Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births

I seem to make an outcast of myself every time I’m a teenager. Which is fine, I guess. I’ll take one good dog and one good friend over being a phony and fitting in.

Alicia points. “There he is, Jamie!”

A couple hundred feet away, our trailer park’s newest resident grabs a box from the van parked in front of his single-wide. He’s gray-haired and buff, like if The Rock were an old man.

Alicia and I are sprawled on top of a wooden picnic table in the park’s rusted old playground.

She frowns, her eyebrows coming together to form a tiny crease above her nose. “I’ve never known anybody who killed someone before.”

I shrug.

“I mean, maybe I have, I guess, but I’ve never known I’ve known them. Know what I mean?”

“No.”

I don’t really care about the new guy, even if he did murder someone once. I’m mostly just out here to not have to listen to old Mrs. Francis concern-trolling my mom. When I was a kid who sometimes acted like a boy and sometimes like a girl, it was “just a phase.” Now that I’m sixteen, it’s “worrying” and “not safe for the younger children” and something we should “talk to a therapist about.”

What Mrs. Francis doesn’t know is that I remember every life I’ve lived for nearly four hundred years—not in detail, but like a book I read once and have a few hazy recollections about. In over a dozen lifetimes I can recall, I’ve been male and female enough times for those words to mean little more to me than a particular shirt—not who I am.

My mom’s too polite to tell a neighbor what she can do with her un-asked-for parenting advice. Trailer walls are thin, though, and if I have to hear it too . . . well, Sabal Palms Trailer Park might end up with two murderers living in it.

Next to me, my dog Meetu nudges my hand with her head, asking for more scritches. She’s supposed to protect me from people who are as bothered by me as Mrs. Francis is, but would rather use their fists to try and fix me. People like Connor Haines, the biggest asshole in the eleventh grade. But the reality is that Meetu is basically a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body.

Alicia shifts on the table. “I can’t believe my mom let him rent here.” Her mother manages the park, so I guess she could have blocked him if she’d wanted to.

“Even ex-murderers gotta live somewhere.”

She gives me her patented don’t-be-an-idiot combination eye roll and headshake that I’ve never seen anybody else quite match. Even when it’s directed at me, I can’t help but grin.

“There’s no such thing as an ‘ex-murderer,’” she says. “Once you kill someone, you’re a murderer.”

I brush my hair out of my face. “He went to jail. He did his time, right? They let him out, so where else is he gonna live?” We’ve certainly had other people with checkered pasts here.

“They shouldn’t have let him out. You take somebody’s life, you ought to rot for the rest of yours.”

Meetu shoves her giant head under my arm and rests it on my lap. Guess I’m not going anywhere for a while.

“There’s no heaven,” Alicia declares. “The Jesus freaks are wrong about that. There’s nothing but this. If people realized that, they’d take this life more seriously. You only get one.”

She’s wrong, but I can’t explain to her how I know, so I don’t bother trying.

A woman about my mom’s age helps the man unpack, while a toddler stumbles around the grassy area in front of the trailer. He seems kind of old to have a little kid, but maybe he’s making up for lost time.

“I can’t understand what kind of woman would want to live with a killer, much less have a child with him.” She peers at the table beneath her and runs a fingernail along a carved heart that’s older than we are. “Not that I get wanting to be with any man.”

The new neighbor comes out for another load. He glances our way, and even at this distance, our eyes lock, and a cold itch runs from the small of my back to the top of my scalp.

I know him. I know him from before.

I don’t mean I know his soul. I know him.

Alicia gives me a little shove, and I realize she’s been talking at me for a while.

“Are you okay?”

I blink. Even Meetu looks concerned, her muscular head cocked.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I nod, but she doesn’t stop staring and looking worried, so I add, “You’re right. It’s weird living next to a murderer.”

Her face softens. “I didn’t hurt your feelings, did I? When I said . . . that? I wasn’t talking about you.”

“Nah,” I say. “I know you weren’t.”

The new guy goes back into his trailer.

“What did you say his name was?” I ask.

“Benjamin,” she answers softly. After a few quiet seconds, she adds, “You did a really nice job on your nails.”

I glance down at my newly red nails. She’s painted them for me a couple times before, but this is the first time I’ve done them myself. I’m grateful that she doesn’t qualify the compliment. Doesn’t add, for a guy. But of course she wouldn’t—that’s why I—that’s why she’s my best friend.

• • • •

I try to let it go. So I’ve got a neighbor that I knew in a past life. So he’s a convict. The past is dead. Who cares.

