixen crowing Creationism and demanding the removal of songs sung by women from the radio. Whenever I needed to feel better about things I’d imagine what her face looked like, in the moment when she realized she was getting exactly the world that she wanted, and that there would be no place for her in it.

I pushed past him. “I’ll see you around,” he called after me. “And try to have fun, okay, Clive?”

Stepping out onto the dance floor, I scanned the crowd. I watched bodies bob and shake. Faces tilted and twisted. Men shrieked; women bellowed. Ummi wasn’t there, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t come. She had to come. If she was alive, if she was free, if she was still here, she’d come.

My earpiece crackled and cleared itself of static. Spot-specific, triggered by wifi through the legally-mandated backdoor that allowed the Republic and its authorized agents to assert total control over every device. A man’s voice, wide flat Midwestern syllables:

Hard to imagine, that sights and sounds like these were once commonplace. Hard to believe that people tolerated such behavior, and that a godless government allowed it. Which is why, as we celebrate our first glorious decade, it’s important to look back and remember. Why we fought, and how much we’ve won. How far we’ve come.

I turned and watched the pink-wigged woman step out onto the dance floor. My heart broke, seeing her face. Her smile, like meeting a lover she thought she’d never see again. The promise of Saturday night, eleven p.m., a throbbing dance floor.

It had all been pretend, until this moment. I didn’t believe in any of it. I didn’t let myself hope that I might be able to get this close to the joy and bliss and freedom that had gone out of the world. But here it was. Here we were.

Early still; a small crowd. The DJ was good, probably the best they could find—so many had fled. Each song nudged the energy a tiny bit higher. I followed the woman to the bar, where she legally bought an alcoholic beverage for the first time in ten years. The men around her thought nothing of it; they did it all the time, but I saw the light in her eyes.

The main dance floor had been the enormous lobby of a posh and decadent hotel. Above it were twenty stories of open space, twenty mezzanines looking down on it, each of them now a crowded dance floor. The new government had kept the entire building empty. It still stunk with the mold and rot of ten useless years.

Women outnumbered men on the main floor. I focused on them, their happiness, their sweat, their bare shoulders. Anything to not see the men, writhing and radiant in too-tight T-shirts. Ten percent of the men in any room at any given moment were secret police, if you believed the propaganda. And the Observers filed past us all, shielded from sin by fear and a velvet rope. A little girl with a long blonde braid, too young to wear a wimple but not by much, held her father’s hand tightly.

I headed up to the second floor and scanned the crowd. Still no sign of Ummi.

Ummi was my best friend, the fiercest person I had ever met. A dancer. A genius. Punk royalty, six feet tall, piercings and ink you could never quite pin down or remember right from day to day. I spent more time with her than anyone, and even I couldn’t be sure that the intricate tribal patterns and cursive quotations on her arms didn’t shift slightly each time I looked away.

I was a graphic designer, then. By night I made flyers for protests, went to the meetings she dragged me to. We all worked hard, in our own ways, to fight the fundamentalist drift. We could see the writing on the wall, but we didn’t know what it said. We couldn’t have known how bad things would get. Everything happened so slowly, a far-right politician elected here, a Supreme Court decision there, an unpunished upsurge in hate crimes, the Modesty Movement, the Promise Militias. Until all the pieces were in place for the Revival.

On the second floor the dancing got dirtier. Couples bumped, grinded, dry humped. One by one I watched Observers’ faces redden. Some forgettable scrap of diva-pop throbbed. A Britney or a Debbi or a Tiffani. Its appeal had baffled me then and it baffled me now. Except now, knowing the terrible fate that befell all those women, the flimsy song had a certain fresh poignancy. I kept climbing.

By floor fifteen, I knew she wasn’t there. But I couldn’t stop moving. Scanning every face. Participant and Observer alike, because it wasn’t completely unimaginable that one of Ummi’s admirers had risen to a place of some prominence in the new Republic, and offered to save her life by marrying her, although the risk of wedding a well-known woman artist would have been considerable. I’d spent a decade standing still, never visiting any of our old haunts or otherwise hunting for her, convinced the risk was too great for both of us. Now I couldn’t stop moving. The actors on the topmost floors were masked, acting out mock-rapes and murders. My flesh crept as I hurried past, scanning body types, scouring exposed flesh for matching tattoos and finding none. On the twentieth floor I walked to the railing and stared down at the yawning gulf of screams and laughter and music and fevered, doomed joy.

