Vision Zero

Henry looked around the circle of sixteen strangers, searching for a likely recruit or a spy. They were a varied group, one elderly, one teenager. A tired-looking woman had brought a child, a bad idea but what could Henry do? A woman with dark eyes and long dark hair perched at the edge of her chair as if considering whether to leave.

They were on clear plastic chairs in the basement of a defunct church, the concrete floor a bright, optimistic orange, the walls striped in gold and red. If a government agent was there, Henry couldn’t spot him among the strangers. But then, agents were good at looking harmless as they memorized names and faces. He smiled, said “Good evening,” and gave his usual assurances about confidentiality.

“This meeting is to provide support, to discuss any problems you may be having, and to identify resources that might help.” It was a lie of sorts, but a necessary lie. “Who would like to speak first?”

Four hands rose. Henry called on the woman with the child. “My husband was arrested for disabling the auto drive on our car. He wasn’t going to drive it on the streets, just around a parking lot. He wanted to know how it felt to steer. Now they’re saying he could get five years. Can they do that?”

People shook their heads and grumbled. A tall, tow-headed man in the back spoke up. “My son wasn’t doing well at school and a teacher reported him for under-functioning. They’ve taken him in for observation and they won’t let us talk to him. How long can they keep him?”

“How old is your son?” Henry asked.

“Thirteen.”

More heads shook, more grumbles. Henry nodded at the gray-haired man to his right. The man’s voice quivered as he spoke. “They took my wife. She listened to opera. It’s the music she likes, and the Italian. The new operas are in English and there’s no . . . she says there’s no passion. Now they’re saying she’s a suicide risk. They won’t tell me where they’re keeping her.”

During the next hour, everyone expressed the same blend of disbelief and fear: when had the world become so insane? How could these laws apply to my family? As if they hadn’t all voted for them.

At the end of the meeting, Henry, Tim and Myra handed out fliers on how to file a petition or find an advocate. Nothing that would help most of them. The man who had tinkered with the car might get time served and parole if his wife found a good lawyer and could prove her husband was the breadwinner. The thirteen-year-old would be released in a year or two, but by then he would be a stranger. The old lady who’d been classed SR for loving opera would probably never resurface.

A few stayed behind to ask for more details. The teenaged girl helped put away chairs and eyed Henry longingly until Myra chased her off. After the last member straggled out, Henry locked the door and sat down with Myra and Tim to discuss the audience. Tim, a chubby, shaggy man with a knack for handling surveillance equipment, brought a stack of photographs taken by a hidden camera at the door and they sorted through them. They’d been doing this for over a year, so they made quick progress. Nobody with children, nobody too old or young . . . when they were finished, the only photo remaining was the woman with the long hair and dark eyes.

Henry turned the photo over and read the name. Rachel Cummings. He flipped it back over. Rachel looked right. Often the open meetings attracted no one suitable; he was pleased to find her. Especially this time.

Myra, a skinny brown-haired woman in her mid-twenties, took the photograph from him and stared at it with her usual intensity. “Shall I talk to her?”

“I’ll do it,” Henry said.

“Why you?” she asked.

“I’d rather take the risk myself.” It was the tactful answer. Myra was good at identifying potential members but useless when it came to recruiting.

No one spoke for a moment.

“We’re there, right?” Tim asked.

Henry nodded. “If Rachel comes in that will be twenty. We should meet, all of us, go over the plan and set the date.

All of us?” Tim asked. “In one place? I don’t think that’s safe.”

“We’ll take precautions,” Henry said.

Tim shook his head. “Why would we risk it?”

Myra sighed. “It will take a week or so to contact everyone through the vine and get them all here.”

Henry nodded. The group depended on face-to-face communication. It was the only way to avoid surveillance. “I’ll let you know how it goes with Rachel. If everything goes well, we could do this on October 12th.”

“October 12th?” Tim said.

Myra turned her head to look at Tim. “The day before the UN reports the International Happiness Index.”

“Remember last year?” Henry said. “All those sanctimonious speeches?”

“We’re really going to do this?” Myra whispered.

