RAVENWARE

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Pentagon City

Next morning, the adrenaline hit with the alarm. I got up early and easily. I poured my coffee into a thermos and took a short, cold shower. By the time I snatched my keys off the shelf, my mom was emerging bleary eyed from her bedroom. It was still dark out.

“So early,” she muttered. I never left before my mom. In fact it was a morning ritual for her to shake me awake so I could move my car and let her out of the driveway.

“I’ve got to go to Virginia,” I said, kissing her on the cheek. “Have a good day! I’ll see you tonight.”

“Virginia?” she said. The screen door clapped shut behind me.

I parked in the lot and made my way to the enormous building. Many of the people inside were in suits and office wear. I felt a bit out of place in my uniform which was pretty ironic, but whatever. Checking the notes on my phone, I made my way to the office where I was scheduled to meet with the Shaved Man.

His office was gorgeous. Everything was finished wood and glistening steel, and there was a massive flat screen T.V. mounted on the wall.

“Good morning,” he said, shaking my hand. “I hope you came ready to get started.”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I mean-yes. I just still do not fully understand what we’re doing here.” The Shaved Man nodded.

“Perfectly understandable,” he said. “Let’s clear that up right now. Follow me.” We walked back to the elevator. He scanned an ID card, which opened up a panel containing a keypad where he typed a four digit code. We began to descend.

The doors slid soundlessly open and we were at the end of a long hallway with concrete walls painted a redundant shade of grey. The Shaved Man walked and I followed a few steps behind. The doors in the hallway were featureless. By the time we arrived at our destination, the elevator doors were small behind us. The Shaved Man flashed his card in front of a pad on the wall, pressed his thumb into a gel-reader and punched in a code. One of the doors slid to one side, like we were getting into another elevator. I hesitated.

“Let’s go,” he said. I stepped after him into a room the size of a closet. The door shut behind us and we were plunged into perfect darkness.

“Alright then,” he said. “It’s time to wake up.” For a moment we just stood there. Then, light flooded the room through a rectangular window. We were in a small viewing area. Beyond the glass was a larger room. Concrete floor, metal toilet, one bed with a thin grey blanket. Beneath the covers something stirred. The Shaved Man hit a button on the wall.

“Lydia,” the Shaved Man barked. “You have a visitor.”

Everything went fuzzy, like I had been sucker punched. Lydia slowly sat up, moving silently behind the class. Her pale feet hit the concrete, and she breathed in. Patches were missing from her dirty blonde hair, revealing irritated pink scalp. She shrugged off the blanket and walked toward the glass. Her frame was skeletal, bones protruding. Her eyes were fat, pink Homer-Simpson donuts around pale blue irises. Her pupils were shrunk to pinpricks in the harsh light. She stopped when she reached the glass. I only realized she couldn’t see me when she spoke, her voice like dry paper.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

The next few hours passed in a haze. I felt trapped inside my own body as a succession of guys in suits shook my hand and explained their job titles to me. The task before me seemed so gargantuan. How was I supposed to explain to a series of guys from silicon valley, from ********, from the fucking Pentagon, that they were wrong, that Lydia’s rituals were just something weird to do while you’re high? A few times I tried, faltering, struggling not to cry or let my voice crack, but they talked over me. After an hour of introductions, the Shaved Man took me back to his office. I started explaining again about the challenges, that it was all dumb internet shit. He interrupted.

“Convince her to help us,” the Shaved Man said. “Talk to her. If she cooperates, we can have a very productive conversation with a judge that could see her walking free in five years.”

“Go free?” I said. My head spun. “She killed her mom.”

The Shaved Man seemed surprised.

“I thought the two of you were friends,” he said cautiously. “You’re saying you don’t want to see her walk?”

