And the Frog

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21

They began the trek down, and Emma took the time to observe the three seated figures. In the middle was a someone in a pin-striped suit, wearing a top hat that looked to have a veil of black cloth sewn to the front of the brim, so that the figure’s face was covered. Emma couldn’t tell if this were man or woman. Whichever it was, they’re legs were crossed tightly. In the right chair, without legs crossed, sat Jang-soo. Before she could see who was in the left, John turned his head and said over his shoulder,

“That creepy prick in the middle is Goodnight.”

“Goodnight?” said Emma.

“Yeah.”

“Her name is Goodnight?” she took a gamble with the pronoun. “That’s a dumb name.”

“I know it is,” said John. “I don’t know if her is correct today. It changes all the time, keeping us our toes and whatnot.”

Alright then. For her personally, there was nothing frightening about a little androgyny. She found herself initiating the anticipation of the sound of Goodnight’s voice. She looked at the left-sitting figure, and couldn’t help but to halt her stepping. It was her grandmother, smiling wryly up at her. She blinked once, because that’s a classic move when you’re surprised, and you’re being watched. Then she compelled herself to continue descending.

When he had about five more steps ahead of him, John said, “Mornin’ all. I believe Marigold heralded our arrival.” He reached the bottom, looked to Emma’s grandmother. “Frankie. Didn’t expect to see you.” Then he looked to Jang-soo. He tipped his head once. “Jim.” The old man tipped his head back. Oh. It hit Emma just then. That’s where she’d seen him before – in the parking lot of Marigold’s favorite La Quinta.

Her grandmother didn’t acknowledge John in the slightest, but she looked up at Emma and said, “Look, I got a promotion.” Her voice rung like they were in a giant bathroom. A promotion. To what, exactly? She was tempted to ask but had the sense that she’d most probably be talked over. She’d never been all too fond of speaking freely when there was an unfamiliar person in the room. Jamie reached the floor in front of her, and she promptly followed.

“First things first,” said John. “The kid needs entry. He should go be with his mom.”

No immediate answer, just a whole lot of staring. Jamie stood still, half behind John. Then a voice came from Goodnight. “Well, yes.” It was a cool woman’s voice, and Emma took a moment to congratulate herself on her correct guess. But the next words were in the tone of a haggard man. “The boy is positively inculpable. His eligibility for admittance is unquestionable.” Oh, the gender-switching here was a rapid situation. The woman’s voice returned. “Unlike you, you fucker.”

John raised his hands, palms toward the seated three. “I know,” he said. “I’m a fucker. Just me.”

“Just you?” said Goodnight the man. “Why assert that, John Bain?”

John lowered his hands, and they slapped his thighs. “You know why. Because what Emma did – that’s on me.”

“Aw,” the woman’s voice again, “John Bain, that is so sweet.” Goodnight uncrossed and re-crossed their legs. “Sweet like . . . like . . .”

“Syrup,” said Emma’s grandmother.

“Syrup,” said Goodnight. “That’s good. Like syrup.” And then a pause, and then a subtle turn of the head behind the veil. And then the haggard man’s voice. “And what about you, Emmaline Humphrey. What argument do you bring before this council? Is John right to assert that he is the only fucker in the room?”

Emma, who was still standing on the last step, looked at Goodnight, glanced at her grinning grandmother, looked back at Goodnight. How calculated did her words need to be? Her grandmother had made it sound so simple last night – just go in and reject the job of Tilling. Just turn it down. But for one thing, that wasn’t the question she’d just been asked (as far as she could tell anyway) and for another, these kinds of things were bound to be harder when one came to the actual doing. But wait, why should it be? It was simple. Her grandmother was right there. She had the best support she possibly could have had. She lifted her chin, just a bit.

“Fucker or not,” she said, trying to play along although she felt strongly that the words coming out of her mouth were not what she’d have gone with, given the choice, “I’m to gain entry with the kid.”

John turned quickly around, clearly stunned. “Emma, you . . .” And then there was that long, cacophonous silence that followed awkward declarations in large chambers, you know the one.

“With the kid?” said the cool woman’s voice. “The kid you killed?” There did seem to be a mite of genuine surprise in the tone. Perhaps Emma should make sure to be explicit about what she was saying. And probably a skosh polite, to be safe.

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to be a Tiller.”