Over the next couple days, though, my mind keeps returning to Benjamin. I feel like he was important for some reason. By the middle of the week, I admit to myself that I’m not going to move on until I figure out what role he played in my life.

I’m not quite sure how to do that, though. I could ask Alicia for help. She’s got a laptop and internet. I don’t even have a smartphone. I don’t want to open up the can of worms that is my past lives, though, so instead I decide to see what I can find out at the library.

I feed Meetu an early dinner while Mom’s still at work, grab my backpack and bus pass, and head out.

Once I’m there, I have to face the fact that I don’t have the first idea how to research anything about this guy. I don’t even know his full name.

What’s B’s last name? I text Alicia.

Avery. Why?

What do I say that won’t make her ask a thousand questions I don’t want to answer? Just wondering.

UR totally gonna snoop arent you?

I consider possible deflections. Lying to Alicia feels scuzzy, though, and anyway, I can’t think of any lies to tell. maybe just a little

I stare at my tiny screen, worried that she’s going to offer to join me. After a minute her reply shows up, though, and it’s just haha well lmk what you dig up.

I sigh, feeling both relieved and ashamed of my relief.

Even with his last name, I struggle. I don’t know how to weed out other people named Benjamin, other people named Avery, other murderers. I don’t even know when he went to jail—how long is a sentence for murder, anyway?

Finally I stumble across what I’m looking for—a news archive from the 1970s, with a grainy black and white photo of a man that looks a lot younger, but that’s definitely him.

A Vietnam War veteran, possibly shell-shocked and deranged since coming back. A crime of passion—the victim, his best friend’s wife. A body dug up by the shore of Peace Creek, not far away at all. Then I come across a photo of the formerly happy couple: Larry Dearborn and his wife Jamie.

Janie. Not Jamie. Janie. But the name doesn’t matter.

It’s me.

• • • •

It’s raining when I stagger out of the library. On the bus ride home, I lean my head against the window and watch the torrents sheeting down the glass.

Janie would be in her sixties, if she’d lived. I don’t remember ever being old. I always seem to die young. I don’t remember dying. End-of-life memories are hazy, same as beginning-of-life memories.

I glance away from the window and notice a little girl staring at me from the seat across the aisle. Her father sits next to her, but he’s focused on his phone.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” she asks.

Before I can catch myself, my stock answer comes out. “No.”

She tilts her head in confusion.

I imagine how I must look to her. Rain-soaked long hair, purple V-neck, red nails. Hell, she’s just a kid. “I’m a little of both,” I add.

Her eyes widen. “Oh!”

I turn back toward the window. Now that I’ve seen the photos and read the articles, bits and pieces of that life are coming back to me.

Benjamin looks like I imagine a murderer would—big and tough and unhappy. The newspaper says he killed me.

So why does that feel wrong?

• • • •

The next day, school drags on more than usual. I can’t focus on Henry James or rational functions when my alleged murderer just moved into the neighborhood.

My walk home is the vulnerable spot in my routine, because Meetu’s not with me. So of course that’s when Connor Haines ambushes me.

He’s sitting on the concrete Sabal Palms sign outside the trailer park. His sycophant friend Eddie stands by his side.

A spike of fear travels through my body.

“What’s up, Jimmy,” he calls.

I don’t bother correcting him. I was “Jimmy” when he met me—it was only four years ago that I decided “Jamie” fit better. More importantly, Connor doesn’t care.

I consider my options. I could turn around. Go inside the Steak ’n Shake one block down and wait him out. Or I could run and try to reach my trailer ahead of him, and hide out there. But if I wanted to hide, my hair would be shorter and my nails wouldn’t be red. It may cost me, but I won’t start running or hiding now.

They fall in step with me as I pass the sign.

“Where’s your dress, Jimmy?” Eddie asks.

Eddie is smaller than I am. I’m not a fighter, though, and he can be brave knowing he’s got Connor backing his play.

“It was too ugly for me, so I gave it to Connor’s mom.”

I barely see Connor’s fist before it hits my face. I stagger sideways, tasting blood.

“Why you gotta be such a freak, Jimmy?” Connor asks. “I don’t care if you like guys, but why you gotta act like a girl?”

My clothes aren’t particularly girlish today: blue jeans and a teal polo. And I’m neither a gay boy nor a trans girl. Trying to explain is a losing game, though, so I just try to push past.

Eddie’s fist lands in my stomach, driving the air out of me.

Connor grabs my arm. “Don’t walk away when we’re talking to you, Jimmy. It’s rude. A real lady would know better.”

“What’s going on, fellas?”

Benjamin’s standing a dozen feet away. His arms are crossed, his sleeves barely making it halfway down his bulging biceps.