“Look, I don’t see why the whole group needs to meet,” Tim said. “We can—”

“—we need to make sure we’re all still committed,” Henry said. “And we deserve this final chance to see each other.” He turned his head to look at Myra. “Are you having doubts?”

“No, it’s just . . . the plan has taken so long. It didn’t seem real.”

“And now it is,” Henry said. He knew some of them would fail in their mission or back out at the last minute. But if half of them succeeded, it would be enough.

***

Henry and Rachel met in Golden Gate Park, just outside the Japanese Garden. It was a blustery Wednesday, cold for San Francisco. He wore a black trench coat. She wore a red coat and a bright blue muffler and hat. Aside from the state-mandated jogging crews in their lime and orange outfits, the park was empty. They strolled together, inhaling the scent of Bay Laurel and Eucalyptus. Henry listened for false notes as they walked the paths and swapped the details of their lives. He watched her eyes and looked for hovering strangers. He led her into the greenhouse and out again, doubled back on their trail a couple of times. At the end of forty minutes he’d reduced the odds that they were being observed. He’d have had to search Rachel to be sure, and that would have defeated his purpose.

He led her to a bench overlooking the duck pond and they both sat.

“So what brought you to the meeting?” he asked.

Rachel tipped her head and looked at him. “Are you . . . I’m not sure I want to talk about that.”

He shrugged. “Just curious.” He turned toward the pond. Four swans swam out in the center, three white and one black. He’d heard they weren’t real, but from a distance they looked real enough. “It’s just, almost everyone talked about a problem of some kind, but you didn’t.”

She nodded. “I don’t have a problem.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I mean, nothing that can be fixed.”

He turned to look at her but she continued watching the swans. “Nothing that can be fixed?”

She nodded but didn’t return his gaze.

“You want to get some coffee?” he asked.

“It’s a hot cocoa kind of day, isn’t it?”

He smiled. “You remember hot cocoa?”

“My Grandma Helga used to make it for me and my sister when I was little. Back when you could still find cocoa powder without trading on the black market. We’d sit and drink it, and she’d tell us about her childhood. About ice cream and cake for birthdays. And music. She’d sing us sad songs about losing love.” She turned and smiled at him and he shuddered.

It was a beautiful face, not only her features but also the forbidden sorrow in her eyes.

“Those people at the meeting,” she said, “I wish there was more we could do.”

He nodded. “It’s pretty awful.”

“And it’s only going to get worse.”

“You don’t know that,” he said. “Maybe things will change. The pendulum has to swing eventually.”

“Toward freedom, you mean?”

He shrugged and stood. It was too early to be using words like freedom. “Shall we get coffee?”

After that they met every few days for walks. They talked about her work as a nutritionist, his job as an environment impact inspector; her close family, all still alive, and his long-dead parents. After their third walk, Henry invited Rachel to his place. It was as surveillance-proof as a space could be, and the tower wasn’t far from the park. They climbed the stairs to the seventh floor in silence.

The room was a regulation single with large windows and light-colored faux wood flooring, but he used no dividers and owned little furniture, so it looked bigger than many. The walls had been covered with the popular deciduous forest pattern—green leaves and blue sky—when he moved in, but the first thing he’d done was paint the place white. There was one cream-colored sofa that pulled out into a bed at night, one low table near the sofa, the standard counter/oven/sink module in a corner, the door to the bathroom in another, a half-wall of built-in cabinets and drawers beneath big windows. A black and white photo of his parents taken before they married was the only art on the walls. The view provided the color in the room: a deepening blue sky and clouds turning pink as the sun set.

“Wow, this place is . . . you’re not much of a collector, are you?” she said.

Henry shrugged. The space looked spartan, but he never stayed any place very long and he preferred an uncluttered room. “Would you like some wine?”

She hesitated for a second.

“Unless you’ve already had your weekly quota?” he said.

“No, I . . . I’d love some wine. Where did you find it?”

He took a bottle of Merlot from a cabinet. “I have my sources,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “I never have time to drink these days. May have to consume an entire weekly ration tonight.” He was limited to two glasses, unless he wanted a couple of police in zebra jackets crashing through his door when his biochip registered an “unhealthy level of intoxication.”

“That’s another thing Grandma Helga used to talk about,” she said.

