David Colarusso’s short story, “Life” is the winner of the third annual Lawyerist Short Fiction Contest.
The last full measure of devotion.
Edna first encountered those words on a visit to the nation’s capital. She was 11; the words, 125. Now she stood before them a foot taller. Events had changed their meaning. Lincoln’s marble form surveyed the reflecting pool below, moonlight and monuments dancing across its surface. Memorials to the honored dead framed the scene. Yet, life, not death, haunted Edna’s thoughts. Lincoln’s nation had endured. Banners heralding its tricentennial sat atop light posts. Edna, however, was concerned with more recent, and more personal, history. She was here to see what would come of a choice she had made decades ago, a choice that had joined with millions of others to write an unforeseen future. She was here to see how the republic reconciled this future with a long-cherished ideal.
When she reached the Supreme Court just shy of four in the morning, Edna found two lines. The longer of the two was for the general public, the shorter for members of the Supreme Court Bar. Like many attorneys, Edna had sought membership in part for access to this line. She spoke with a member of the Capitol Police. He gave her a numbered card, and she joined the shorter line. Arguments would begin at ten. Until then, she would wait.
Edna’s attention was caught by the woman in line ahead of her. Two things stood out. First, she was seated in a folding chair reading a digipaper. The second reason was less mundane. The woman had gray hair.
Edna could not remember the last time she had gauged an adult’s age based on appearance. With most American adults having the appearance of someone in their mid-twenties or early thirties, it was a skill rarely exercised. The woman appeared to be in her early sixties, and Edna wondered whether she was moving closer to or away from the standard ideal. Few chose to remain mayflies, and for most, the aches and pains of age eventually prompted a change of heart. Either way, she had chosen to age past her prime. Why had she abstained? For a generation, the answer was self-apparent. It had been a mark of class. After all, who would choose to die?
Noting Edna’s interest, the woman stood, introducing herself. “Perdita” she offered, along with her hand.
The two shook, the second volunteering her name, “Edna.” She pointed timidly at Perdita’s supplies. The Court’s exclusion of electronics was ironclad. Designed to prevent the recording and broadcast of oral arguments, the only exception was for sensory implants or neural prosthetics. Many saw the ban as an unavoidable anachronism, a consequence of the justices’ tenure, a sign the Court was out of touch. The Court, however, saw it as a bulwark against a threat to its character. There was no way the digipaper would make it in, let alone the folding chair.
“I’m not bringing them in,” Perdita explained. “I’m a line stander.”
Somewhat quizzically, “I’m sorry?”
“A line stander. I’m holding someone’s place.” Edna looked puzzled. Perdita continued, “Don’t worry. I’m only holding it for one person.” She smiled. “It’s my job. You’re not from around here are you?”
Edna shook her head, “No.”
“Well, this town has a good number of lines and an equally good number of people who can’t take half a day to stand in them, mostly lobbyists looking for proximity–the one thing a video feed won’t get you.” Perdita clearly enjoyed explaining herself. “For a fee, I hold a place. Plus, I get to read my stories.” She smiled, holding up her digipaper. “So what’s all the hubbub?”
Perdita continued, “What’s the case? What are you here to see?”
Taken aback, Edna replied, “You don’t know?”
“I’m asking aren’t I?”
“Well, um… It’s a case called Flynn v. Massachusetts.” Edna paused, unsure how Perdita might respond. “It’s an Eighth Amendment case. That’s the one barring cruel and unusual punishment. Back in forty-seven, Matthew Flynn was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but what no one knew was that he was…” she searched for the right word, something formal, something that didn’t immediately conjure the pejorative pairing with mayfly.
Perdita saved Edna the trouble, “Evergreen?” Perdita paused, speaking slowly and with care. “No one knew he was evergreen?”
“That’s right.” Edna looked away, focusing first on her shoes, then on the Capitol dome. She had turned fifty the year the therapy became available. It involved replacing a person’s natural mitochondria with an engineered set, a set that worked to turn back the hands of time. Colloquially, the therapy was known as MMRT, often pronounced “mirt.” It stood for Methuselah Mitochondria Replacement Therapy.