“We’re just talking to our friend,” Connor says.

“You’ve talked enough. Unless you want me to talk too.”

Connor releases my arm and backs away. “See you at school tomorrow, Jimmy,” he sneers.

“Yeah,” Eddie adds. “Don’t forget to wear your dress.”

I watch them walk away. I understand what they’re saying—sooner or later they’ll find me when I have nobody to protect me.

“You’re bleeding,” Benjamin says. “Is your mom home?”

“She’s at work.”

I probably shouldn’t say that to the convicted murderer.

“Why don’t you let me help you?”

My instinct is to mumble some excuse, but I don’t believe he’s a murderer. Anyway, I want to know how he fit into my old life and why everybody thought he killed me, so I follow him.

His trailer’s one of the first ones, and I see his windows are open. Probably how he noticed Connor and Eddie harassing me.

I’ve seen dumpier trailers, but not often.

The previous tenant had been a hoarder. When she died in her trailer last year, Alicia and her mom had to clean the place out, and I helped. The place had been full of arts and crafts junk and half-eaten containers of food. We’d worn masks, and no amount of vacuuming and Lysol had made it tolerable inside.

Just goes to show there’s always somebody desperate enough to settle for anything.

I don’t smell the death smell anymore—what I smell is about a half dozen Plug-Ins, all churning away at once. I guess that’s an improvement.

Benjamin and his family don’t have much furniture. A worn futon backs up against one wall of the living room, and a rickety table leans awkwardly under the kitchen light. A makeshift bookshelf sags with paperbacks and magazines. I wonder if they’re his wife’s—girlfriend’s?—and then my face heats up. I’m the last person who should be making assumptions.

His toddler lies in a playpen, her thumb in her mouth, snoring gently. I almost comment on him leaving her unsupervised—then I remember that he did it to save my judgmental ass from getting beaten even worse.

“I’ll grab some cotton and peroxide. They split your lip.”

I follow him to the table and sit on the edge of a vinyl chair. I will myself to keep still as he approaches, dripping cotton in hand. He’s a heavy breather, and his thick fingers smell like peanut butter. Lucky I’m not allergic. This time.

My shoulder blades tingle as he sits across from me and begins dabbing at the blood on my face. His fingers are rough but his touch is gentle.

“Some people are just driven to destroy what they don’t understand,” he says. He gets up and runs a washcloth under the tap. “Hold this against your lip until the bleeding stops.”

I feel silly having him take care of me; I can clean a cut for myself. It’s not like I haven’t been beat up before.

“Anyway,” he adds, “I’m Benjamin.”

“Yeah,” I blurt out. Crap.

He glances up. “You know?”

“Sorry. My best friend’s mom manages this place.”

“What else do you know?”

I swallow, and it’s all the confirmation he needs.

He sighs.

“I’m so sorry,” I say. “Please don’t tell? She wasn’t supposed to say anything to me, but that’s the kind of thing that’s hard to keep to yourself.”

Benjamin just grunts and sweeps up the bloody cotton balls.

“Anyway,” I add, “I know you’re not guilty.”

He raises his eyebrows. “You what now?”

I study my fingers. “I can tell things about people.”

He snorts.

I shrug. “Anyway, I’m Jamie.”

“Short for James?”

“No. Short for Jamie.”

“Well, I’m glad to meet you, Jamie.”

I press the rag to my lip for a couple minutes, and then, to break the silence, I ask, “Who did do it?”

He frowns. “Not something I wanna go into, kid.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s funny though. You remind me of her. You look like you could be her kid. I mean, if she’d ever had one.” Another awkward moment passes, and he clears his throat. “So the landlady’s kid . . .”

“Yeah?”

“I saw the two of you sitting together. The way you look at her. She your girlfriend?”

“We’re just friends.”

“Ah.”

“We can be friends, you know. You can just be friends with people you’re—you can be friends with people without dating them.”

“’Course you can.”

I bite my lip, and flinch when I catch the split part. “Anyway, I don’t think she sees me that way.”

“Fair enough.”

“Right.”

“Right.” He gets up from the table and begins washing some dishes while I continue putting pressure on my lip.

My mind wanders, trying to stitch together the bits of my last life that I remember. Being a little girl. Going to college. Dropping out to get married.

And I remember my husband turning mean. I remember going to our best man over and over again for advice—the only man Larry trusted me with. I remember deciding that I had to leave. I remember Larry—

Oh God. Larry did it. Larry was the killer.

Benjamin knocks a glass off the counter. He’s not paying attention to the glass, though. He’s staring at me, and he looks like he’s glanced into hell itself.