“Attendance is triple our projections!” Jeremy said, appearing beside me suddenly. I sniffed for sulfur but didn’t smell any.

“And the night is young,” I said.

Was he sweating? From fear, probably. Maybe he had created a monster. Across town there was a rival event, the First Annual Celebration of Christian Art & Values, where men and women wore modest clothes and listened to the safe, male voices of legal music. If Degradation Eve was a big enough success, and the Celebration of Christian Art & Values bombed, it would become an embarrassment. The Revived Republic might have dissident threats under control, but the halls of government were themselves a terrifying and unstable place. Power struggles, interfaction posturing. Bloodbaths still happened, from time to time, and an ambitious little backstabber could climb the ladder fast by making a big enough stink about an evening of government-sanctioned gender treachery. Heads might roll. Jeremy’s might. Mine might.

“Are you having fun?” he asked. He was closer to me than he needed to be, and smiling unwholesomely. His victory, he thought, was nigh. Any minute now I would finally fumble, and he could destroy me.

“Tonight isn’t about fun,” I said.

“You should try to have fun, Clive. We may never have the chance again.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Sometimes I had felt sorry for Jeremy, back when he would come to meetings ill at ease inside the suit he was forced to wear at work, assuring us even as we called him out on his boss’s latest sell-out move that he could do work within the system that would complement what we did outside it. There had to be some internal flicker of genuine radicalism in there, at war with the cowardice that let him delude himself so extensively.

From behind him, he produced two drinks. “Here’s to one last night,” he said, handing me one.

I clinked my glass against his, but then I set it down on the railing. We were not in this together. I had something Jeremy didn’t have. I had this fire, Ummi’s fire, the flame of freedom, corny as it sounds. One day it would happen, an uprising, a collapse, and I would be ready for it, and men like Jeremy would end up against the wall.

To tune him out, I turned up my earbug.

This is the so-called freedom that women had back then. Freedom to wear provocative clothing, and to be assaulted for it. Freedom to go out after dark, where nothing good waited for them. Freedom to end a pregnancy, because liberal politicians peddled the lie that employment had more to offer women than motherhood.

Still standing beside me, Jeremy pulled out his phone and doodled around on it. For a powerful closet case whose whole life had to be about fear of exposure, he was startlingly cavalier about using his swipe code in front of people. Then he shrugged apologetically, as if apologizing for ending the marvelous conversation we were not having, and put the phone to his ear and walked off.

Watching him leave, I saw the blonde-braided little girl again. Sobbing now, watching snarling male actors hold a woman down. She tried to turn away, but her mother turned her back.

I realized: if anyone had access to the kind of personal data that would help me figure out what happened to Ummi, it was Jeremy.

For the next hour, I followed him. Staying far enough back that he’d never notice me. Watching him drink. Knowing he’d let his guard down sooner or later. Waiting for when I could snatch his phone.

Three unmistakable guitar chords. A cheer went through the crowd.

Donna Summer. “Hot Stuff.”

“This song is doubly seminal,” Ummi once joked, drunk, when this song came on. “Seminal in that it’s hugely influential, and also in that it’s about semen.”

I wanted so badly to hit the floor. To dance, to let myself go. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t let Jeremy see me like that. The absurd, paranoid thought popped into my head: what if this is all for me? A Jeremy plan to get me to make the mistake he’d spent so long waiting for? The one that would let him destroy me like he destroyed Ummi? Ridiculous, of course, but hate is always ridiculous, and his hate for me had been pretty profound.

It had happened so slowly. And then it had happened so fast. Telecomms down; rumors of coups and outbreaks; a nation terrified of the dark without the light of their cell phones.

We may not know what’s going on, but we know what to do about it, someone said, in those early days of desperate, secret meetings. We take to the streets. I remember it being Ummi, but now I wonder if that’s not me aggrandizing my friend.

We knew there were pitched battles happening in Washington D.C., and in some state capitals. We knew that their victory was by no means certain. We knew that the commissioner of the NYPD had already declared his allegiance to the new Republic, but that we still had a shot. So Ummi and I and a couple dozen of our most trusted activist friends started putting something together.

And all of them vanished. All except me.