Edna was an early adopter. She remembered the elation among her cohorts at conquering aging. She also remembered how short-lived the high was and how quickly a nation came to understand the concept of inelastic demand. There was no limit to what people would pay. After all, the benefits were transgenerational, since mitochondria are passed from mother to child. It laid bare the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. For the first time in human history, the rich really were a different breed. She remembered the riots, the bombings, the terror of it all. If Perdita was in her sixties, she would remember it too, maybe more so. She would have been a mayfly in her prime during the Ross administration, before the MMRT patents expired, before the intellectual property reforms of President Ortiz and her establishment of access to MMRT as a right, before the laying down of arms. Why had Perdita abstained?
As if reading her mind, Perdita asked, “Do you want the polite answer or the honest one?”
“The answer to why I’m not like you, why I’m not like this Flynn guy, why I’ve chosen to grow old?”
Edna assumed the motivation was religious. Most mayflies abstained as a matter of principle, if not religious, philosophical. Edna remembered the shape of these arguments from the time before MMRT. They would surface in popular fiction, fable, and late-night philosophizing over a beer. In Edna’s mind, they always mischaracterized the issue. Functional immortality was cast as an abomination, as if life were only worth living when measured against hardship, its fragility somehow the source of its worth. If people really believed that, Edna reasoned, they would have objected to all medical intervention. Sometimes the argument was framed as a matter of boredom. “Imagine how bored you’d get.” Edna felt this tack lacked imagination. She quietly wondered if and how the antagonist envisioned the afterlife. For Edna, these were stories aimed at convincing people they did not want what they could not have. MMRT proved Edna right. Eventually, even a majority of the world’s religions came around. All it took was a person of advanced years at the helm.
“The polite answer is that I’m waiting to make sure it’s safe.” Edna had forgotten this argument. It was common in the first few years of MMRT. Half a century later, however, this objection no longer registered in the zeitgeist.
Perdita smiled. This was her polite answer, after all, the brush-off she offered when people did not really want an answer. Here in line, under its imposed intimacy, such an explanation would not stand.
Perdita leaned in. “Here it comes,” Edna thought.
“I love my husband very much. We were both from working-class families, and when… I’m sorry, how old are you?”
Edna could not remember the last time anyone apologized for asking her age. Edna thought she knew what Perdita was getting at. She wanted to know if Edna had lived through the Meritocracy Movement or just read about it. She wanted to know if Edna remembered the world as it was? If she did, perhaps it would be easier. Reassuringly, Edna volunteered, “I could be your mother, maybe your grandmother.”
“Well then, you remember Ross. You remember what it was like. How hopeless it seemed.”
Edna nodded in confirmation.
“I didn’t see a way out. Everything was against me, against us. The whole world…Then I met George. I fell in love. We fell in love, and we knew we wanted to grow old together.”
Edna understood immediately. Her first marriage had ended post-treatment shortly after the children left home. Forever seemed more elusive the closer it came to reality. Of her close friends, all evergreens, only a few first marriages survived. Edna felt sad, first for herself, then for Perdita. Her marriage would end in death. “Then what?” she wondered. “Would the remaining spouse embrace MMRT or follow through on the suicide pact?”
Sylvia Flynn stood in her kitchen, her eyes locked with her son’s, the kitchen table between them. Her heart was breaking. More than anything, she wanted to hold him. She wanted to tell him everything would be all right. Never had a few feet seemed so large. Multiplying the distance was the gun in her son’s hand. It was pointed squarely at her chest. “I’ve failed him,” she thought.
It had been love at first sight. She had promised him on that day eighteen years ago that she would do anything for him. She would keep him safe. She would give him the home his biological mother could not. Eleven hours after he was left at the Tewksbury Fire House, Sylvia and her husband John had taken him home. The adoption had to wait a few months, but that day Sylvia and John’s waiting ended. It was the day they and Matthew became a family.
John, a firefighter, took great pride in the fact his son had come to them by way of a firehouse. That was before his job was made redundant, before robots designed to work in conditions too dangerous for humans supplemented then supplanted his work. People were still involved, but there were less of them, and they were not like John. John’s work as a firefighter had fed both his spirit and his bank account. Now he was lucky to add anything to Sylvia’s pay as a teacher. For John and those like him, work was increasingly hard to find, and it seemed to some that a national madness was taking hold.
De Tocqueville’s observation of American individualism driven by an abiding faith in opportunity rang less and less true for large swaths of the populous. The have-nots spoke only of the promise of meritocracy or the myth of meritocracy. It was no longer taken for granted. The world was broken. Sylvia had known this for some time, but now she saw it in Matthew’s eyes.