Did I say that out loud?

“How do you know about him?”

Oops. Apparently I did. “Uh, lucky guess?”

“Right.” He takes the rag from my hand, ignoring the still-running water. “Well, the bleeding’s pretty much stopped now. It was good to meet you. You’d probably best be getting on home now.”

He doesn’t seem to breathe at all as he talks, and before I fully realize what happens I am escorted out the door.

“You take care, now,” he says, once I’m safely outside.

“Thanks, Benjamin,” I say, but the door closes before the last syllable leaves my mouth.

Making my way home, I feel like I can hear all my past selves in my head, and they’re all furious. That bastard Larry killed me, and he got away with it.

I want to punch something. I want to scream. I want to take my notebook out of my backpack and rip out every sheet of paper and crumple each one up. I want to break some pencils. I want to scream.

I want to cry.

What does it say about me if I was murdered and nobody cared enough to find out who really did it? They just found the handiest fall guy to pin it on and went on with their lives, and Larry Dearborn lived happily ever after.

I run through imaginary confrontations with Larry as I walk up to my trailer. I’ve never been violent—not in any of the lives I can recall—but right now I wish I had the talent for it.

Meetu wants to play when I open up the door—Meetu always wants to play. “Not now,” I say, snapping the leash onto her collar. She understands lots of things, but “Not now” isn’t one of them. Still, she’s happy enough to go out for her walk.

I daydream about running into Connor and Eddie again while I’m out with Meetu. See how they like being threatened. Then I play out the rest of that scenario in my head—Meetu’s fifty-eight pounds of love, but all anybody sees when they look at her is a scary, vicious killer dog. I imagine how people would react to another story about a pit bull attack. I imagine them calling for her to be destroyed.

No, if I do see those guys, I’ll keep a tight grip on Meetu’s leash, even if they’re messing with me, because I don’t want to lose her.

That’s what pisses me off—me and Janie and the other voices in my head. The Connors and the Larrys of the world always get away with the things they do.

There must be some way to make Larry pay. He doesn’t know I exist. Has no idea that I know what he did. That I keep remembering more and more with each step I take.

He’ll never see me coming.

“Watch your back, Larry,” I murmur. “I’m coming for you.”

Meetu thumps my knees with her tail. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but she’s game. She’s always game.

• • • •

“I’m telling you, he didn’t do it!”

Alicia snorts. “You know this how? Because he told you?”

We’re sitting on her bed. I avoid her eyes by focusing on her posters. Harley Quinn. Black Widow. Imperator Furiosa.

Alicia is into kick-ass women. I’m into her—something I’m better off keeping to myself.

“Listen,” I say, “I’m pretty good at reading people. I believe him. He’s already done his time, so he has no real reason to lie.”

“His reason is to get people like you to trust him. Jesus, you went into his trailer?”

“I was bleeding.”

“So?”

I pull my legs under me and face her. “Listen, enough people think I’m a flake. That both of us are. I’ve always had your back. Will you just go with me on this?”

She chews her lip. After a moment she sighs and says, “I’m not sure what you want me to do.”

“You’ve got a computer. Do a search for this Dearborn guy. See what you can find out about him.”

“What for?”

I smooth a wrinkle on her bedspread. Any answer would be impossible to explain. “I don’t know yet.”

She rolls her eyes, but she pulls her laptop off the nightstand and begins clicking around. For several minutes she makes random frustrated sounds as she repeats the same research I already did at the library. I don’t want to admit to how much I’ve already obsessed about this, so I let her retrace my steps.

Finally she chuckles ruefully. “Good luck.”

“What?”

“Larry Dearborn is the Dearborn in Dearborn Automotive. He owns that huge car lot out on Auburndale Highway. The football stadium at Lakeside High is named after him. He’s loaded.”

I frown. So he’s rich, too. Must be nice to literally get away with murder.

“Let’s go see him,” I say.

She scowls. “And do what?”

“We can pretend one of us is buying a car.”

“Look, if you’re right, then Dearborn’s the dangerous one.”

“He was dangerous forty years ago.”

She shakes her head.

I try a different tack. “You’re always saying you’re bored here, surrounded by people who aren’t going anywhere. You always say you want to do something adventurous, like join the Air Force. Well fine: let’s have an adventure. I’m not saying to confront him or anything. I just want to see my—I just want to see Janie Dearborn’s killer with my own eyes. He won’t know that we know, so there’s no reason to be afraid of him.”

She narrows her eyes. Before she can raise an objection, I spit out, “What would Furiosa do?”

She makes a face. “I’m not twelve, Jamie.”

