The Commissioner’s face is waxy in the dying light.
He sits in a pale, wintry beam of sunlight that filters in through the high windows of the courtroom. Prison has diminished his body, and the jumpsuit hangs loose on once-powerful shoulders. But his eyes, cold chips of ice, remain as haunting as ever.
Matthias finds his own gaze flicking away every time the camera pans to the Commissioner’s expressionless face, fixing on a spot over the man’s shoulder so he doesn’t have to meet his eyes. He knows it’s absurd, and struggles to fight down the panic that flutters in his stomach every time the Commissioner’s face fills the screen.
An alarm blares. He jumps, heart slamming against the inside of his ribcage, but it’s only his phone reminding him that Cecelia needs to be picked up from school. He frowns. How could he have lost an entire afternoon? But his coffee is beyond lukewarm when he picks up the mug, almost ice cold, and then the grandfather clock in the corner is chiming the hour. He grabs his keys, jams a baseball cap on his head, and is out the door.
“… the final day of testimony in the trial of former Commissioner -”
The car’s radio is dialed in to the local news station, which is playing audio of the trial just like every other station in the country. Matthias jabs the button to turn it off. He can’t afford a panic attack–or worse–while driving. His palms are clammy on the steering wheel as it is, and he brushes them against this jeans.
Cecelia tears herself away from a group of friends the moment she sees his car pull up in front of the school, throwing a wave over her shoulder at her teacher as she dashes over. She’s chattering at him excitedly the moment she slides inside, and doesn’t seem to stop for breath the whole way home. Matthias hopes he makes the appropriate sounds at the right moments, struggling to keep his mind on her words even as it keeps pulling him into the past. Five years ago, almost to the minute, he’d been–they’d been–
A horn blares behind him, and he startles so badly that his left knee strikes the underside of the steering wheel. Behind him, Cecelia has fallen silent.
“Papa?” she asks tentatively as he rolls through the green light, now several cars behind the one he’d been following.
“Sorry, baby.” He flashes her a smile in the rearview mirror. “It’s all right.”
Once home, Cecelia changes out of her school uniform, inhales a snack, and takes Spike out to play. Matthias fixes himself a fresh cup of coffee, and sits on the front porch with his laptop while Cecelia races up and down the street on her bicycle, Spike barking after her as he runs to catch up. Soon other neighborhood children join in, and it’s so normal that for a moment Matthias can’t breathe. Or it’s what he assumes normal was, at any rate, back before the Fall. He had never experienced a childhood like this one, nor had his parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents, but enough literature survived the Fall that he knows this is what it was like before the First Commissioner rose to power.
Eitan arrives home shortly after six. Matthias feels like a zombie throughout the meal, going through the motions, participating in the conversation without truly hearing what anyone is saying. Cecelia doesn’t notice anything amiss, but Eitan does. When Cecelia goes up to her room after, Eitan grips him by the shoulders and says quietly, “It’s going to be fine.”
“You can’t know that.”
Eitan’s hands tighten on his shoulders. The skin around his eyes is bruised, and he murmurs, “It has to be fine.”
He’s keeping his composure by a hair, just like Matthias. The monster that haunts their dreams, the one who has dogged their every step since they were airlifted off that godforsaken island five years ago, might be condemned in the coming days. Even if he is, Matthias wonders if it will be enough.
Matthias settles his hands on Eitan’s hips, feeling the warmth of him bleed through his dress shirt. He hasn’t even taken off his tie yet, though his hair is sticking up in all directions from the number of times he’s run his hands through it today. Matthias can’t imagine that anyone at the office was terribly productive, not with the Commissioner’s trial drawing to a close.
“Go shower.” He presses a kiss to the corner of Eitan’s mouth. “I’ll fix us a drink.”
It occurs to Matthias that he hasn’t laid eyes on the Commissioner’s wife in almost six years. She’d once been as prominent as the Commissioner himself, appearing at his side at all the rallies and ceremonies and on the news feeds. The last time Matthias had seen her, she had joined the Commissioner on the dais as he greeted and congratulated each of the Competitors for that summer. Matthias’s memory of that particular day is hazy. He’d been drugged to the gills like all the rest, but the one thing he remembers is the Commissioner’s wife–her cool, papery hand in his; her sickly perfume. The way her plaited red hair rested over one shoulder, which is how she’s wearing it again today, and truthfully it’s the only reason he recognizes her. Five years of hard labor changes a person, he supposes.