“Wine?”

“Parties where people got drunk. Can you imagine?”

“Not really.” They both laughed as he handed her a glass. He brought his own to the table along with a bowl of nuts.

Rachel ate a handful and her eyes grew round. “Oh! Roasted and salted!”

“I have a friend who makes them. Good this way, aren’t they?”

“Delicious. Are you sure you want to share them?”

“Quite sure. Do you want to watch a film? I’ve got a bootleg of Casablanca,” he said.

“I’ve never seen that. But . . . are you sure it’s safe?”

“You mean Vision Zero safe? No risk? I guess we could stick to Singin’ in the Rain or Oklahoma.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Come on, live dangerously.” He pulled a computer out of a cupboard, started up Casablanca, and switched off the lights.

They watched, sipping wine in the glow of the movie, and he knew it was going to be all right when she cried during the La Marseillaise scene. After the credits she turned and kissed him. She tasted salty from the nuts.

Later, after the sofa had been opened into a bed and their clothes discarded, they lay in each other’s arms in the dark and whispered.

“I had a friend in high school,” Rachel said. “I told my counselor she was depressed. I thought I was helping her.”

“What happened?” he asked

“They classed her SR and locked her up for four years.”

She shivered and he pulled the sheet over her shoulders. “It was after that I noticed how forced everyone’s smiles were, how manically upbeat we all acted.”

“Did you ever see your friend again?” he asked.

“When she got out. She wasn’t the same person. It’s like they’d vacuumed out her brain. All the quirky stuff was gone and she was just this . . . this generic woman. I’ve never been able to forgive myself.”

“You were a kid. You trusted authority.”

“Big mistake,” she said.

Neither of them said anything for a minute.

“When I was six my Dad took this big volume out of our bookcase,” he said. “Ten years later I found it in a plastic bag at the bottom of the freezer.”

“What was it?”

“Shakespeare, all thirty-seven plays.”

She gave him a startled look. “I thought there were seventeen.”

“Yeah, the official count, and even those are edited. My Dad saw it coming.”

She shook her head. “Do you know what they do to SRs?”

“The three M’s. Meds, Muscles and Muzak.”

She smiled. “I’ve heard it called the three Ps. Pharmaceuticals, Physical Training and Programing.”

“You end up with a strong, firm body and a weak, flabby mind.”

“Just the way they want us.” She laughed, but it wasn’t the laugh he’d heard earlier. This one was brittle. “I’ve never wanted to stop living,” she whispered, “but I want a way out. It’s like they’ve reduced life to this closed-off space without even a window. It’s claustrophobic. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think so,” he said.

“I wish I could believe like you that the pendulum is swinging. I don’t see any signs of it.”

They had sex a second time, and before she left they made plans for the next night.

After that it was easy. The next time Rachel came to his place, she brought the topic up and Henry said, “I have a friend who has decided to do something about it.”

“What’s he going to do?”

Henry outlined the plan. Twenty jumpers, all at the same time, all in high traffic spots. Notice to hackers on the dark web a few minutes prior so video would be captured and posted. “What do you think? Crazy, huh?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s pretty extreme.”

“True.”

“Don’t you believe that every life is precious?” she asked.

He smiled.

“Was that funny?” she asked.
“Sorry. Your question reminded me of when I was a kid. I used to come home parroting the slogans. Every life is precious. Stay positive. Problems are opportunities.”

She nodded.

“My father would ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ We’d have these long discussions. He pointed out that what makes life precious is your own story, your unique way of seeing things and your personal choices. If the state takes all of that, life becomes pretty worthless.”

She looked shocked. “He told you that? When you were a kid? Wasn’t he afraid?”

He should have been afraid, Henry thought, and grief for his father welled inside him. As usual, he let anger push it down. “My father didn’t believe in being silent if he saw something wrong.”

“Is that why you run the support groups?” she asked. “Because of your father?”

“Maybe. But I can see why my friend is frustrated enough to try something extreme. I’ve been listening to stories like the ones you heard for over a decade. They start to haunt you. After a while you realize it’s never going to end, we’re never going to be free until the entire system changes.”