“Sorry.” I get up from her bed.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll go on my own,” I say. “I’ll take the bus.”

“Don’t,” she says. “I think you’re nuts, but I’ll drive.”

We tell her mom we’re going to the library and breeze out before she can question us. Once on the road, we roll down the windows and turn north on state road seventeen. Alicia’s mom’s car is a beat up Saturn station wagon that’s almost old enough to go to bars. It’s sticky and hot and I almost think I should’ve gone by bus, except then I would have been alone.

The car salesmen close in like hyenas when we park, and immediately lose interest when we step out. I guess without an adult with us, they figure we’re not car shopping.

I lead the way into an over-cooled lobby and cast about until I find a receptionist’s desk.

“Hi,” I say to the lady on the other side. “Is Mr. Dearborn here by any chance?”

She inclines her head. “And you are?”

“We are, uh . . .”

“We go to Lakeside High School,” Alicia blurts out. “And, uh, we’re on the yearbook staff. And since Mr. Dearborn’s been so generous to our school in the past, we were wondering if he maybe wanted to take out a page in this year’s edition.”

I fight the urge to stare at Alicia. We actually are in yearbook, but at Pickens High, not at Lakeside. They’ve been leaning on us to sell advertising, and the last thing I’ve wanted to do is cold call on a bunch of local businesses so they can all treat me like some kind of freak. So here we are instead doing it for an entirely different high school.

I have to give her credit, though—that was some quick thinking.

The receptionist’s expression softens. “Ah, yes. Well, he doesn’t really come in to the showroom anymore, but you’re right, he might want to sponsor a page.” She takes a random salesperson’s card from a holder on the counter, turns it over, and writes something on the back. “You can visit him here. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to have visitors from Lakeside.”

Something about the way she said that feels off to me, but I can’t quite figure it out until twenty minutes later, when Alicia pulls up in front of the address on the card: Landmark Hospice.

“What’s a hospice?” Alicia asks. “Isn’t that like a cheap hotel for backpackers?”

“No, it’s a place where people go to die.”

“Oh.”

We park for several minutes under the shade of an oak tree, until Alicia asks, “Can we go home now?”

I nod dully, staring out the window.

It’s all so unfair. Larry Dearborn killed his wife—killed me—and he’ll never face judgment for it. Never spend a day in prison. He made a ton of money, lived out his life, and got to the end without any consequences. Even if I found some way to prove he did it, nobody would prosecute him. Why bother?

• • • •

The riverbed where the news said my body was discovered is just over a mile away. I take Meetu out after school a couple days later and wander around. Meetu runs back and forth between the creek and me, getting all muddy and messy.

I guess I have this idea that Meetu might dig up some bit of evidence, or I’ll remember something about how I died that would lead me to discover something. Meetu’s not that kind of dog, though, and anyway the police already went over this area when they found the body. What could I hope to uncover all these decades later?

And what would I do with it if I found it?

I don’t actually have any memories of this place. I was probably dead or unconscious before Larry ever brought me here. I do remember more and more about our relationship. How his dark moods got darker and more frequent and how even getting promotions at work only made him happy for a day before he’d brood again. I remember the only place I felt safe being with his buddy Benjamin, and I remember Benjamin convincing me I needed to leave, and helping me pack. I remember taking my suitcases to his house one night, and trying to figure out where to go next.

I remember Larry showing up at Benjamin’s place, enraged, and that’s about all I remember. He must have killed me there, leaving plenty of evidence pointing at Benjamin.

Benjamin.

In all of my fury at Larry killing me and getting to live out his life without ever paying for his crime, I’ve hardly given thought to the man who did pay for it. I’ve been so focused on the unfairness of my death that I haven’t thought about the unfairness of his life. I can’t do anything about Larry, but can I do something for Benjamin?

I call Meetu to me and we start to walk back home. About halfway there, Alicia’s Saturn shows up and pulls off the road on the grassy shoulder.

“I had a feeling you might have gone out this way. You’re obsessed, Jamie. I’m worried about you.”

She helps me get Meetu into the back of the station wagon. There’s one thing to be said about having a piece of crap car—you don’t much care if it gets dirty anymore.

“I think I have an idea for how to clear Benjamin’s record,” I say.

She doesn’t take her eyes off the road. “Oh?”

“Yeah. Can I borrow a dress?”

• • • •

Alicia doesn’t wear dresses much, and her fashion style is not quite what I’m looking for. She is close to my size, though, and she’s willing to help, which counts for a lot.

She opens up her laptop and brings up a picture of Janie Dearborn—of her and Larry in better times. She’s wearing a long denim skirt and a turtleneck and throwing her head back and laughing. I think I can remember that day.