After years of waiting for this day to come–for the trial to finally draw to a close–the closing arguments are disappointingly anticlimactic. It’s not anything they haven’t already heard before, after all, or lived through themselves. It takes under an hour. Once the judge dismisses the jury to deliberate and the live courtroom feed cuts back to the newsroom and two heavily made-up anchors, Eitan switches off the screen and goes into the kitchen for another drink. Matthias follows, and Eitan tops off both their glasses.
Matthias nods, looks away. At twenty-five, he’d been locked in a life-or-death struggle with this man, knowing that the only way to save his own life–his family’s lives–was to slit Eitan’s throat.
It seems a lifetime ago. How could it have only been five years?
“If the coup had come any later–or if it hadn’t come at all…” Matthias trails off. “I’d have killed you.”
“What makes you so sure you would have killed me?” Eitan aims for a light, teasing tone, but it falls flat. His smile is sad. “I had the upper hand, remember. I would have been the one to claim victory.”
Matthias snorts. “You’d like to think that, but I had a secret weapon up my sleeve.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“A secret.” Matthias’s fleeting smile fades. “What are we going to tell Cecelia?”
“Cecelia’s six.” Eitan’s hand cups his hip bone. “We could always say we were set up by… mutual acquaintances. It’s technically true.”
Matthias snorts. “A blind date where one of us had to kill the other.”
“Maybe we’ll leave that part out until she’s eighteen.”
“And when she starts asking about the woman who gave birth to her?”
Eitan’s face darkens for a moment, and Matthia feels a stab of guilt. It was unnecessarily cruel; Eitan still has nightmares about ending her life. But then Eitan brushes the pain away in a blink, burying it back where it had come from.
“She’ll understand,” Eitan says quietly, “or she won’t. There’s not much we can do about it either way. We just have to do our best by her until then.”
Matthias casts around for something new, something else to talk about. All they do nowadays is rehash the past. With the trial looming over them as it has been these past five years, and especially in its waning days, little else has been on his mind. He wonders what will happen when it’s all over. He’s married to a man he once tried to kill, raising the child of a woman they did murder. How do they even begin to move on? What comes after this?
Matthias knows, intellectually, that it wasn’t their fault. He knows they were forced to participate government-sanctioned murder for entertainment. He’s been told, countless times since then, that he’s as much a victim as the people he killed.
He wonders when he will finally feel that way, too.
The days that follow are distressingly normal. Cecelia attends school, Eitan goes to the office, Matthias takes advantage of the relative quiet in the house to get his own work done. It’s a slow time of year for his job, though, and that coupled with an empty house gives him too much time and space to think. Summer reminds him of the Island, and as the season wanes, the memories are so close to the surface he can taste them. He relives them in his waking moments as much as he does in his sleep, and it wears him down to the bone.
He takes Spike for a long midday walk through the field behind their house. Spike tears off gleefully after a group of birds that immediately take flight. Matthias follows at a more sedate pace, the day’s heat settling on him like a heavy quilt. Before the Fall, this time of year would have been the deepest part of winter. Though daylight lasts for less than half the day, it is blistering. Even here on the coast, summers are unbearable, and they’ve converted their basement into a living space that’s every bit as functional as the upper part of the house. Eitan has made comments these past couple of summers about moving north, closer to the poles, but Matthias doesn’t know how to live anywhere else. The bodies of his mother and brothers are here, the ones he killed each time he failed to finish a challenge in the Competition in the allotted time. He can’t leave them behind.
He whistles to Spike and turns back toward home. Spike makes it first, of course, and flops down in the shade of the back porch, panting, while he waits for Matthias to catch up.
“Been watching the trial?” someone calls to him.
Matthias shields his face against the sun’s glare with a hand.
“Ginnette.” Their neighbor is clad in long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat to protect herself from the sun while she mows the lawn. Just looking at her makes another line of sweat break out over his forehead and across his back. “A bit, here and there. You?”
She shakes her head. “Jolene doesn’t want it on. Can’t say I blame her. The sight of him is enough to make your stomach turn.”