I knew it was Jeremy. Somehow he’d sniffed it out, and traded the intel for one of the handful of Amnesties the fundamentalists dangled before known subversives and degenerates who helped them in those last, crucial months. Left me unscathed so suspicion within the movement would fall on me, which it did, which didn’t matter, because we weren’t a movement anymore, we were all scared rabbits hoping no one would come along to snap our necks. And then—boom. Ten years passed. Ten years of toiling in the Salt Mines, working from my Bronx basement apartment for the mandatory eleven hours a day. Scanning code for cracks in the Firewall of Jericho, which protected our people from foreign malware and accurate information.

Back on the main floor, I followed the barely-remembered logic of hotel layouts to where I knew the offices would be. A cop saw me coming down the service hallway, came forward to block my path.

“Evening, officer,” I said, not even tempted, after all these years of disciplined practice, to let my eyes wander to where his uniform cupped his package so precisely. Every month there were show trials for disobedience, with sentences including losing one hand, or one testicle. Nothing like a secret police force to keep everyone on their toes, including the actual police. “Jeremy around?”

Was I really going to do this? Was I really going to steal Jeremy’s phone and use it to track down a subversive? Because if I did, I’d be kissing my ass goodbye. All those careful, careful years wasted. I’d be of no use to the eventual insurrection, dead or in prison. Or maybe sent to a Resettlement Zone, an open-air prison where Unrepentables picked cotton or gleaned scraps of food and tech from the mountain of garbage dumped daily over the wall.

The cop shook his head. “Come back a little later.”

“Will do, officer,” I said. I had to make eye contact to do it, and his were dazzling. Deep brown, framed in endless lashes. His jaw, bearded like a black seal’s pelt, sent blood to where there hadn’t been blood in a long time.

Michael Jackson, when I got back to the main floor. “Billie Jean.” Bassline like lust itself: feral, insatiable, looping endlessly back on itself. Black music hadn’t been devastated as badly as music by women, but there had still been plenty of death sentences handed out by officials and vigilantes alike, along with the millions of Resettlement orders. And it went without saying that you’d never hear anything so hungry and complex on the radio now. The chorus came on and I bit my lip to keep from singing.

What is the point? I asked myself. Why even bother to stay alive? This isn’t living.

I knew the night had been a bad idea. I should have trusted my gut and stayed away. The music was messing with me, stirring up things I needed to keep a tight lid on if I wanted to stay alive. The hope that Ummi might show up had been an absurd and desperate one.

Madonna, then. “Like A Virgin.” My heart hurt with wanting to dance. I watched them, out on the floor, the men. But mostly, strangely, the women. The men I had fantasized about so much that seeing them now felt familiar. The women, on the other hand, were like a species I believed to be extinct. My mouth would not shut. Their bodies, their faces. Their joy. Their fearlessness, their life. The dance floor was a black hole, determined to suck me in, but once I succumbed I would never surface again.

And—was that Jeremy, out there, dancing? Red in the face and wet with sweat? Smiling?

I kept my gaze focused on the wall ahead of me. Reading statistics on rape and single motherhood, and the well-worn slogan: A woman’s right to raise a child on her own was the right to ruin two lives. Anything to keep from looking back at the gleeful seething of the dance floor. Light specks peppered my field of vision. Mirror balls had descended from the ceiling by now, hundreds of them, staggered throughout all twenty stories of empty space, dragged up no doubt from one of the regime’s subway-tunnel storehouses. What other wonders were down there, what artifacts of freedom and excess slowly dying of loneliness?

A woman danced on a pedestal, naked but for two ostrich-feather fans. Her dark skin made her stand out in that sea of white. A forbidden flash of pirate radio politics echoed in my head, from the early days, before private radios were seized—a stern woman declaring that the executive fiat of the Resettlements has only slightly accelerated the implacable economic attrition of gentrification. I mumbled the words out loud, but quietly, marveling that it had once been possible and even commonplace to express complex concepts openly.

I turned around and headed back to where the cop had blocked me.

An hour had passed; if Jeremy wasn’t back, I could push a little harder. Demand he summon Jeremy, threaten him perhaps. I had let fear paralyze me for far too long. Perhaps this could be the beginning. The moment when the spark within me kindled into flame. The night when the resistance finally kindled into action.

And then I saw her. The same little girl, blonde-braided, sobbing still, dragged brusquely forward by her father. She saw me staring, and started crying even harder.

When I got to the office hallway, the cop was gone.

“Jeremy?” I called, into the darkness. No one answered.