“But aren’t there other ways to make changes?”

“When you talk to people about the laws, they all say the same thing: ‘It works, doesn’t it? The system works.’ Someone needs to prove it isn’t working,” he said.

“It sounds so cold.”

Henry laughed. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

“Besides, how could anyone get to a rooftop? They’re all alarmed.”

“The residential towers and newer buildings are alarmed,” he said. “But a lot of the old office towers rely on locks. And keys aren’t that hard to get hold of. You just have to make the right friends.”

After they made love that night, Rachel sat up and crossed her arms. “It’s not a friend, is it? It’s you.”

He didn’t answer.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”

He sat up and faced her, knees crossed. “What if it were me? Would you hate me?”

She set her hands on his knees and leaned forward. “Hate you?” she whispered. “No. I wouldn’t even stop sleeping with you.”

They smiled at each other. Then her smile faded. “Do you really think it will change things?”

“Believe me, none of us would do this if we didn’t believe it would make a difference. It will indict our system before the world.”

From there her recruitment went as it always did. If there was a difference with Rachel, it wasn’t in what Henry said or her reactions but in his feelings. She wasn’t just another recruit to him.

Twelve days after their first walk in the park, Rachel agreed to join the group. Henry let Tim and Myra know to put the word out on the vine. Their first and final meeting was on.

Once Rachel joined up, Henry should have distanced himself from her. It was standard procedure, and he’d never had any problem with it in the past. This time he failed to make the break. Perhaps it was because Jump Day—or JDay, as they called it— was looming, but Henry thought it was Rachel. She was special. He found himself fantasizing about moving away with her and starting a life together.

***

The day of the meeting they all wore orange and lime jogging clothes and met in a park overlooking the Marina. The fog hovered above the green hills of Marin County across the gate. It would roll in over the city before sundown, but at the moment their hilltop was sunny. They sat in a circle and stared at each other—all healthy, intelligent adults who had decided to fight Vision Zero. They all knew Henry, but most of them were acquainted with only two of the others. The oldest was forty, the youngest twenty-two. All single, all childless.

Rachel sat next to him, Tim on his other side. Myra sat across from him, staring at Rachel. Jealous or suspicious, maybe.

Henry hadn’t seen some of these people in months, and for a moment he felt a sense of accomplishment for having built this group one member at a time. He tried not to be distracted by the fact that the circle wasn’t complete. Six members, mostly from the South, had refused to attend, apparently afraid of a trap. They’d sent a message back up the vine to Tim and then Henry. “Give us the date and time. We’re ready.” He was sorry he wouldn’t see all of them together.

He welcomed the thirteen who had come.

“Should we discuss locations?” asked Tim.

“No,” Henry said, glaring at Tim. He was acting like they hadn’t been over all of this. “The less shared about specifics, the better.”

Tim glanced at Myra. “But what if—”

“—no,” Henry said, wondering if Tim and Myra had been talking without him. “Just make sure you leave plenty of time to alter your plans in case something goes wrong.”

“And be careful,” said Ned, a tall blond from the Midwest who worked as a chef. “That first step is a doozy.”

A couple of them snickered. Most didn’t even smile.

“This is not about pressuring anyone,” Henry said. “If you want to back out, you should.”

“We’ve all been through this,” said Marie, a forty-year-old kindergarten teacher from Chicago.

“But not in a while, for some of you,” Henry said. “Things change.” He didn’t look at Rachel, even though he wanted to.

“I thought this was supposed to be a pep talk,” Ned said.

“Second thoughts, Henry?” said Carl, a stocky man with red hair.

“No. Not for myself. I don’t see any other way.”

“This isn’t supposed to be easy,” Marie said.

“You’re right about that,” Henry said, “but I need to make sure we’re all still in. This is our last chance to postpone. So let’s hear from each of you.”

They moved around the circle, starting with Tim. Henry listened for doubt. Part of him even hoped for it.

“When I was in high school my first girlfriend disappeared,” said Tim. “Turned out, she was too dark. Didn’t smile enough. I was told to forget her, but I never have.”

“My baby brother died when he was four,” Marie said. “I was nine and I wasn’t allowed to mourn. I’ve been wearing a mask ever since.”

