‘I Know Thy Works’Reading Time: 21 minutes
What if We Tracked Morality Like We Track Productivity?, A short story about a dinner party, an accident, and the slipperiness of ethics., ‘I Know Thy Works,’ by Tara Isabella Burton.
This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Harry wasn’t a bad person. You just couldn’t take him too seriously, that’s all. Whatever Harry said, whatever Harry did, whatever Harry put down as his meta-ethic, this week, on his Arete profile, be it the ends justify the means or the greatest happiness for the greatest number or do what thou wilt be the whole of the law, Harry never meant a word. Harry changed his meta-ethic more often than he changed his clothes.
But it wasn’t—you must understand this—because Harry didn’t have a meta-ethic, exactly, although even today I couldn’t tell you what Harry’s meta-ethic was. It was just that Harry thought people took the whole Arete thing too seriously. Harry thought people took most things too seriously. And always, he said, the wrong ones. Once, I asked Harry what the right thing to take seriously was. Harry poured us both another drink.
Our conversations had been light since college. We sent each other memes. We mocked politicians. We laughed about the end of the world. We had a running joke about what playlist we’d put on the day of the apocalypse: Wagner, of course, and also Leonard Cohen and, for good measure, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance.’ Fifteen years after graduation, Harry and I still texted each other songs whenever we came across something suitable for the last days, which we were convinced were perpetually at hand.
Sometimes I wondered whether Harry was looking forward to the end of the world or whether this, too, was a joke we shared. Fifteen years I’d spent trying to work out when Harry was joking, and never once had I been sure.
Harry could scramble everything you knew. Whenever I showed up at one of Harry’s Black Dinners—which was more often than I let myself admit—I’d come away certain that the sun was the moon, and that east was west, and that right triangles measured the same on all three sides. Floating home from a dinner, in those few bleary and hungover moments before I turned my phone back on and let Arete track my moral arc once more, concepts collapsed altogether. I was like one of those untethered astronauts you see in space horror movies: dissolving into a graveyard of stars. I hated that feeling. Still, I kept going.
When the whole story came out afterward, the dinners were what the press focused on. That and Arete. ‘Mysterious Death,’ the Fiddler put it, ‘at Nihilist’s Secret Salons.’ The writer implied that it was something degenerate, occult. What else could you expect from someone like Harry Monaghan, who had publicly put ridiculous meta-ethics into his Arete profile before publicly deleting it altogether, which was as close as you could come these days to saying you didn’t care about the moral life at all?
The comments section was even worse. Half the people posting said that it was probably some kind of diabolical human sacrifice, and the other half said that Ursula deserved what she got, being there at all, because the only people who showed up to one of Harry Monaghan’s Black Dinners were the kind of people who thought there was something sexy or cool in turning off Arete to begin with. As far as the internet was concerned, everyone in that room deserved what they got.
Maybe they were right.
You had to be a certain kind of person, after all, to show up at the home of a has-been writer, to disable Arete, to play Russian roulette with your soul. One commentor suggested we were all members of the illuminati, or the Freemasons, who gathered with other well-heeled or well-connected degenerates to prove to ourselves that we were above the common herd. Hadn’t Ray Ballantine, the congressman, been spotted going to Harry’s apartment on Friday? Hadn’t the Catholic bishop of California been there two weeks ago? (Harry told me that one was a lie, but then again, Harry would.) Someone else suggested that we weren’t even people at all but space lizards wearing human skin.
I was 33 years old the year of the final Black Dinner, and still as much of a lightweight, conviction-wise, as I had been at 18. Even my meta-ethic on Arete was something Gabe had put down for me, following a one-way conversation that nevertheless allowed us both the illusion of choice.
When I slipped out—not regularly, mind, only once every two or three months, when one of Harry’s more illustrious guests had called in sick or couldn’t come up with an alibi Arete would accept—when I told Gabe truthfully (for it was technically the truth) that I was simply heading out to see an old college friend, and just happened to let my phone battery die on the way over … even then, I couldn’t tell you what it was, exactly, I had slipped out for.