“Freaky,” Alicia murmurs. “She could be your older sister.”

“Do you have anything like what she’s wearing here?”

“Janie seems like the wholesome type. That’s not me.”

“Do you have anything that might be kind of close?”

She frowns, then straightens. “Actually, I might.”

She heads not for her closet, but for the chest at the foot of her bed. She digs inside and tugs out a balled up wad of cloth.

“It’s from my Aunt Hilda,” she says, as if that explains everything.

She unrolls the bundle on her bed. It turns out to be a brown dress, with little pink flowers and ivory accents. It’s nothing like the outfit in the news photo, but I understand why Alicia picked it. It’s equal parts Brady Bunch and Sunday brunch.

“My aunt doesn’t really get me,” she says.

“No kidding.”

“Mom made me wear it last time Aunt Hilda visited and then I dumped it here and haven’t thought about it again.” She holds the dress up to my shoulders and cocks her head appraisingly.

I quirk my lip. “It’s . . . really ugly.”

Alicia giggles. “You asked for a dress. You didn’t say it had to look good.”

I go to her bathroom to try it on. I stare at the mirror, trying to form my own opinion before I ask Alicia for hers. I worried that the dress was going to bulge and gap in the wrong places, but it’s a modest cut, so it pretty much works.

I remember looking like this before. It looks like me in the mirror. Just a different me.

I try to imagine how Connor Haines would react if he ran into me like this. He and Eddie would probably go berserk.

Well, fuck them. They don’t get a vote.

I pull the door open and cross the hall back into Alicia’s room. She paces all the way around me, nodding slowly.

“Now let’s add some makeup,” she says.

When I’ve worn makeup before, I’ve always gone for subtle. Some foundation, a touch of eyeliner. Not trying to look like I have makeup on. After some false starts, Alicia and I manage to get a more blatantly feminine style that I’m satisfied with.

“Stand up,” she says. “Let me see.”

I stand by her dresser, suddenly self-conscious.

She raises her eyebrows. “I still hate that dress, but damn, you—” She bites her lip. “You’re really pretty.”

My neck and face heat at that. I know she doesn’t mean . . . I know she’s just trying to build me up. It’s nice to imagine that she’s serious, though.

The moment is interrupted by her mom coming home. When I see her car pulling into the gravel driveway outside, I want to grab my own clothes and hide in her bathroom until the danger passes. But I steel myself and stay right where I am. I’ve always figured that once you start hiding, it’s hard to stop.

Alicia makes eye contact as the front door clicks unlocked, and I wonder if what I’m thinking is plastered all over my face.

“I’m home,” her mom calls out, as if that weren’t obvious.

A moment later she passes by the open door. “Oh, hey, I didn’t realize you had somebody—” She blinks a couple times. “Oh. Hi, Jamie. Alicia, can I talk to you?”

Alicia follows her to the master bedroom and closes the door. I pad out to the hallway in my bare feet. Sound carries pretty clearly through the thin walls of a trailer, and I don’t have to put my ear up to the door or anything to listen to their conversation, even though her mom is obviously trying to keep it down.

“Honey, I know you like girls and not boys, and I know Jamie’s confused about his gender anyway, but I’m not comfortable with a boy playing dress-up in your bedroom.”

“Jamie’s not confused about a thing,” Alicia replies. “And anyway, they changed in the bathroom.”

I step back into her room and close the door behind me, because I really don’t want to hear the rest. I don’t want to hear Alicia reassure her mom that she doesn’t think of me “that way.” I don’t want to hear Alicia’s mom—who has always been cool to me—say something I won’t be able to forgive.

Some people have a hard time adjusting to me—I get that. I don’t care what their process of working things out looks like if in the end they treat me like a person. But I don’t want to test that resolution by knowing too much.

Alicia doesn’t ask me to leave when she returns; she doesn’t talk about the conversation at all. I don’t either. I figure everything’s fine until somebody tells me otherwise.

“We ought to buy you some shoes to go with that, instead of those flip-flops. I could drive you to the mall in Sebring. It would be fun.”

I meet her eyes, wondering where she’s coming from. Alicia’s not usually into shopping.

“It would,” I agree. “But I don’t think anybody’s going to be looking at my shoes where I’m going. Some other time?”

She smiles. “Definitely.” She raises both her eyebrows. “You gonna tell me what your plan is?”

If I did, I’d have to explain all sorts of things I’m not ready to. I shake my head. “You might try to talk me out of it.”

She chews her lip; I can’t tell if she’s suspicious or hurt.