“Someone decided I was too moody when I was twelve,” Ned said. “My father bribed the zebra coats, and we moved in the middle of the night.”

“I read everything as a kid, and I wanted to write novels,” Carl said. “But now they only publish comedies, and bad ones at that.”

Everyone had something to share, a moment of disillusionment or clarity. Henry had heard their stories before. He watched the others nod in sympathy or shake their heads in anger as they listened. When it was his turn, he decided to tell the truth. At this point, why not? “When I was fifteen I came home from camp and found my father, my mother and my dog hanging in the garage.”

Rachel gasped.

Myra looked restless. He’d never noticed how impatient she could be.

“Suicide?” Tim asked.

“That’s what they said. They used the deaths to justify stricter laws. But I knew it was a lie. They never would have left me. And even if . . . they never would have killed my dog.” Henry shook his head. “My parents were dissidents.”

He looked around the circle, at thirteen familiar faces, one last time. It was time to go ahead. One or two would fail, but most would jump. They set the date for October 12th and agreed to pass the word to the six who hadn’t come.

They stood and hugged each other and did some stretches. Then they jogged through the neighborhood in double file, up and down steep, narrow roads that had once been used for cars, past apartment towers and businesses, and peeled off at random intervals, one or two at a time. People running in formation were a common sight. Nobody gave them a glance.

Henry kept running until it was finally just him, Rachel and Tim huffing up a long, steep hill. Rachel looked fine, but Tim was bright red and his shirt was drenched. Why hadn’t he taken off? Henry nodded goodbye to Tim, and he and Rachel turned off and jogged back to his place.

They took a shower together. Henry searched the refrigerator for a snack while Rachel paced. “I don’t think Myra and Tim like me,” she said.

He yawned and handed her a tube of yogurt. “They’re just jealous.”

“Tim probably thinks he should be the leader. Nobody would listen to him.”

“Everyone has a role,” he said. “Tim can be resourceful.”

“Like how?”

He sucked down his yogurt. He wasn’t going to tell anyone, even Rachel, about the roles of the various members.

“He’s not sexy, is he?” Rachel said. “Leaders have to be sexy.”

He laughed. “Tim doesn’t do much for me, but I’m sure he’s appealing to someone.”

“His mother, maybe.” She flashed him a grin. “Was Myra your lover?”

He’d slept with Myra during recruitment, but not since. “No. Maybe she’s feeling suspicious of newcomers. Or just having second thoughts. Don’t worry about it.”

“She thinks I’m a spy?”

He tossed his empty tube into the recycle chamber. “Let’s go to bed.”

***

Two days before Jday, Rachel left for the last time.

“I need to get ready for this,” was all she said. Henry understood. He felt like he needed to disconnect as well, but he hated saying goodbye to her. His stomach clenched as he watched her put on her red coat and blue hat. She smiled her slow, sad smile before leaving the apartment. He had an impulse to run after her, but instead he sat on his bed and stared at the floor. At least he’d have only two days to miss her.

The day before Jday, at just after ten pm, Henry got a two-word message on his phone from Tim: “Usual place.”

Henry went to the last show at a small neighborhood cinema. It was in the basement of an old house, a space that had once screened art films, before they were all banned. Twenty minutes through The Music Man, he slipped away to a restroom that reeked of disinfectant and made sure the stall was empty.

Tim came in a few minutes later looking pale and sweaty. He locked the door and turned. “I’m being followed,” he whispered.

It wasn’t the first time Tim had decided they were being followed, but he’d never looked this upset. “Tell me,” Henry said.

“I can do better than that.” Tim pulled his vid unit from his pocket and handed it to Henry, his hands shaking.

The first image was a young woman in a red dress sitting on a park bench in the sun. She looked like she was waiting for someone. If she was a government agent, they’d improved significantly in the looks department. The second was a short man with dark, curly hair. He wore a windbreaker and was hunched in a doorway like he was cold. The third was a man who could have been thirty or fifty. He had forgettable features and a knit cap pulled down over his forehead. Henry stared at the photo.

“What?” said Tim. “You’ve seen him?”

“No. I might have. Not sure. He’s the type though, isn’t he?”