It was not—though the Fiddler would later suggest this—that I was in love with Harry, or anything like that. Even in college, Harry had never been particularly attractive, nor was I the kind of woman men like Harry tended to be attracted to. If we had slept together once or twice freshman year, it had been only in the service of getting any latent awkwardness out of the way upfront.
If Harry enjoyed needling me—about Arete, about my relationship with Gabe, about my own philosophical rootlessness—it was not because of any personal interest in me but only because Harry enjoyed needling everybody, most of all those people he thought deep down wanted needling. He wasn’t wrong. There was something freeing about going to Harry’s dinners, about being told to my face that I was a hypocrite and that everything Arete tracked was a moral lie even if it was a technical truth, about turning off my phone and getting drunk and forgetting that I was anybody but the person looking Harry straight in the eye as he declaimed that all the Moral Revolution of 2035 had accomplished was to deny each of us even the illusion of an immortal soul.
‘You know it’s horseshit too, Christine,’ he said, and raised a glass to me. ‘You’re smarter than you think you are.’
He snorted. ‘At least,’ he said, ‘you’re smarter than Gabe.’
Harry hated Gabe. ‘When Gabe makes love to you,’ Harry asked me once at a dinner, loud enough that Ray and Janine and Ralph and Ursula could all hear, ‘does Arete tell him what to whisper into your ear?’
Gabe was a true believer in Arete. He worked for the company that had invented it. He’d been at OptiMy for 12 years—from the early days, back when OptiMy was just a productivity tracker that allowed you to share your progress with other people. On our first date, right before Arete had its beta launch, Gabe had been in the meeting when someone had come up with the idea of linking OptiMy with all the other apps in your phone—your bank account, say, or your GPS, or whatever reading app you used to read improving novels—to hold you to account, to make sure that you’d actually done whatever you said you had. Half the team had tried to nix the idea right away: If you couldn’t embellish what you’d accomplished, nobody would use it in the first place.
But Gabe had convinced them. Deep down, Gabe said, people wanted a challenge. They wanted a life that was going to turn them inside out. They wanted to be held responsible for things. They wanted for someone to watch.
OptiMy’s user base doubled that year. Three years later, Gabe and some of his colleagues pitched the idea of a spinoff app dedicated exclusively to your ethical life. If you could outsource productivity, Gabe figured, why couldn’t you outsource morality? After all, you were working with the same psychological infrastructure. When people publicly make promises, they keep them. Just look, he said, at marriage.
Not that there weren’t challenges. Arete had to account for the fact that nobody—even once you discounted systems of thought that were clearly obsolete—could agree on what upright action looked like. The staff had put together an advisory board—they’d gotten priests together with rabbis and imams and witches and secular humanists and a few philosophy professors and a couple of psychologists who’d published extensively on happiness—and in the end they’d come up with the meta-ethic system, which was a satisfactory compromise. You put down your meta-ethic, which was sort of your primary motivation, the ethic that all other ethics had to be subservient to, listed it publicly on your profile so everyone else could see the thing you were avowing, so you couldn’t get away with being, say, a public philanthropist and a private Ayn Rand–style objectivist, and then Arete tracked your actions and rated how closely your actual actions adhered to your stated principles, and made suggestions throughout the day for how you could get the one to hew more closely to the other, and published your daily score to everyone in your contacts list, and—this was the most controversial part—anyone who bothered to look you up. If you were a Catholic, Arete could tell whether you showed up at Mass, and how much you tithed; it could track how often you prayed the rosary, so long as you used a prayer book app to do it. If you were an environmentalist, Arete could track your carbon footprint. There was no lying to Arete.
‘It’s like Voltaire said,’ Harry said when I first told him about Arete, two months before its public launch. ‘If God didn’t exist, man would have to invent him.’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘It’s not like anyone will use it.’
Immediately I felt guilty. I’d told Gabe that the idea was brilliant.