It had been nearly a year since Matt ran away, and now he was standing before Sylvia–a pillowcase of her jewelry in hand. He was high, and he needed money to stay that way. No one was home when he used the key hidden under the round stone in the flowerbed. Sylvia had surprised him. He motioned for her to hand over her rings. She began to remove them when a noise startled Matt. It was his father entering through the back door.
The gun went off. Sylvia fell, her body and the kitchen table between John and his son. John could do nothing but cradle Sylvia’s lifeless body in his arms. Looking up at his son, tears in his eyes, he boomed, “Put the gun down.” After noting the distance between them and the table’s obstruction, he pled, “Let me help.”
Matt stared at his father, studying the lines of his face. A symphony of emotions flashed across John’s eyes. It was hard to make out any one emotion amid the storm, but Matt was sure he recognized disappointment.
John searched Matt’s face for any sign of his son. John had just lost one love, and he worried he was losing another. If his son was in there, perhaps there was hope.
John repeated, “Let me help.”
The rush of emotion was deafening. Set on ending the cacophony, Matt’s muscles tightened, and he was alone.
When his mind cleared, Matt would have no memory of this night. He would never forgive himself.
A neighbor would discover the bodies three days later, abandoned on the kitchen floor, Sylvia in John’s arms, their ring fingers bare.
“You say the shooting was in forty-six?” Perdita questioned.
Edna nodded. She was coming to understand why Perdita had asked her age. It was true they had both lived through the Ross administration, but Edna’s confirmation of this proved a false shibboleth.
The forties had been a tumultuous time, yet there had been no shared national experience, such was the source of the tumult. In the years since, the majority had exchanged this truth for an abstraction. It was clear Perdita was not in the majority. Most viewed Flynn’s actions with macabre fascination for a bygone era. Perdita remembered them as a contemporary. For her, Flynn could have been a younger brother or the boy next door. She responded simply, “Such a waste.” It was an observation that spoke to more than Flynn’s case.
“Did he ever find his birth parents?” Perdita asked. It was a common question. After all, Flynn was a pre-Ortiz evergreen. It followed that his mother was the source of his longevity, and therefore a woman of means, someone who could afford the treatment. It was natural to wonder how he ended up a foundling on the stoop of a fire house. There were many theories. Perhaps his mother had been postmenopausal pre-MMRT, only to find herself unexpectedly fertile and pregnant. The pregnancy could have gone unnoticed for some time, narrowing her options. Perhaps he had been conceived under the shadow of infidelity or violence.
Edna feared Perdita’s speculation. Her stomach turned at the thought of someone standing in judgment over that distant decision. She wanted to talk about Matthew’s future. In all likelihood, more years lay before him than behind. Edna was certain the world would never know the truth. She thought back to a woman struggling to make the best decision she could. That decision had changed the course of her life. It marked the start of Matthew’s story, and Edna hoped beyond hope his story would not end here today.
Carter Moore sat in the cafeteria across from Matthew Flynn. More than anything, he wanted his friend to be sensible, to listen to reason. Carter was a popular man, a man the other inmates trusted. He was a jailhouse lawyer on the cusp of going pro. He had earned both a BA and JD while incarcerated. He would see the parole board by year’s end, and everyone expected a finding in his favor. Only time would tell if the Board of Bar Overseers would make a similar call on his admission to the bar. Either way, he would be missed, and he owed it all to his friend Matt.
When he arrived at the state prison, Carter was nineteen and angry. Matt was his lay chaplain, nearly a decade into his own sentence. Carter credited Matt with saving his life and perhaps his soul. He had shown Carter grace when the rest of the world held him in contempt. He had helped quiet Carter’s rage.
The two were halfway through lunch when Carter acknowledged what Matt never did. “Let me help.”
“I can’t imagine what with.”
“I’ve known you for a decade, and you haven’t aged a day.”
“Clean living,” Matt replied.
“I know you’ve made a point to accept your sentence. I know you see it and your work here as your penance, but you’re an evergreen.” Matt shrugged. Carter continued, “Life in prison without the possibility of parole… that’s a death sentence. Except in your case, they’ve removed the executioner.” Carter paused, “You were sentenced to life in prison, not purgatory.”
Matt rearranged the food on his tray. “More like a living hell,” he quipped, pointing to the tray’s contents. It was a joke he would not have made a few years earlier. It was then that he began to suspect what everyone now knew. He had stopped aging. He had been spared a human executioner by the Commonwealth’s lack of capital punishment. Matt knew he would die in jail. The realization that he was evergreen had changed that. Without the possibility of parole, there would be no release for body or soul. It was hell.