“I really appreciate your help,” I say. When she doesn’t reply, I add, “I better get on with this.”

She finally meets my eye, and pulls me into a hug. “Be careful, whatever you’re planning.”

“I will,” I say, and then I head out the door.

I should have asked for a ride—it would make things easier than taking public transportation dressed like this. But riding the bus will give me time to get used to the way I’m presenting.

All the way to Larry’s street, I keep waiting for somebody to say or do something either because they’ve clocked me or because they think I am a girl. I wish I’d brought my ear buds, so I could block out the sounds of traffic and random conversation going on around me. That’s stupid, though—what it would actually do is make me less likely to hear trouble coming.

Somehow I manage both legs of the ride and the transfer between. Everybody’s too wrapped up in their own phones and music and worries to bother me.

At the hospice, I use the same story at the front desk that we used at the dealership. They give me directions to his room, and I walk past a courtyard garden, a nurse’s station, and about a dozen doors with patient names written next to them in dry-erase ink.

I almost pass the door with Larry’s name. I turn abruptly when I spot it, trying to project confidence, like I’ve been here before. I quietly close the door as I enter, and then blink as my eyes adjust to the darkness inside.

The curtains are drawn to block the low-hanging sun. Apart from the dim light slipping around the edges, the only illumination comes from a flat-screen television on the wall, bathing the room in a blueish glow. Flowers on a dresser cast sinister shadows that move with every flicker of the screen. In the center of the room, an oversized hospital bed dominates the space, undercutting the semblance of ordinary life somebody went through a lot of effort to create with the decor.

Larry lies on the bed, his head lolling to the side. I take in my first sight of him this lifetime. In my memories, he is a giant, angry and frightening, out of control. He appears so weak and emaciated here that I can almost pity him—until I think about the lives he’s destroyed. Mine. Benjamin’s. Who else? Somebody like Larry probably didn’t stop at one victim.

I walk up to the edge of the bed. I could take my revenge right now; nobody could stop me. I don’t think it would make me feel better, though, and it wouldn’t do anything for Benjamin.

And I didn’t come here for revenge.

A television remote and call device is tethered to his bedsheet with an alligator clip. I loosen it, turn the sound down, and place it on the floor.

“Larry,” I call out.

He makes a gross snot-clearing sound, but doesn’t wake up.

“Larry!”

He blinks awake and looks at me, wild-eyed.

“Who the hell are you?” he croaks, scratchy and barely intelligible. More memories come flooding back—Larry suspicious, Larry dismissive, Larry belligerent. I feel this weird contrast, like a double-exposed photograph. Part of me remembers that I’m supposed to be scared when Larry’s voice takes this dangerous tone, but he’s not scaring anyone anymore.

“You don’t remember me, Larry? I’m hurt. I remember you.”

“I’ve never met you in my life,” he says, and starts patting around where his controller used to be.

“I remember that night at Peace Creek. You, me, and Benjamin. I bet he remembers it, too.”

He pauses in his search and stares at me again. Shaking his head, he gasps. “You can’t be.”

I stand over the bed. “Look at me.”

“Janie,” he whispers. His gaze flicks between me and the edge of his bed. Probably still looking for his call button. Then he reaches for something on the other side of him, which I hadn’t noticed before. For a moment I think it’s some kind of back-up call device and my heart seizes, but it doesn’t have a speaker or anything that appears to be a microphone.

I pluck the object out of his reach; it looks like some kind of self-dosing painkiller.

“Nuh uh, Larry. I’m talking to you. It wouldn’t be very polite of you to check out.”

“You’re dead,” he croaks.

“That’s right. Soon you will be, too, and I’ll be waiting for you.”

He stiffens, and I have this momentary worry that I will inadvertently cause a fatal heart attack or something right here.

I lean in a little closer. “I promise you it won’t be pleasant. You let an innocent man pay the price for my death, but there’ll be nobody to pay for you in the afterlife.”

This seems to spark some fight back into him. “Benjamin wasn’t innocent! He betrayed me! He had an affair with you!”

“Benjamin and I never had an affair,” I say. I’m pretty sure that’s true. “He tried to convince me to go back to you on the day you killed me.” That part’s definitely not true.

He clutches the bed railing. “What are you talking about?”

“I hitched a ride to the Greyhound station in Winter Haven, because I was afraid of you, Larry. Then I had second thoughts, so I called Benjamin from a payphone. He told me you were a good man, that you were just going through a hard time. He told me I should give you another chance, and he drove all the way out there to bring me back.”

Larry sinks back in the bed and his face seems to cloud over.