Harry shook his head.
‘We all want exactly two things in this life,’ he announced, as much to the room as to me. ‘To be seen, and to be invisible. The question is which one we want more.’
Arete’s potential might have been the only thing Harry and Gabe ever agreed on. As it happens, both of them were right.
At first only a small subculture used it, mostly Bay Area rationalists and effective altruists, the same people who had used the productivity software, and for whom it was natural to tranMediaDownloader moral concerns into something handily numeric. But then a few influencers started—especially those who valued either pan-species liberation or personal sexual freedom, and who tagged Arete in their photographs of adorable animals or their own naked bodies—and then it grew popular among activists, who could track protest attendance and calls to senators and the writing of op-eds and all sorts of measurable advocacy, and then this one megachurch pastor in Houston referenced it in a sermon, and pointed out that if you read the Bible through his branded devotional app, you could track it on Arete to prove the strength of your faith in action, and then, six months after that, the pope mentioned it with pleased bemusement in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano.
He likened it to something St. Ignatius of Loyola once said. Perform the acts of faith, and the faith will come.
By 2033, everyone from politicians to actors to ordinary biologists like me used Arete. By 2035, you couldn’t get away with not doing it. You linked to it on your CV, your dating app profile, your grad school admissions application. ‘The Moral Revolution,’ the Fiddler called it, in a trend piece everybody read. The story quoted a few skeptics—among them the writer Harry Monaghan, who’d written a well-received roman à clef five years prior, and who had a regular column in the Post. But by 2037, the year Harry deleted his account on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and immediately had his book contract canceled, all of the other skeptics had an Arete too, broadcasting their works of faith and hope and charity, and probably becoming better people for it. Everybody seemed to be a better person for it.
Everybody, that is, except me.
It’s not that I didn’t do what Arete told me. My meta-ethic—like Gabe’s—was the pursuit of truth at all costs, which in practice meant that I spent a lot of time at work looking at rat behavioral patterns, and most of my free time listening to scientific podcasts, reading historical biographies, and doing Sudoku and crosswords to keep my brain supple. It was just that, no matter how many acts of faith I performed, no matter how high my Arete ranking was, at the end of the day, I always felt a wrenching emptiness in my sternum deep as grief. I wondered sometimes if this was what Harry meant about wanting to be invisible. It was an emptiness that subsided only at the Black Dinners, and even then only when I was drunk, because only when I was drunk did I feel embodied.
I tried to explain this to Harry once. That was a mistake. All Harry did was quote the Bible at me—an inside joke; we were both raised Catholic.
‘I will spit you out of my mouth,’ Harry said, ‘because you are only warm, and not hot or cold.‘
Harry liked drama. Drama made the dinners run. He covered the walls with black damask fabric and hung black velvet curtains over all the windows so that you couldn’t tell whether it was dusk or dawn—the same way they used to do with casinos. (Casinos were one of the earliest casualties of Arete.) He turned off all the lights and lit black candelabras, which flickered atop his credenza. He played Gregorian chant. He served black food—squid-ink pasta, charred steak, devil’s-food cake, all tasteless, for Harry couldn’t cook—on black plates. He served only the heaviest red wines. Sometimes he even got out the smoke machine. The effect all this produced was something between a vampire’s lair and a Goth club. Had anyone else done it, it would have been kitsch. But when you walked into one of Harry’s Black Dinners, when you slipped your phone—if you hadn’t managed to pawn it off onto someone else—into a black velvet bag Harry ceremoniously zip-tied, when you let Harry make a cross of what he claimed were ashes on your forehead, when you inhaled the incense Harry lit that made the whole apartment smell like a cathedral, you could almost believe in such a thing as a soul.
People always got a little drunk at Harry’s dinners, on Harry’s incense as much as Harry’s wine. Ursula Nevins, who had once been an actress but who was now far more famous as the proprietor of a wellness brand called Pvrity, which focused on promoting ethical and sustainable recipes for what she called the mind-body connection, would whip out clove cigarettes and start chain-smoking the way Harry and I used to freshman year, and make eyes at Ray Ballantine, whose wife, Janine—she headed a chain of nonprofits—would in turn lean her head on the shoulder of Ralph Rothemere, who was Harry’s latest find.