Matt knew evergreens were not strictly immortal. They still died, just not of old age or its ailments. For death to be certain, one had to take matters into his own hands. Matt had tried. His first attempt came long before the realization that he was evergreen. If the state could not sentence him to death, he would. A makeshift noose had failed to break his neck, allowing his jailers time to come to his aid. It and every attempt that followed only increased their vigilance. A transfer to the state mental hospital seemed inevitable. That was, until the ministry of Sister Ellen. She had helped him confront his demons, among them his addiction and its roots. Then somewhere along the line, she convinced him that all life was a gift from God, even his. It was not his to take any more than his parents’ had been. He did not know God’s plan, but he would do his best to be worthy of his grace. Be it purgatory or hell, he would serve his sentence. It was his penance. And so it was that Carter came to know Matthew Flynn the lay chaplain.
Carter outlined his legal argument. He figured the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment was triggered in cases like Matt’s, where a sentence was functionally infinite. Perhaps death would have been more humane, but with capital punishment off the table, the alternative was clear. Matt’s sentence must allow for the possibility of parole. It need not guarantee release, but it must recognize the possibility that his sentence could end.
Carter reviewed the traditional rationales for incarceration: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation. He knew no amount of time would bring back the Flynns. It seemed justifiable to isolate a threat to society, but Matt was no threat. It seemed right that a punishment should deter others, but Carter wasn’t arguing for a slap on the wrist. He wasn’t arguing that Matt be released. He was arguing for the state to entertain the possibility that, given enough time, a man could change. He was arguing that the state take seriously the goal of rehabilitation.
Something else bothered Carter. MMRT was a government entitlement, and it had been for nearly a decade. Thanks to President Ortiz, one could choose MMRT or Social Security. Eligibility had started with the elderly, but it fell every year. Eventually, all inmates would be evergreen.
Carter worried that while he would eliminate sentences like Matt’s, others would argue for their expansion. They would argue that lengthy sentences failed to defang serious criminals. No longer would they be frail and old upon release. They would be hardened angry men in their physical prime with nothing to lose. Carter feared many would argue that we had to abandon the hope of rehabilitation, that we had to throw away the key.
The argument that won Matt over was a corollary. It came after weeks of lobbying from Carter. Matt was scared. He wanted to believe that he had changed, but he did not know the outside, what it would do to him. Where he lacked faith in himself, however, he saw promise in others.
“This isn’t about you,” Carter explained. “It’s about everyone who follows. It’s about whether society recognizes their potential for penance, for redemption. We’re all sinners. Maybe a lifetime isn’t long enough to make amends, but given an eternity, who can say it’s impossible?”
Nearly a decade after Carter started the ball rolling, Flynn found his case before the Supreme Court, and Edna found herself outside, explaining what she could. Perdita’s face had gone sour. She sympathized with Flynn’s biography. Yet, she did not understand how the law could see his punishment as just one day and unjust the next. To her, his lawyers’ arguments said one thing, “An evergreen’s life is worth more than a mayfly’s.” It did not matter that anyone could become an evergreen. The case opened old wounds.
Edna wanted to explain that the arguments were not cynical, that the injustice had existed prior to it threatening her class. She wanted to explain that nearly three hundred years prior, America had helped birth the penitentiary, that the name itself was a promise, literally a place for penitence. She wanted to account for the lack of moral imagination that prevented most from seeing what had been true all along. She wanted someone to understand that none of us are defined by our worst action. She wanted to explain the choices she had made all those decades ago. Most of all, she wanted mercy for her son.
Edna could not find the words. By the time Perdita’s client arrived to claim his place, her status had reverted to that of stranger. All Edna knew for sure was that this case offered a chance at redemption.
By ten, Edna found herself seated inside, awaiting the justices’ arrival. In keeping with three hundred years of tradition, the Court’s Marshal opened the session with the strike of her gavel. Everyone stood as the justices entered. “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
Once again, the Marshal’s gavel landed with authority, and as he had for seventy-one years, as he would for the remainder of his lifetime appointment, the Chief Justice took his seat.
When I wrote this story it represented a potential future. Shortly thereafter, however, the Court stopped allowing members of the bar to make use of line standers. Consequently, it now finds itself taking place in a parallel world, one of yesterday’s tomorrows.
Editor’s note: David is already a contributor to Lawyerist, but his was the best story regardless.