And you didn’t have to kill on his whim, Matthias thought darkly.
“We’ll be watching this afternoon, though,” Ginnette goes on, her voice tight. At Matthias’s puzzled expression, she says, “Didn’t you hear? They’ve reached a verdict.”
His phone shakes, his hand is trembling so badly. He mis-types the number twice, and on the third try gets it right. Eitan picks up on the third ring.
“I was just thinking about calling you,” he says by way of greeting. “I’m heading to the store after work and I was wondering -”
“You need to come home.” By some miracle, he keeps his voice steady, but anxiety bleeds through his words. “You need to get Cecelia from school, and come home. They’ve reached a verdict. They’ll be announcing it in two hours. Eitan -”
“I’m on my way.” Eitan’s voice sharpens with purpose. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
When they arrive home, Cecelia is thrilled with her good fortune at getting out of school an hour early. She doesn’t question why, as though that will make them realize their mistake and take her back. She rushes back out the door within moments, Spike on her heels, oblivious to the heat in her eagerness to take advantage of this extra hour of play.
Eitan meets him in the middle of the kitchen. Matthias clutches him, presses his face into the side of Eitan’s neck, blotting out the world. They pull apart, and Eitan’s eyes are red-rimmed.
“Okay,” he says shakily. “Okay.”
The screen in the living room takes up half of one wall. Eitan switches it on, catching the judge mid-sentence. He calls the jury back into the courtroom, and Matthias’s breath hitches in his chest. Everything comes down to them, these dozen people. They have the power to put all their nightmares to rest, or to ensure that none of them will rest easy again.
Most of the jury takes their seats. One woman remains standing. If she’s as young as she looks, she would barely have been a teen when the former government fell. She wouldn’t know its horrors first-hand, not like they did.
Eitan’s hand tightens in his, as though he can sense Matthias’s thoughts.
“She’ll never know what it was like.” The words almost catch in his throat. He forces them out.
Eitan leans over. His stubble is rough against Matthias’s cheek as he murmurs, “That’s the whole point, Matthias.”
The courtroom falls silent at the bang of the judge’s gavel. The very air around them seems to quiver. Matthias can’t draw a breath. Eitan grips his hand so tightly, he knows there will be bruises in the morning.
She begins to speak. Matthias’s ears fill with static, and then he forces a deep breath and wills himself to focus.
“… guilty of two hundred and eighty-one counts of murder, three hundred and twenty-two counts of accessory to murder, fifteen counts of treason -”
Eitan makes a rough noise like the breath has been punched out of him. Matthias can’t move, can’t even blink. His eyes burn and water.
“It is the recommendation of this jury that the state condemn this man to death for the atrocities he committed throughout his time in power, for the thousands who died at his hands, and for the treason he committed against our nation.”
Execution. Even in the fledgling days of the new government, when confusion ruled more often than not, capital punishment had been swiftly outlawed. Never again, the new leaders vowed, would they resort to the tactics of the regime that had stifled and murdered its people for almost two centuries.
The judge’s gavel bangs, and Matthias jumps. “The court is in agreement. The sentence will be carried out at dawn.”
Eitan switches the screen off as the courtroom erupts. He leans forward, burying his face in his hands. Their phones immediately start ringing. On autopilot, Matthias propels himself to his feet, snatches the phones off the table, and goes to the front door. He chucks the phones out onto the lawn and slams the door. Damn reporters. In the coming days, he knows that every news outlet is going to want a comment from them, the last Competitors, on how they feel about the verdict. Has it given them the closure they’ve been seeking?
Matthias doesn’t have an answer for that.
Eitan’s shoulders shake. Matthias slips an arm around him, presses his forehead to Eitan’s temple and breathes. It’s an age before Eitan’s breathing evens out to match his, and finally he sits up, wiping his cheeks.
“It’s over,” he whispers. “That’s it, it’s just – over.”
He sounds baffled, and Matthias understands his confusion. It will never be truly over, not for them.
The door bursts open, and Cecelia comes tumbling through with Spike. She makes a beeline for them.
Matthias catches her and swings her up onto his lap, plastering a smile on his face and tickling her until she squeals. Eitan looks at her, dazed. Then, abruptly, he pushes himself to his feet and stumbles to the stairs, taking them up to their room two at a time. Matthias can only watch him go.