Ralph was young and sweet and staggeringly stupid, but he’d played Captain Hearthead in the superhero franchise of the same name, and he and Ursula shared an agent, which is how he’d wound up here in the first place.
Ralph’s first Black Dinner, Janine had leaned in close and whispered into his ear that one day she’d like to watch him play Hamlet. Janine was angular and terrifying, which I guessed was part of her erotic appeal, and I felt a little sorry for Ralph, who for all his money and all his fame always seemed as flabbergasted to be there as I was. Maybe even more.
I, at least, understood my place. Harry invited me to the Black Dinners not because he liked me, or because I was as important or well-connected as his other friends, or because he thought I might sleep with him—he had plenty of that with Ursula and (I suspected), every now and then, Janine—or, pathetic to even entertain it, because he had a sentimental attachment to our old friendship. I was invited to the Black Dinners because of Gabe. Luring me to a Black Dinner was the closest Harry could ever come to getting one over on Arete.
Harry Monaghan’s last Black Dinner took place in early spring. March was balmy; the trees shook pink all over the sidewalk; the whole city had a petrichor smell. Things were going well. Harry was at last at work on a new novel—which he claimed a small publisher, one who thought bad publicity preferable to no publicity at all, might be willing to take on. Ray was set to give a speech at that summer’s Democratic National Convention; his name had been floated for the vice presidential ticket. Janine had just been named president of a new nonprofit focusing on funding women-owned small businesses. Ralph had been nominated for an Oscar for his first serious role, as a journalist in the 1990s covering the Bosnian war. Ursula had just launched a new podcast at Pvrity in which she interviewed spiritual leaders from a host of traditions about the role conscious eating, as she called it, could play in bringing us closer to the way people lived in the pre-modern age, and to a more robust sense of the divine. I had just gotten engaged.
I hadn’t expected it. Gabe and I had been together nearly seven years by that point; we lived together and weren’t the types to need the trappings of vows. But one Sunday morning, as Gabe and I lay side by side, on our respective phones, on our respective sides of the bed, Gabe leaned up on his elbow and said, You know, we might as well, and I said, Might as well what? and Gabe said, I mean, before we have kids, and we were engaged before either one of us got up to use the bathroom.
I hadn’t told Harry. I told myself I was waiting to tell him in person, although the only time I saw Harry in person these days was at the dinners, and I dreaded telling Harry then. I knew Harry too well. He would poke holes in my happiness: He would ask me about the proposal, and then about the ring, knowing perfectly well Gabe didn’t believe in rings; he would quote sodden love poetry and ask me if that, that was how Gabe and I felt about each other, and there would be no answer I could give that wouldn’t make me look a fool. Still, I owed it to Gabe to tell him, just as I owed it to Gabe to stop coming. It would—I swore—be my last Black Dinner. When the other guests had left, I would shake Harry’s hand, and smile, and say something light like It’s been grand, and explain that I couldn’t come to Harry’s dinners any longer.
We’re getting old, old friend—that’s how I’d put it. There was only so long you could turn off Arete and shut out the world and the consequences of it.
After all, we’d started talking about children.
I made my customary excuses to Gabe. I put on my only decent cocktail dress. I told myself that I had done as close to the right thing as anyone could expect. I watched my phone battery life slide down to zero, and then Arete no longer knew what I had left undone.
Tonight it was just the six of us: Harry and Ursula, Ray and Janine, me and Ralph.
Harry pinched me on the cheek when I came in. He always liked playing the drunk uncle.
‘You’re looking well, Christine,’ he said. ‘There’s springtime in your face. Are you in love or something?’
I didn’t say anything. I probably blushed. But Harry was already kissing Ursula on the cheek.