“I don’t know,” I sputtered. “I never figured I’d have a say in this. There was a trial, a judge-”

“You’re missing the point,” the Shaved Man said, sitting on his desk. He took off his glasses. “I’m telling you, we can help her. We can get her moved somewhere more comfortable, shave decades off her sentence. We can even put her in a program that helps her re-adjust to normal life. Listen, believe it or not, I’m a progressive at heart. We all know the criminal justice system in this country is too retributive. But it doesn’t have to be that way for Lydia. We can get her moved somewhere where she can get the help she needs. We can give her a real shot. And we can do it all while serving our country. Do you see what I’m saying?”

I swallowed and nodded. My stomach felt like it was full of roiling acid, like I was about to burp fire or barf something that would burn through the floor. I regretted every cup of coffee I had ever consumed. I craved a tall glass of almond milk.

“Good,” he said, putting his glasses back on. “Now-”

“Aniyah Jackson,” I blurted. He paused.

“Who?”

Aniyah Jackson was one of the friends I made after I stopped hanging out with Lydia in high school. Aniyah had gone through an evolution similar to mine, grinding on AP courses until she just couldn’t anymore. We used to go to parties together after we both stopped caring.

The same night I did that last ritual with Lydia, Aniyah was at a party in D.C. that got broken up by the cops. After they found an unregistered gun at the apartment where the party was being held, cops took everyone in and, since this was D.C. where practically anything you can get in trouble for is treated like the crime of the century, Aniyah ended up listed on a federal gang database as a member of the “Langston Lane Lynch Mob.” Aniyah, who wore a Steven Universe backpack in 11th grade and had full episodes of Sailor Moon memorized, was listed on an organized crime database as a gang enforcer.

Aniyah’s listing on the database allowed them to lump her together with a dozen other people on the firearms charge. She had spent the past four years at a medium security prison in Louisiana for drinking two beers and sharing a joint at a house party. I didn’t explain any of this to the Shaved Man.

“Aniyah Jackson,” I said. “She’s in prison. She goes free too.” The Shaved Man shared at me like he was seeing me for the first time. I thought I heard his teeth grind.

“Get Bukovitch on board,” he said. “Then we’ll talk.”

An hour later Lydia and I were at the Pentagon City mall food court, charging the federal taxpayers for Panda Express and Taco Bell. Both meals were for Lydia. My stomach was still upset, so I just ordered a caffeine free green tea from Panera Bread.

“This place has a lot of history you know,” Lydia said, shoveling a forkful of fried rice into her now mostly toothless mouth and pairing it with a bite of crunch-wrap supreme. These were the first words she had spoken to me in five years. Sunlight poured in through the glass panels in the ceiling. Lydia wore a plain black pair of sweatpants and a grey hooded sweatshirt that she had been given before leaving the Pentagon.

“Arlington?” I asked. She washed down her first bite with a gulp of Mountain Dew. She shook her head.

“This mall,” she said. “This food court actually. This is where Monica Lewinsky was having lunch when the special counsel people kidnapped her for interrogation. Right where we’re sitting is where Mon realized that that dick she sucked had fucked up her life forever, and that there was nothing in the world she could do to un-suck that dick.” Lydia took another massive bite of crunch-wrap supreme and her eyes rolled back in ecstasy.

“Oh my god,” she moaned. “Amazing.” She wiped her lips and leaned back.

“I only bring it up because you’re sort of in the same situation,” she said. “Point of no return.”

I glanced our nearest handler from the corner of my eye. He was in plainclothes, cargo pants and a flannel shirt, pretending to read a newspaper. I guess in his mind that was helping him blend in, but it actually made him stick out due to the fact that no one in the United States has read a newspaper since like 2009. I sighed and turned back to Lydia.

“Look,” I said as she hunched over her fried rice and began to shovel it into her mouth. “I’m sorry.”

“What for?” she said through a mouthful of rice. All the missing teeth meant that it took her twice the time and effort to chew a single bite. That gave me more time to think of an answer. I still didn’t come up with anything.

“I’m just sorry for everything that’s happened,” I said. I took a sip of my green tea and burned my lips and tongue. “Ow.”

“It’s O.K.,” Lydia said. “What do they want us to do anyway?” I looked to the handler again. No help.