I called his name again, then entered the empty offices. I used my cell phone’s flashlight feature. Stacks of photos lined desks: forbidden images of women, basemented somewhere since the Revival. I thought about stealing a photograph, Gisele Bundchen modeling jewelry or Elizabeth II modeling old age, but it would only be a liability. One more thing to worry about, each time my number came up for a random home inspection.

A light was on, way back in the warren of desks and cubicles. I walked toward it.

Jeremy and the police officer, up against a wall. Finally, I thought, that evil queen is getting arrested. Except that’s not what was happening.

They kissed passionately and fearlessly. There was something chaste about it, the gentle way the cop’s hand pressed to Jeremy’s cheek, and something that was more erotic and forbidden than fucking would have been.

Something shifted in me, seeing it. The Jeremy I knew would never have had the courage to do something so bold, so dangerous. How had he dared? What sorcery was this? I watched, slack-jawed, aching for it.

“Shit,” the cop said, seeing me, pulling away.

“Shit,” Jeremy said. “No, Will, listen—”

But the cop sprinted out of the room. Jeremy slumped back against the wall, then slid down it to sit on the floor.

“You look like you need this,” I said, handing Jeremy a cigarette.

“Thanks,” he said, and accepted the light I offered him. His smile was sad and beautiful. “Hell of a party, huh?”

His lack of shame didn’t shock me. Half an hour before, it would have. But now I knew that everything I thought about Jeremy had been wrong.

“How did you talk them into this?” I asked, spreading my hands to indicate Degradation Eve in its entirety.

He shrugged. “I took advantage of their arrogance,” he said. “They believe their own PR. They really think all this music and dancing is so degrading and barbaric that anyone who sees it will be disgusted. I got the idea reading about the Degenerate Art exhibit. The Nazis put on a big show of all the art they hated—Jewish, modernist, Bolshevik, primitivist—intending to make fun of it, but instead people attended in huge numbers.”

“What happened to Ummi?” I asked in a quiet voice.

“She’s in Canada,” he said. “I got her out.”


Something very happy and something very sad settled in my stomach.

“How?” I whispered.

“Someone snitched. Gave the cops all the info on the planned action. I heard about it through my job. Couldn’t stop it, but I could save a couple people.”

“Why should I believe you? How do I know it wasn’t you who snitched? How do I know she’s not dead by now?”

Jeremy shrugged.

“And me? You saved me, too?”

He nodded, avoiding eye contact.

“Why would you do all that? You hated her. You hated me.

He laughed. He looked at me. His expression went from startled to puzzled to resigned. “I love you, Clive. I’ve always loved you.”

I waited for laughter, or a mocking punch in the arm. None came.

“It’s all for you, Clive. This whole thing.”

“That doesn’t…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence. I couldn’t think. My mind tried to play back every Jeremy memory I had, but it sputtered and gasped uselessly like a car engine on a cold morning. I sank to my knees before him.

“You really never knew?”

My head shook itself: No.

“I guess you hated me,” he said, tucking in his shirt where it had come untucked. “I guess you just assumed it was mutual.”

“You went along with it,” I said. “With everything. How could you do that?”

“So did you, Clive.”

“Not like you. Not by working for them. Not by signing death warrants or whatever the hell you do—”

“I’ve been able to do a lot of good things for a lot of people, because of who and where I am. Ummi would be dead now if it weren’t for me.”

“No. No. You—”

“It’s not like you wake up one day and everything’s terrible, and you have to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to it,” he said. And he was right. Even after the takeover, things took a long time to get really bad. Even before. I heard stories on the news, about crazy politicians getting elected in faraway states, or insane unconstitutional laws being passed, and I thought, Damn, that sucks for those people, but I never thought it would ever actually affect us.

“What could we have done?”

“Exactly,” he said. “That was your attitude.”

Jeremy was right. I had dressed him up in my own worst qualities, endowed him with all that was small and cowardly and pitiful in myself. I looked down at my own silent, obedient hands.

“Ummi’s still fighting,” he said. “Up in Canada, there’s a whole network of people. It’s still dangerous. Canada is terrified of angering its powerful neighbor, word is they’re thinking of deporting all the Republic refugees. But she’s still trying. She hasn’t given up. She isn’t hiding in a hole somewhere.”

His eyes were hard and accusing and I could not think of a single thing to say.