‘I’ve made your favorite,’ Harry said, grinning. ‘Shark-fin soup. Followed by veal served on a bed of foie gras.’
Ursula made a strangled noise.
‘That’s not a problem, is it?’
Ursula’s dietary requirements were as long and elaborate as the lineages of kings. I listened to her podcast, sometimes, at the gym. She was allergic to meat, fish, gluten, dairy, and soy.
Ursula turned for a moment, searching my face and Ralph’s, and those of Ray and Janine, who had just arrived behind me.
She barely hesitated.
‘Of course, darling,’ she said, with a coloratura laugh. ‘Anything goes.’
She squeezed my shoulder in greeting. She called me Caroline.
Ray stepped forward.
‘An offering,’ he said. He lay a box on Harry’s credenza. Inside were 50 Cuban cigars.
Harry accepted them with a smile.
‘I knew all politicians were crooked,’ he said. ‘I’ll put them with the Colombian cocaine.’ Almost certainly, I decided, a joke.
Harry ignored Janine until she made a show of clearing her throat.
‘Sorry, darling,’ Harry said lightly, slipping her stole from her shoulders. ‘It’s nothing personal. I just forgot you were there, that’s all.’
Janine’s laugh, too, was forced.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’m used to it.’ She wasn’t, but she knew as well as we did what we had signed up for. We would all spend the evening performing small but significant feats of cruelty at one another. We would tell off-color jokes and racy stories, flirt with the wrong people, drink more than was prudent, revel in the world Harry had created.
‘What a shame,’ Janine murmured as she walked into the living room. It was hazy; Harry had already turned on the smoke machine. ‘You’ve put all your talent into these parties, Harry—and not a lick of it into your work.’
Now it was on Harry to swallow, to smile, to pretend not to wince. I never knew whether he enjoyed this part for its own sake, or whether he simply accepted turnabout as an inevitable part of fair play.
‘As if,’ Harry said, ‘you could say anything to me that Christine didn’t tell me 15 years ago.’
He squeezed my shoulder.
‘Speaking of which,’ he went on, ‘you should know in advance that the soup is terrible tonight.’ He allowed himself a rictal grin. ‘YouTube doesn’t have a lot of recipes for shark fin.’
Ralph took a few tentative steps forward. It was only Ralph’s second Black Dinner, and he looked even more terrified than he had at his first.
‘I—I’m sorry…’ he began, still staring at the cigar box in Harry’s arms. ‘I didn’t bring anything. I didn’t realize …’
He cast about for reassurance. For some reason, he settled on me.
‘Just bring atmosphere,’ Harry said, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘Sing for your supper. Do something Arete would dock you a couple thousand points for.’
Harry led us to the table. He opened the first bottle of wine.
‘Gentles,’ Harry said. ‘Open question. Where does Arete think you are right now? Ralph?’
‘My publicist,’ he said, turning red. ‘She took my phone to a genocide memorial.’
‘Good help is so hard to find,’ Harry said. ‘Janine?’
Janine showed no embarrassment.
‘My assistant. She’s in the office, finishing up a grant proposal.’
Ursula, too, had pawned off her phone on an assistant. Ray had left it with his campaign manager, who was volunteering at a coat drive.
I always told myself I wouldn’t let Harry fluster me. Every time, he managed to fluster me anyway.
‘I just let it die, I guess.’
‘Let it die?‘ Harry’s voice was arch. ‘8 o’clock on a Friday night, and the world a late-capitalist hellscape, children starving in the streets, women wailing and gnashing their teeth, and you tell Arete you did nothing?’ He scoffed. ‘You might as well have brought it here after all.’
Appetizers were uneventful. Harry was right about the shark-fin soup, which, whatever the dubious ethics of its acquisition, was distinctive only in being bland. Janine made eyes at Ralph across the table. Ralph tried unsuccessfully to avoid them. Harry put his hand on the small of Ursula’s back and made ever-lewder comments about how your diet changed the way you smelled and—by this point he’d had three glasses—tasted. In some respects, you might have thought it an ordinary dinner party among people who did not know or like one another well. Our sins were subtle, venal. Without Arete, you might not have picked up on them at all.