“They want you to help them make a computer,” I said.

“Mm,” Lydia said. At first I thought she was just enjoying the last bites of her burrito. “How do we do that?” I sipped my green tea.

“I have no idea,” I admitted. Lydia sucked down the rest of her soda and belched. She leaned back in her seat.

“You have never tasted anything like what I just tasted,” she said. “After two years of inside-food, Taco Bell is like manna from heaven. I swear I could eat that whole meal again.”

She stood and stretched. I saw all our handlers, stationed strategically throughout the food court and on the floors above, twitch.

“I’m gonna get some clothes,” she said. “You wanna come?” Lydia skipped over to the escalator and the guys minding us all re-oriented themselves to block the exits. Instead of following her, I shuffled over to the handler sitting in the food court.

“Hey,” I whispered. “The prison where she was kept. Where was it? Was it like, your standard prison, or what?” The handler kept his eyes glued on the day-old copy of the Washington Post.

“Do not speak to me,” he hissed. “Mind the asset.”

I followed Lydia up the escalator. She was looking for all the goth stores (Hot Topic and Spencer’s) that had closed while she was inside. She ended up just going to Macy’s for a pair of jeans, a simple dress, a jacket and some shirts. I followed not too far behind, sipping my tea and glancing occasionally over my shoulder at the handlers.

While we stood in line at Macy’s I tried talking again.

“How have you been?” I asked.

“I mean I haven’t been anything,” she said, flatly. “I’ve been in prison.” I nodded.

“Right,” I said. “What was that like?” Lydia suddenly got really interested in the tags on the jacket, checking the price in spite of the fact that we had a bottomless Pentagon debit card we could use to buy whatever we wanted.

“Well,” she said. “It’s sort of a blur. I was in jail for a while in Maryland. Then I got a public defender, then my public defender sold me downriver. Then I got transferred a couple times, to West Virginia, then to Pennsylvania. Who knows why they move people where they move them? They put you with a bunch of other prisoners into a bus, you go on a drive and you end up in another big building full of people you wish you’d never met.”

We made it to the front of the line and I swiped the debit card to pay for the clothes. As soon as the transaction had processed, Lydia grabbed her clothes off the counter and stalked toward the exit. I ran to catch up. She put on her jacket as we re-entered the main part of the mall.

“Then one day, two guys in suits, just normal black suits, not uniforms or anything, showed up. They showed up at visiting hours, to this dirty Pennsylvania prison. They told me that they had looked at my case and at my books. You remember my books.”

I nodded, jogging to keep up with Lydia’s stride. She led us out of the mall. The gaggle of handlers following us trotted behind.

“Keep her in the mall!” one said into my earpiece. “Do not leave the mall!” Lydia was standing close enough to hear.

“Relax,” she said. “I’m just going to CVS.” The CVS was across the street. Lydia did not wait for a red light, much less the walk signal. Brakes screeched as half a dozen sport utility vehicles skidded unexpectedly to a stop. I caught one of the soccer moms’ expressions as she got a good look at Lydia. She looked like an alien species. Enormous eyes sunken in their sockets, stringy hair like strands of seaweed.

Miraculously we made it to the other side of the street. I followed Lydia into CVS.

“They told me that I was a special case,” she said, stopping at the shaving supplies. “They said I didn’t belong in a normal prison, and that they wanted to take me somewhere more comfortable. They bought me candy from the commissary and ripped into the warden about how I was being treated, right in front of me.” She turned to me, a can of shaving cream in her hand, a package of razors tucked under her armpit, looking thoughtful.

“At that time, what was happening hadn’t really sunk in yet,” she said. “Even after months in prison, I didn’t get it.” She turned away and headed up to the counter. I swiped the debit card and the cashier dropped the razors and shaving cream into a plastic bag. Lydia headed for the exit and stopped cold just short of the automatic doors, close enough that the motion censor activated. Outside, the handlers were standing in a semi-circle. no longer bothering to try and blend into the crowd. She swallowed.