John’s eyes were wide, so wide that his face almost looked brand new to her. She looked to her grandmother, who was shaking her head. She looked to Jang-soo, who honestly looked like he was having trouble staying awake. Goodnight’s legs uncrossed again and the unplanted foot found its way to the glass floor with a resounding slap. They put their hands together, palm to palm with finders straightened, and put the fingertips up to where their chin would be behind the veil.

“Do you realize how funny what you just said is?” man’s voice. “Holy shit. Holy shit, if I wasn’t a professional, I would be laughing so very hard right now. You . . . reject the offer?” They tilted their hands, still pressed together, toward Emma so that the fingers pointed at her. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Yes? That wasn’t the answer she should’ve gotten. It was supposed to be very well, carry on then. “Yes . . .” she drew out the word so that she looked both at Goodnight and her grandmother before she finished saying it. Her eyes settled on her grandmother. “Right?” she said. “You said . . .”

Her grandmother put her elbows on her knees, like she had last night. “I said what?”

This situation was downright smelly. “Last night . . . you said I didn’t have to be a Tiller. You said it was just a job.”

“Honey,” her grandmother met her eyes, and that way she knew the next words the woman spoke would be an absolute bombshell, “we didn’t speak last night.”

“What?” What was she doing? Why was she doing this? “Grandma, I had the dream. You came and spoke to me, right outside.” She threw a thumb point over her shoulder. “You said he was confused.” She twisted the thumb at John.

“Sounds to me like she’s confused,” said woman Goodnight.

Her grandmother shook her head again. “Emma,” she said, sitting back, “some dreams are just dreams.” No. She could not be serious. “We’ve spoken only twice since you died.” The old woman held up two fingers. “And the second time, you were honestly a bit of a rude shit.”

But . . . but . . . “but you told me to come find you.” Her grandmother said nothing. “You did, right? What happened to that?”

“Oh, honey,” said the woman, “that was then. I had plans, I did. But Goodnight came and changed my mind, gave me a promotion to change my mind.” She looked for a bit too long at the veiled whoever it was. “Things are so different, after you die. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.” Well, she did. “It just hadn’t caught up to me yet. I want different things now. And let’s be honest,” the grin returned, “you changed your name. You’re not really my granddaughter any more, are you?”

Ouch. This was not happening. This right here was a legitimate fiction. Her grandmother was supposed to be the one stout totem, the north star, all that bologna. She was supposed to be the one person she could count on for security and reassurance. This woman was not at all her grandmother. But then, that’s what she just said, isn’t it?

“To be clear,” chimed Goodnight’s man voice, “your demand is swiftly denied. You are very much on the chopping block. So, so very much, kid killer. You might not have been, had you not tried to pull that little uppity stunt.” Uppity? She wasn’t trying to be uppity. She had no experience with this whole post-mortem system. How could she even understand the parameters by which uppityness was defined here? She felt painfully compelled to explain herself.

“I wasn’t trying to be uppity, I just –”

But Goodnight just kept talking, clearly uninterested in any rebuttal. “Sweet, sweet John Bain tried for you Emmaline Humphrey. Tried to save your ugly soul and you went and ruined it with your . . ..”

“Hubris,” said her grandmother.

A vigorous nod from Goodnight. “Right, hubris.”

She inhaled to speak again but John grabbed her arm and squeezed. His eyes had shrunken back down to their normal size but they were still in shock, and sad. She looked away from him, not wanting to see the reflection of her mistake in his face.

“Which means we are left to decide the nature of penance, for the both of you,” said Goodnight. John exhaled a heavy breath, though Emma didn’t remember him having taken one, and turned back to the small council. “Now, the challenge here is to discover under which conditions you would truly suffer.” Goodnight stretched both of their long arms back and laid their hands on the backs of the two chairs to the sides of theirs. “I know a good deal about you, John Bain, but Emmaline Humphrey has not been punished by this judicial body before.” Emma curled her toes in her shoes. What was there to decide? Wasn’t Tilling itself a punishment? But then, it did occur to her that there could be much worse things. “Emmaline Humphrey, what are you thinking about?” That was a rhetorical question, right? She didn’t answer. Goodnight kept on. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you to tell me what would make you suffer?” Now that had to be a trick question. Keep your wits about you, Emma. Or more precisely, keep your mouth shut and your wits inside you, Emma. She could feel Goodnight’s eyes, assuming Goodnight had eyes, studying her top to bottom. Finally, the hatted figure threw their arms up in the air and said, “A test!” And then blackness.

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