Ursula made a show of slurping the soup, and Ray leered at Ursula’s neck, and then Ralph stammered out an unprompted, off-color joke about Polish people that was so dated I wondered if he’d learned it from his great-grandfather, and he looked more embarrassed than ever when nobody understood it.
Still, the feeling hung around us—the way it always hung around us at Harry’s dinners—snaking around our shoulders: the tantalizing feeling that anything could happen between now and morning, that tonight was a carnival, and maybe this time the sun really would rise in the west.
Between the first and second course, Ralph rose, without a word, and went into the kitchen, and through it to the bathroom.
‘Poor kid,’ Harry said. ‘Some people are so dumb it almost looks like goodness from the outside.’
But then Ralph came back to the table, holding a canister of Harry’s pills, which he must have purloined from the bathroom’s medicine cabinet, and, still silent, decanted them into a little sugar bowl.
‘Zoloft,’ he said, trying too hard to sound hearty. ‘Figures.’
Harry betrayed nothing.
‘How rude of me,’ he said, ‘not to share.’
‘I don’t know what you have to be depressed about,’ Ray broke in. ‘We’re in the goddamn golden age, my friend.’
Harry’s smile twisted like a corkscrew.
‘Pity,’ he said. ‘We were holding out for the apocalypse, weren’t we, Christine?’
Again Harry caught my eye. Again I balked. Even now I couldn’t tell what Harry wanted from me, or whether flustering me was just part of his fun.
I didn’t say anything. Harry went on. He went to the kitchen. He brought out the veal.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, setting down a plate in front of Ursula, who grimaced. ‘I won’t say a word to your fans.’ He put a finger to his lips.
He passed around the rest of the plates. He kept his eyes on Ursula.
‘Or have I gone too far?’
Ursula sat up a little straighter.
‘Never, Harry. Not in your life.’
She picked up the knife. She made several surgical, methodical cuts. She speared a piece of veal onto the back of her fork. She swallowed.
‘Delicious,’ she said.
Everybody laughed. Even Ralph.
‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world, darling,’ Ray said. ‘We’re just meat ourselves.’
Ursula kept on eating. We kept on watching her eat, transfixed, less by the food itself—like the soup, it was mediocre—than by the blush of her cheeks, and the determination in her eyes.
Then she started to choke.
At first we thought she was joking. Surely this was just one of the little cruelties that gave the Black Dinners their charm. Harry had made Ursula eat veal; now Ursula would give us all a good scare; any minute now, she would leap to her feet and curtsy.
Only: Ursula’s skin was mottled. Her lips were blue. She raised her fingers to her face, and only after Janine cried, ‘My God, someone do something!’ did Ray leap to his feet and start thrusting his fist against her diaphragm, but she coughed up only empty air. In panic she grasped at the tablecloth; in panic she pulled it with her as she threw herself forward, out of Ray’s reach, and then six sets of black plates clattered to the floor.
She was dead before she hit the ground.
Nobody moved. We all sat there, in stupid shock, staring at the body. Her eyes were still open.
‘But we did it …’ Ray repeated, vaguely. ‘The Heimlich.’
Janine took a few wary steps toward the body.
‘Maybe you didn’t do it right.’
‘Of course I did it right, Janine! For God’s sake, don’t I know when—’
‘She didn’t choke,’ Harry said. He was kneeling now by the body. His voice was hollow. ‘She must have eaten something …’
‘Christ, Ray, a person can’t be allergic to veal!’ Janine rounded on Harry. ‘Oh, God, she wasn’t allergic to veal, was she?’
Harry shook his head. All the color had drained from his face.
‘Just soy,’ he said. ‘The others—the others were mild, but …’ He swallowed. ‘There wasn’t …’ It was the first time I’d ever seen Harry tongue-tied. ‘I mean, I didn’t …’
Then Ralph emitted a long, low scream.