“Listen to me!” I command. Then I remember that there are all sorts of nurses and other patients around, and lower my voice. “He wasn’t taking me away from you. He was bringing me back.”

Larry moans, his expression stricken.

“He was your friend right up until the end, and you took his life for it, as surely as you took mine. He deserved better, Larry. So did I.”

He grips my wrist; his skin is soft as tissue paper, but his grip is hard and a little painful. “You look so beautiful, Janie. Please don’t leave me again!”

“I can’t stay. My time is past, and you can’t give me back what you took from me.” I glare, and he tries to edge back from me. “But you can give Benjamin back some of what you took from him. You can talk to the police and recant. Tell them Benjamin didn’t kill me. Tell them, Larry, or you’ll see me every night in hell. I’ll make you sorry. Believe me.”

He raises a hand in front of his face. “Stop! I’ll tell them! Please, Janie!”

I take the phone from the bedside table and dial. As soon as I navigate my way to a human being, I pass the handset over.

“Don’t let me down,” I say, “I’m watching you.”

He’s sobbing as I give it to him, but he’s coherent enough once he starts talking. When he does, I make my way from the room before anybody can show up and start asking me awkward questions.

• • • •

I’m walking Meetu a week later when I pass Benjamin out in front of his trailer with his little girl, planting flowers, of all things. He waves, and I wave back before realizing he’s actually calling me over.

“Damnedest thing happened,” he says, getting up and brushing his hands on his jeans. “I got a call from my parole officer today. Larry Dearborn recanted. One of those deathbed confession things. They say that’s how a lot of false convictions are overturned.”

I do my best to feign surprise. “That’s terrific!”

Meetu’s tail thumps like Larry’s a long lost friend.

“Yeah,” he says. He pets Meetu, but his eyes stay on me. Looking hard, like he’s trying to peer into me.

I’m not sure what to do, so I just shrug and say, “I’m glad you’re finally getting some justice.” The words feel stupid as they leave my mouth. He already served the sentence for this crime, and nothing can give that back to him.

As if he’s read my mind, Benjamin says, “It’ll make it easier to find work. Lot of people wouldn’t look beyond that one line on a job application, before. Once people get a word for you—like convict—they think that word is all there is to know.”

I nod.

His little girl makes mud pies in the dirt, and I think about how clearing her father’s name will affect her future.

“I could watch her for you,” I blurt out. “While you look for work.” My face heats up. He may treat me like a person, but that doesn’t mean he wants me watching his kid.

“That would be great.”

I scratch Meetu, trying to act like it’s no big deal.

“So.” He nods toward Alicia’s trailer. “You gonna ask that girl out? Don’t tell me you’re not interested.”

“I’m . . . not uninterested.” I take a slow breath. “I guess I’m afraid.”

“Afraid she sees you different from how you see yourself.”

I sag. “Yes.”

“I hear you,” he says. “But if you don’t take a chance on somebody disappointing you, you never give them a chance to surprise you either.”

When I don’t respond, he adds, “Will you stop being her friend if she says no?”

I shake my head.

“Then there’s no sense wanting something and not at least trying.”

I glance at the trailer. At the rainbow blinds that mark her bedroom window. “Maybe I will.”

He claps a hand on my shoulder. “Good luck.”

It feels more like a command than anything else, and I take a couple automatic steps toward her trailer. By the time my brain figures out what my feet have done, it seems more awkward to stop than to keep going.

Anyway, Benjamin’s right. He sees right through me, the same way I know the real him.

The same way Alicia has always seen the real me, I realize. My pace picks up a bit, and Meetu responds by bounding forward, dragging me along, like everybody’s figured out my destination before me.

She comes to the door as soon as I knock. “Hey,” she says.

“You doing anything?”

She shrugs. “Watching TV.”

“Wanna come for a walk?”

“Sure,” she says, stepping out onto the deck. “Did something happen? Is something wrong?”

“Nope,” I say, leading her down the steps. “Nothing’s wrong at all.”

We head down the street, quiet, like we don’t need to babble to fill the space between us. To anybody watching us, we probably look like we’re already a couple. Maybe by the time we come back, we will be. Maybe we won’t.

Either way, we’ll be okay.

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José Pablo Iriarte

Joe Iriarte by Jamie Taylor Novak

José Pablo Iriarte is that rarest of all things–a native Floridian. He has worked as an editor, a computer programmer, a government researcher, a tutor to the rich and/or famous, a pizza delivery guy, a summer camp counselor, and as a teacher. His latest publication is from Book Smugglers Publishing: a short story called “Duck Duck God.” His website is Labyrinth Rat.