Tim licked his cracked lips. “What should we do? Should we tell the others?”

Henry set a hand on Tim’s shoulder to calm him. “When did you last see this guy?”

“Two nights ago.”

“Don’t go home after the movie. Go somewhere else, and then tomorrow morning go to your spot.”

“I can’t,” Tim said. “I have to set the clock on the final messages, and I don’t have my computer with me.”

Henry nodded. They’d considered recruiting one member who wouldn’t jump, someone to send out messages and foil the inevitable cover up. But ultimately he, Tim, and Myra had agreed they couldn’t trust anyone who didn’t agree to jump.

“Okay.” He scribbled his address on a card and handed it to Tim. “Meet me at my apartment. You can use my computer. But make sure you’re clean before you arrive.”

Tim nodded and glanced nervously at the door. “Right. Thanks.”

“It’s probably nothing, Tim,” Henry turned to leave. “But let’s play it safe.”

It rained on the way home, and Henry ducked into a shop that sold incense and books on meditation. He watched the street through the window as he flipped through a book titled Daily Positive Energy Routines. A hunched old woman pulled a basket of groceries up the hill. A couple of giggling teenagers strolled by. Nobody suspicious. He got home just before midnight, and Tim showed up an hour later, red cheeked from walking the hills and wet from the rain.

That night Henry didn’t sleep, and he could tell from Tim’s movements and erratic breathing that he wasn’t sleeping either. But they lay side by side, Henry in his bed and Tim on a pallet on the floor. At dawn a gray light bled in through the windows and Tim rose, took the computer out and set it on the table.

Henry got up, put on a suit, thought about breakfast and decided he’d probably vomit if he ate.

“I’m going,” he said to Tim.

“Already?”

Henry shrugged. “Might as well get into position.”

“Where are you going to—?”

Henry shook his head and extended a hand. “Let’s stick to protocol, okay? It’s been great knowing you, Tim.”

Tim stood slowly and shook Henry’s hand. “It’s been an honor, Henry. Whatever happens it’s . . .” He shrugged, unable to continue.

Henry descended the stairs and moved out to the cool morning thinking about Tim’s words, “whatever happens.” He was obviously worried.

The city sparkled under blue skies. He walked toward downtown and stopped at a café where he could watch pedestrians from a corner window. He nursed his coffee and waited until peak rush hour, then joined the throngs crossing the street and moving into the CDA Office Tower. He moved automatically to the banks of elevators. It was a route he’d practiced, and now he realized it was just as well. His thoughts were skittering around, to Tim and Myra, to Rachel, to dread of the near future, the moment he’d have to step off the roof and fall fifty stories.

Up until this moment the fall had simply been a plan. It was a great location. Downtown at noon, hundreds would witness the descent. Cameras would catch it from several angles. But now he was thinking about the experience of falling. Henry had always been afraid of heights. It was going to take every ounce of commitment to step off the edge of the roof in a few hours. And he’d probably shit his pants on the way down.

In the meantime he’d enjoy the panoramic view of the city on a clear, sunny day. On the fortieth floor most of the people in the elevator got out, leaving just him and three other people. One of them was the man in Tim’s photograph.

He was facing the doors and Henry was behind him, but he was sure it was the same man. No, how could he be sure from the back of his head? He was just frightened. Don’t panic.

He pressed the button for floor 42 and got off the elevator. He stepped into a hall surrounded by cubicles and glass-walled offices, turned right and started for the back of the building, toward the stairwell. People in suits, stiff morning smiles in place, passed him and nodded as if he belonged. He opened the door to the stairwell, a brightly lit white space with a yellow banister along the wall. On each door were four-feet tall numerals in red. He started up, moving slowly at first, walking softly in his thin-soled shoes, and listening for company. He heard nothing but his own footsteps. He’d imagined danger. Maybe some part of him was actually hoping he’d be stopped. He snorted and increased his pace.