Matthias lights a cigarette and blows out a stream of smoke into the cool, rushing night air. Impromptu fireworks explode in the distance. He sees flares of colored light through the trees, averts his gaze and focuses on his breathing. It’s too similar to the charges he used on the Island during the Competition, the blast chips he planted among the thick trees to take out Competitors Four and Five. The explosion that cleared his way to the final round, where only Eitan stood between him and survival.
He stubs his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe and flicks the remnants away as the door behind him opens. Cecelia stands there, clad in pajamas and rubbing a fist over one eye. Matthias opens his arms, and she dives into their safety.
“Bad dream?” He smooths the hair from her forehead. She shakes her head. “The fireworks?”
“It’s so loud.”
“Everyone’s celebrating. They’re happy.” He kisses her forehead. “There’s no school tomorrow now. It’s – it’s a new holiday.”
“Papa?” She touches his face, and he realizes only then that his cheeks are wet. “Why are you sad?”
“Don’t worry about me, baby girl.” He kisses her palm, his light stubble rasping against her skin, and she giggles. “This day… is not a happy day for me.”
Cecelia frowns. “You said everyone is happy.”
“Yes, and I’m glad of it.” But they hadn’t been in the thick of the Competition when the coup occurred. They hadn’t been party to government-sanctioned slaughter. They had only enjoyed it in front of their television screens, and if they felt a shadow of guilt about it, they had known better than to voice those thoughts. It was only now that they were safe that they dared speak out about the old regime.
Matthias wonders what it would be like to not have blood on his hands. If the coup had happened sooner, if the government had fallen at the start of summer, he would never have become a murderer. The twenty-five years he had lived before that summer seem like someone else’s life now, and are forever tainted by all that had come after.
The door opens again. Eitan takes a seat next to Matthias. His arm brushes against Matthias’s, and by feel alone Matthias can tell he’s wearing the threadbare, gray Academy sweatshirt. The one he’d worn in the infirmary, lying in quarantine in the bed next to Matthias’s while the drugs were flushed from their systems and their wounds were healed. The one he’d worn almost every night for a month after their release as they tried to make their way in a world they no longer recognized, the one that was supposed to be better but which only left them adrift and lost.
“Papa’s sad,” Cecelia announces.
“Yes, I know,” Eitan tells her gently. His hand brushes over Matthias’s back. “So am I, sweetheart. But I’m happy, too, and so is Papa.”
She regards him blankly. He leans in and kisses the tip of her nose, then pulls back and runs his fingers through her hair.
“We’re sad because there are things we can’t change,” he says softly. “We’re happy because we have each other, and we have you, and each day is going to be better than the one before.”
He looks at Matthias as he says this, and adds, in a low voice, “I promise.”
Matthias doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what he should do, so he gives in and does what he wants to do. He brushes his lips, feather-light, against Eitan’s. Eitan hums against his mouth, deepening the kiss for a brief moment, and then pulls away.
Tomorrow, everything will end for the Commissioner. He will stop, forever, and they will go on living, whatever it is that means. How can they go on enjoying this peace they don’t deserve? How can they carry those memories with them for an entire lifetime?
Cecelia is a warm, heavy weight against his chest. Her breath whistles out between her teeth on each exhale as she slips deeper into sleep. Once, she had been small enough that she fit in the crook of his arm. Someday soon, she’ll be too big for his lap. He swallows a hysterical laugh. Life is too long, and life is far too short. He doesn’t want this moment to ever end.
“We’ll be all right.” Eitan finds his free hand and squeezes it.
“We’ve got each other.” Matthias looks over at him the exact moment that a firework explodes, and Eitan’s face is momentarily illuminated. His heart seizes and, not for the first time, he’s astounded by the beauty of this man. “That’s all I need.”
The future is a terrifying, wondrous thing–but for now, there is this moment. The light, salt-laden breeze. The absence of a moon, which makes the stars gleam against the black. Eitan’s fingers twined with his, his body warm against Matthias’s side. Cecelia’s head against his collarbone, her hair fanned out over his chest.
He has no idea what awaits them, except that it will be better than before.