Janine got it out of him, once she’d slapped him into silence. He hadn’t known, he said. He’d thought it was one of her fake allergies, the funny ones, that at most it would give her indigestion or comical hives, or else it would do nothing at all to her, except give him the satisfaction of swooping in at dessert time and revealing that this, too, had been something she’d lied about for clout. He’d found the bottle of soy sauce in Harry’s cabinet when he’d gone through to the bathroom. He’d just been trying to sing for his supper.
‘I was just doing,’ he sputtered, ‘what you wanted!’
Harry didn’t answer him.
Ralph crumpled. He put his head between his knees. He put his hands over his mouth. It didn’t stop his screams.
‘Right,’ Harry said, after another moment. ‘What do we do with the body?’
He turned to me. ‘What do you think, Christine? Should I call the police?’ His smile twisted further. ‘After all, I do have a phone.’
‘Come on, now, Harry.’ Ray rose. He coughed out a few nonsensical words. ‘I mean … let’s take a second here.’
He wiped sweat off his forehead.
‘I mean, it’s not going to bring her back, is it?’
Harry’s smile tightened.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose it will.’
‘We weren’t the ones—’ Janine cut in. ‘I mean, it’s one thing to have a little fun, you know. Bring a few cigars—’
‘Cigars,’ Ray echoed.
‘But we didn’t have anything to do with it!’
Harry’s expression didn’t change.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You didn’t have a thing to do with it.’
‘And it’s not’—Ray’s gaze fell on Ralph, still sobbing in the corner—’it’s not like he’s curing cancer or anything.’
‘No great loss to humanity,’ he said. ‘Hell, not even a great loss to Hollywood.’
Ray looked so relieved then. Relieved Ray could be charitable.
‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘She was—she was a heck of a girl, Harry. And it’s—it’s a terrible thing.’ Janine’s eyes were already darting toward the door.
Ursula’s eyes, glassier now, had rolled upward.
Ray and Janine rose at the exact same time.
Harry considered them. His smile was as thin as the edge of a knife.
‘I’ll get your coats,’ he said.
Then we were three. Not counting the body.
I helped Harry clean up the dishes. I mopped up the wine. Ralph was lying, shaking, on the bathroom floor. He’d already vomited once. He would not look at either one of us.
‘Poor kid,’ Harry said. ‘You’ve got to wonder, don’t you, what the hell he wanted to impress me for.’
‘Everybody wants to impress you, Harry.’
‘God knows why.’ His laugh was dark. ‘I’m just a washed-up, middle-aged man pretending there’s something interesting about evil.’
There was no use now in being anything but kind. ‘You’re honest,’ I said. ‘That’s why people want to impress you. They know you see the truth.’
‘Much good may it do me in hell.’
Another wail echoed from the bathroom.
‘Poor kid,’ Harry said. ‘It wasn’t his fault.’
Then Harry grabbed my hand.
I couldn’t remember the last time Harry had touched me like that. Maybe he never had. He grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it so desperately I thought the bones would break.
‘It’s mine,’ he said. ‘Isn’t it?’
I’d gotten so used to lying by now. I’d lied to Gabe about coming here. I’d lied to Harry about my engagement—there was no use pretending now that lies of omission weren’t lies. It would have been so easy to have said some ameliorating, untrue thing, like It wasn’t so bad and You didn’t mean it or It wasn’t a big deal, to tell Harry that all he’d really done, in the end, was feed a vegan some meat. It would have been technically true.
But Harry had done one thing for me in 15 years. He’d never lied to me. I could not lie to him.
‘Yes,’ I said.
He did not let his expression change.
‘Thank you,’ he said, quietly.
He went into the bathroom. He clapped Ralph on the shoulder.
‘Come on, kid,’ he said, in a gentler voice than I’d ever heard him use. ‘Skedaddle.’
Ralph looked up at him in astonishment.
‘Y-you’re not calling the police?’