“This is silly,” he said. “I didn’t want this to be a fight. It’s a goodbye, really.”

I looked at him.

“Do you remember the night of the Supreme Court decision victory party? What you told me?”

I remembered the party. I didn’t remember telling him anything. I opened my mouth but could not say so.

“We were on the dance floor. You had just hooked up with some random super-hot guy. I congratulated you on it, and you said ‘This is the kind of moment where I could just die. From happiness. Dancing, you know?’”

It sounded like me. It was dramatic enough, meaningless enough.

“I’m an idiot,” he said, standing, disgusted—in himself, having finally glimpsed the real me. “I don’t know why I thought you’d be strong enough to take advantage of this.”

I had so many questions, but only one came out. “Why didn’t you ever say anything? Ten years—you could have found me at any point.”

“I knew you had made your choice.”

And I had. He was kind, not to spell it out. I chose to give up completely. I chose to never be happy. I chose to go along, to get along.

Jeremy stood up. “The party’s about to come to a stop.”

“It’s barely two,” I mumbled. “Thing’s supposed to go on all night.”

He looked me up and down, showed me a smile full of pity and contempt, got up to go. “You missed your last chance to dance, Clive.”

I walked the floor in a daze, after that. Drinking, watching faces transfixed, ecstatic, rhapsodic. Hours might have passed.

Finally: Donna Summers again, “Last Dance,” and a groan of pain and pleasure went up from all the older men and women who knew what this song meant, that we had reached the end of the night, that our revels now were ended, that this insubstantial pageant would fade.

But something felt wrong. It was too early for “Last Dance.” We still had two hours to go before the party’s scheduled end. Had the local Commander finally put his foot down? Were the Gestapo lining up even now, outside?

Someone screamed, high above me. A whooping, drunk, encouraging scream that spread through the crowd. I craned my neck and scanned each successive balcony in turn. All of them packed with people, everyone dancing, everyone blissfully in the moment except for me.

Eight stories up, I spotted him. Jeremy waved, standing on the railing at the edge of the balcony. He continued to dance at the edge of the abyss, and all around him people cheered.

I turned away. I watched the faces of the beautiful men and women around me. I thought of the little girl with the blond braid, and the little girl down the hall from me who was not allowed to learn to read. And the woman next door, and her nightly screams. And all the women I saw on the street and subway every day. And how I had been so focused on my own tragedy, my shitty job and empty pockets and soul-skinning loneliness, that I had never let myself see how good I had it. How much worse how many other people had it.

I had always believed, bizarrely, that I was somehow carrying a spark of revolution inside me. But fire isn’t fire if it doesn’t burn.

When Jeremy leapt, I wasn’t watching.

When he hit the ground, and the screams started, I was still trapped inside the dawning epiphany of what I was.

And hours later, when the ambulances and cops had gone and the paperwork was filled out and the witness depositions deposited, and the press had left the scene for the official announcement from the Commander, I went up to the roof. A woman sat there, shoulders heaving with sobs. I didn’t recognize her until I saw the pink wig wadded up and clenched tight in both hands.

“Hey,” she said. “Is it time to go? I’m sorry, I’ve been up here for a long time.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not time. Not yet.”

She didn’t know what had happened inside. She was crying about everything else. I looked: no blood I could see on the soles of my feet. Or my hands, for that matter. She pulled the cigarette from behind her ear. I patted my pockets in search of matches, but she already had it lit.

She needed a hug. I wanted to hug her. I almost did. I took a tiny step in her direction, before I remembered that the secret police could have been watching from any one of the dozen taller buildings around us. So we stood there. I hoped she could see, or guess, what was going through my mind: how sorry I was, for all of this, and how badly I wished that things were different.

Except it doesn’t matter what’s in people’s minds. What matters is what they do. And don’t do.

Sunlight showed us more and more of our city, unchanged by the evening’s revels. More and more of myself. My fire would not blaze up and burn anything down. I would go on like this, like so many others, praying for an asteroid or divine intervention to fix the things I was too afraid to fix myself.

She handed me her cigarette, half-smoked. Her smile was full of pity, for a creature not strong enough even to weep.

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction is in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and The Minnesota Review, among others. He is a nominee for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. His debut novel, The Art of Starving, is forthcoming from HarperCollins. He lives in New York City, and at www.samjmiller.com.

1 Comment

  1. Great story! Hits very close to home in today’s political climate.


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