Just after he passed floor 44, he heard a door open somewhere below him. He turned his head and saw a woman walking quickly up the stairs while reading something in a file. She passed him without a glance and left the stairwell at 45. He stopped and took a few deep breaths, then resumed climbing. Five more flights. Another door opened somewhere on the stairwell, making a soft popping sound, and he stopped, looking up and then down, but he couldn’t see anyone. He took a few more steps and then stopped again, hoping to catch footsteps if someone was approaching. Still nothing.

He moved past doors 45 and 46 and climbed toward 47, moving faster now despite a shortness of breath, knowing he was going to make it to the top and be able to rest outside in the sunshine.

He heard a rustling behind him and looked over his shoulder. There he was, the man from Tim’s photograph. The same bland features and cold expression. He was rushing up the stairs, swiftly and almost silently. Henry turned and ran toward the roof, taking the stairs two at a time.

How had they found him? It didn’t matter. He would have to jump early. It was crowded in the streets below, plenty of witnesses. If he could just get through the door and out to the edge of the roof in time. He stuck his hand in his jacket pocket and found the key he’d obtained months ago. And then he felt a sharp prick in the back of his right thigh. He kept moving, reaching the landing just as the world began to blur and swim.

This is what it must be like to be drunk, he thought. Then he fell into strong arms.

***

Henry’s court-appointed lawyer was a tall, gray-haired woman with deep lines around her eyes. She explained that the various agencies involved hadn’t decided whether to charge him as a terrorist or lock him up in an SR unit.

“I vote for terrorist,” he told her. “Short and sweet.”

“Yes, well,” she smiled a thin, cold smile. “That’s what makes you an SR. Anyway, I’ll get you yard privileges, but I can’t do much more until they figure out which way they’re going.”

The next afternoon they released Henry into the yard for exercise. He spotted Tim leaning on a fence. In his jumpsuit and prison hair cut, he looked younger and neater.

Henry approached Tim, but he scowled and turned his back. “They’re probably recording this,” he hissed, hunching as if he wanted to burrow through the fence.

“Does it matter now?” Henry answered in a normal voice.

Tim didn’t move as he considered. Finally he turned to Henry, his gaze darting around the yard as if for spies. “I’ve seen Ned and Carl, and I heard Marie’s being held at C10.”

“Did Myra get picked up too?”

“You don’t know?”

“What?” Henry asked.

“She was the agent.”

“Myra? No, she was in on this—”

“—from the beginning. Right.” Tim laughed. “We were doomed from the start.”

“Are you sure it was her?”

Tim nodded. “She was there when they picked me up, wearing one of those zebra jackets, pointing me out to the other agents.”

Henry put his head in his hands and groaned. “All that work for nothing.”

“Not exactly nothing,” Tim said. “I heard the guards talking. Seven of us jumped. It’s all over the net.”

“Do you know who?”

“The six Southern members, the ones you thought were paranoid for missing the meeting?”

Henry nodded, feeling a rush of regret for his arrogance. He should have listened to Tim. “Right. Who else?”

“Rachel.”

“Rachel? How would she . . . no, she must be with Marie.”

“I don’t know how, man, but she took a dive off Diamond Towers. Forty-story drop with dozens of witnesses. Screamed all the way down. The video hit the internet right away, and somebody posted her photo and bio. They keep trying to close it down, but it’s out there in too many places.”

Henry tried to block images of Rachel naked in his bed, Rachel talking about her Grandma Helga, Rachel crying over “Casablanca.” He couldn’t believe he was trapped in a life without Rachel.

“Do you think seven was enough?” Tim asked. “Will they hold a hearing?”

“They’ll have to, won’t they? Seven isn’t zero.” It was a victory of sorts, but he felt no sense of triumph. All he felt was loss.

Tim flinched and stared across the yard, and Henry turned. Six muscular men in white coats walked toward them.

“Looks like they’ve decided on the SR ward for both of us,” Tim said.

Maybe they’d vacuum out the grief, Henry thought. Maybe it would be nice, not having to think any more.

 

Karen McGee grew up in Berkeley, California and has lived in Tokyo for over twenty years. She is a professor at Nihon University College of Art and is co-organizer of the Tokyo Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in “Jobberwock Review,” “Earth’s Daughters,” “Mystery Weekly” and “Kzine.” Upcoming work will appear in “9Crimes” and “Bete Noire.”

 

 

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