‘Of course I’m going to call the police,’ Harry said. ‘That’s why you need to get the hell out of here before they come.’
At last, at last, Ralph understood.
He scrambled to his feet. He looked, uncomprehending, from me to Harry and back again. He hesitated only a moment. After all, he too was a survivor.
‘I’ll see you, Harry,’ Ralph said.
Then Harry and I were alone.
We lifted the body. We laid her down, as tenderly as we could, in the bedroom, on the duvet. We covered her with one of the drapes from the living room walls. We brought in the candelabras, and let the candles flicker on the bedside table. Harry bent over her and pressed his lips quickly to her forehead. He shuddered, and said nothing for a moment, then looked up at me.
‘Do we say something?’
‘May light perpetual shine upon her.‘ It was the only prayer I could remember.
‘May light perpetual shine upon her.’
We sat again at the dining table. Harry poured the last of the wine. He went to the sound system, and he put on music.
‘I figured,’ he said, with a hint of his old grin, ‘we might as well.’
It was our apocalypse playlist.
‘Well, old friend,’ Harry said. He lifted his glass. ‘We’ve had fun, haven’t we?’
‘Yes, Harry,’ I said. ‘We’ve had fun.’
‘A toast.’ Harry’s smile grew sour. ‘To Arete. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.’ He slumped back in his chair.
I had almost forgotten about Gabe.
‘You know what’s funny?’ Harry said suddenly.
‘They don’t have Arete in jail.’ He shrugged. ‘I mean … the prisoners.’ He leaned back in his chair. ‘Cameras, sure. Security cameras everywhere, watching you sleep or take a shit. But no phones. You’re just … invisible. Nobody looking at the inside of your soul except God.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘I never thought much about it before.’ His old smile flickered. ‘Maybe it’ll be like the dinners.’ He saw my face. ‘Don’t feel too sorry for me, Christine,’ he said. ‘I’m getting exactly what I’ve always wanted.’
He gripped my hand more tightly.
‘You should go,’ Harry said. ‘Figure out how you’re going to explain all this to Gabe.’
The thing is: I could have explained it to Gabe if I’d wanted to. I could have thrown myself on his mercy, as I so often had, fallen to my knees and explained that I was nothing but a leaf in other people’s gales, that I had let Harry blow me toward wickedness because I was young—oh, but not young enough—because I was foolish, because I did not know my own mind, because I did not know well enough to listen to people like Gabe who knew everything. Gabe probably would have forgiven me. He would have kissed me on the forehead, or on the cheek, and told me that this was why the world needed Arete, in the first place, for people like me. Probably he would have married me anyway.
I do not know what Arete would have made of my sitting with Harry until the end. It might have told me that I was doing what I had always done with Harry, giving comfort to a man who did not deserve any. It might have told me to run home without stopping, into the light that was breaking invisible outside the curtains, to tell Gabe everything, or to work off my guilt at a soup kitchen or an animal shelter until at last the scales were balanced and I owed no debt upon my soul. It might have given me a thousand useful suggestions: ways to make the best of those hours, both interminable and too quick, that Harry and I sat in silence, invisible, still, to the world, with my hand upon his hand, and our apocalypse playlist echoing, on repeat, and the candles flickering to ash in the next room, waiting for the revelation of morning.
I do not think I would have taken one.
Read a response essay by an expert in computing.
‘The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,’ by Cat Rambo
‘Out of Ash,’ by Brenda Cooper
‘This, but Again,’ by David Iserson
‘All That Burns Unseen,’ by Premee Mohamed
‘The Only Innocent Man,’ by Julian K. Jarboe
‘Yellow,’ by B. Pladek
‘Galatea,’ by Ysabelle Cheung
‘Universal Waste,’ by Palmer Holton
‘A Lion Roars in Longyearbyen,’ by Margrét Helgadóttir
‘Bigfeet,’ by Torie Bosch
‘Intangible Variation,’ by Meg Charlton
‘The Preschool,’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage
‘Escape Worlds,’ by K Chess
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