“They took me on a commercial flight,” she said. “My wrists were flex-tied, but I was out. Outside. It felt so normal. I got a Cinnabon and a smoothie and a book from the Hudson News. The place they were taking me… They described it like it was a hospital. I still thought that when we got to the airport in Denver. We got off the plane, and got into a helicopter, and we flew over the Rocky Mountains. And the guys in suits, they told me all about how old the mountains were, and all about the black bears and bighorn sheep that lived up there. The air was thin, but it was so crisp and clean."

"It was the most beautiful day of my life."

“Then we got there,” she said. “This big grey building, way up in the mountains. I probably would have started screaming right when I saw it if it hadn’t been for those men. They were still talking about the big, beautiful library, and about the activities I would do, and how I would be so much more comfortable here than I had been in that awful prison in Pennsylvania. I ate it up. I didn’t question why a hospital would be in the mountains and only accessible by helicopter. We landed, and we went inside, and I still felt safe. More men came to greet us in this common area. They introduced me, like I was a friend of theirs. It wasn’t dirty. The walls were white and the furniture was all pretty and soft. I didn’t see any other detainees. Just guys who worked there, in suits or button up shirts.”

A silvery tear slithered down Lydia’s face. I didn't look away this time.

“While they talked, I fell asleep on a couch. It felt like I was only out for a few minutes. When I woke up, I asked where the men who brought me had gone. Nobody answered me. Someone hoisted me up by the arm, hard, and dragged me to another office. A guy I had never seen before was sitting at a computer. He glanced up at me and… And he asked me if I had liked seeing the mountains. And I said yes, they were beautiful. And he smiled. And he said that he was glad I liked seeing them, because I would never see them again. I would never see the sun. So I started screaming. At first I screamed for the men who had brought me there, who bought me books and candy. I wanted them to come back. Then I screamed to be let out of the room the guards took me to, a room kept flooded with white light every day and night, a light so bright that it broke time. Then I screamed to deprive myself of oxygen, to black out, because that was the only way I could see something like darkness anymore. Then one day I realized that I was tired of screaming but that I couldn’t stop. It was a reflex, like breathing. Then one day they injected something into my neck and I woke up in Virginia, and then we went to the mall, and then…” Her chest was heaving.

“I haven’t even looked in the mirror yet,” she breathed. “Do I look the same?” Her knees buckled. I caught her as she collapsed to the CVS floor, her razor and shaving cream spilling out onto the floor. Our handlers ran into the store and grabbed both of us.

“Hey!” I said. “Easy!”

“Back in the vehicle,” one grunted. “Let’s go.” They hustled us back to the black SUV we had arrived in and crammed Lydia into the back seat. One of them flex-cuffed her as she shook and sobbed. I took a deep breath and faced forward.

“That’s it for field trips,” the driver said, glaring back at me through the rear view mirror.

They shepherded Lydia back inside without letting me talk to her again and sent me home for the day. For the rest of the “project,” we would work at a more discreet location in central Virginia. I was to report there the next day, prepared to spend up to a week away from home.

“I don’t suppose I have to remind you that you cannot under any circumstances discuss the substance of this project with your family? Or anyone else?” the Shaved Man asked me. I shook my head.

All I had done that day was follow Lydia around a mall for half an hour, but I felt exhausted.

I felt O.K. driving home from Virginia, so I kept driving. I drove to our high school and sat in the parking lot, trying to cry. I drove to the apartment where Lydia had lived with her mom and managed to successfully trigger a series of ugly sobs. I drove to the graveyard where I figured Ms. Bucovitch was buried but couldn’t find her. After an hour it occurred to me to check inside the welcome center, in the hallway with those slots where they put people who can’t afford a plot in the ground. Sure enough, there was a featureless square devoted to Maria Bucovitch, Registered Nurse at Medstar Hospital, refugee from an abusive husband and a collapsing Soviet Union, murdered by her own daughter, my friend, Lydia.


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