We stepped through the gate into the outskirts of the capital. It was packed with people mulling through streets that started wide near the gate but thinned into alleys the closer you moved into the center, each street lined by square, flat buildings the color of sandstone. While it was afternoon and the sun was high in the sky, it was partially blocked above us by the massive spire of the Royal Palace, ever present, casting a giant, thin shadow across the slums of the city.
Dalton craned his neck to look over the sea of heads. “We should probably make our way around the perimeter if we want to get a decent spot to watch the ceremony. Avoid the worst of it.”
Ko’sa looked up at him. “We? Aren’t you on duty?”
He shrugged. “You saw the state of it back there; my checkpoint is already a disaster. I’m gonna get chewed out anyway I see it, so might as well enjoy the day. And I think you two owe me a lunch as well, now I think of it. Act of goodwill and all that.”
Ko’sa pretended to act exasperated, but I got the feeling that she had calculated these costs into our price of entry. “Come on then,” she said. “Need to stop at Hanger’s Square first to sell a few goods. All our gold was robbed on the road.”
We began to weave through the crowd, Dalton acting as a human bulldozer, plowing through people without any regard for human life. “City Guard!” he shouted before sending scores of people reeling in different directions with the twin pair of battering rams that doubled as a set of shoulders. “Coming through! You have been warned!”
Dalton led us to a parting in buildings that opened into a large cobble-stoned square. There were market stalls dotting the perimeter of the clearing, buzzing with traders and travelers. The buildings lining the square were taller and fancier, the front of each one draped with a large, painted banners the size of a billboard.
I took a step forward into the square and froze. Dalton and Ko’sa kept walking, unaware that I had stopped moving.
Looking back at me was the largest picture of my husband that I had ever seen.
It was a black and white painting, but unmistakably him. Thin, detailed brushstrokes portrayed him as proud and tall, looking out towards the sky. His expression was stern, unsmiling, making him look out of place and almost unfamiliar. There was a thin ringlet resting on top of his head, a complicated wreath of twisting metal snakes interlacing with one another, which seemed to add about a foot to his height alone. His right arm was extended towards heaven and ended in a fist, a clear gesture of power. His left arm was wrapped around a woman staring vacantly out into the square, who could only be his queen.
She was smaller than me, and the features of her face were beyond perfect, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The skin was smooth as a white pebble, as though the contrast of a photograph had been turned all the way up, her nose straight as an arrow, her lips too full, her hair as fair as silk, her eyes glassy and empty. There was a fake, unnatural look to her, as if her entire face had been constructed by a plastic surgeon’s idea of beauty. To me, she looked half human, and half doll. This woman was hardly someone I would describe as Malcolm’s type, yet there she was, holding on to him.
Until this point, I had been in denial that Malcolm could really be the ruler of this Kingdom, but there he was. It was real. It was all real.
As I studied the picture- my heart still in my throat- I recalled the day that Malcolm and I committed to each other. Like many life partnerships, that bond was forged long before we exchanged vows on an altar, before he asked me a symbolic question and presented a ring while a hidden camera man snapped pictures of us.
It was Friday, 4:55pm, and I was finishing up at the office. My phone was balanced precariously between my shoulder and left ear, and my fingers flew so fast over the keyboard that one might worry that sparks would begin to fly and the keys would start to smolder. The earliest I had gotten out of work all week was seven o’clock, but I had come in early today, and was one email away from becoming home free. I was focused on my mission, even with my best friend Emily unloading her life story of the week into the one ear pressed up against my Iphone.
Satisfied that I had been sufficiently updated on the design of the necklace she had impulse bought while browsing amazon, she pushed the focus of the conversation over to me. “So how are things going for you? Malcolm doing alright?”
“I don’t know. He’s still being really distant, Em.”
Through my end of the phone receiver, I could hear the jaw muscles of my best friend working a wad of gum. “How so?”
“I don’t know. I mean usually he’s just all talkative and smiles. But the last few days he’s been really quiet.”
“Anything happen between you two lately?”
“Not that I know of. He says everything’s fine, but I know something’s wrong. I just wish he would tell me, I want to help.”
I heard a bubble pop from the other end. “Malcolm’s never been much of a sharer. If you want to get guys like him to spill his heart, you have to work at it; keep prodding him until he breaks.”
I snorted. “Yeah? You think I should try to break my boyfriend?”
“That came out wrong. I mean sometimes you have to be assertive in these situations Jilly. Tackle problems head-on before they grow out of control. You know something’s wrong: if he won’t tell you, then who can he tell?”
From my desk, I saw the door of my boss’ office swing open and the thud of steps signaling his approach. “I don’t know. Maybe. Gotta go.” I slammed the phone down and turned back to my computer, hoping he hadn’t noticed me.
I looked into my monitor like it had hypnotic powers and prayed he would keep walking past my desk. In my head, I could practically hear the Jaws theme as he neared. Keep moving, I thought. It’s five o’clock on a Friday, just please for the love of god, keep moving. I dared not turn in his direction out of fear of making eye contact. As the footfalls on the carpet grew softer, I felt the rigid tension in my body start to thaw. Just when I was sure the coast was clear, I heard the dreaded death knell to my momentary zen.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I inhaled sharply and swiveled in my chair to find my boss folding his arms on top of my cubicle divider, his half-empty cup of coffee dangling in front of my face. My eyes fixed on his tie, a pattern of golf balls on green stripes, clashing violently with his maroon shirt. The tip of his tie was dangerously close to dipping into the steaming liquid. A coffee stain would have been an improvement.
He interlaced his fingers around the cup and leaned forward. “Jillian, we’ve been on the phone a lot today, haven’t we?”
“I’m sorry sir, that was my first call today and I didn’t break for lunch. It won’t happen again.”
“It won’t happen again. That’s what you said last week, if I recall correctly. Need I remind you about my policy regarding personal calls while we’re on the clock?”
“No, I’m well aware of it, but-”
He raised a hand to cut me off. “Butbutbut… but what? No more buts. Do you remember the corporate workshop we held last week, Positivity Breeds Productivity?” He took a sip of coffee. “Well, do you?”
“Yes of course, you got that motivational speaker guy to come in and-”
“That motivational speaker guy?” He took a step back in shocked indignation, as if he had watched me spit on his grandmother’s grave. “His name is Marty Bennigan and his story was inspirational.” Another slurp of coffee. “A drug addict from a broken home chooses to take life into his own hands. He drags himself out of the gutter by his bootstraps and lands back on his feet using nothing except his own aplomb. By committing to the philosophy of Positivity Breeds Productivity, this man was able to achieve his dream of becoming a quality assurance manager. Does that sound like an everyday ‘motivational speaker guy’ to you?”
“I was at the workshop too sir, I remember the speech-”
“Well you could have fooled me Jillian, seeing as you seem to have forgotten Marty’s view on the ‘But’ word.” Slurp. “He said, and I quote, ‘The only time people say the word ‘but’ is when they are about to make an excuse.’ Tell me, do we make excuses in this firm?
“No, of course not bu- I mean…”
“You know, for all the complaining you women make about being paid less than men, you sure spend a heck of a lot more time making personal calls. I’d say after you account for that, things just about even out.” He drained the rest of his coffee and smacked his lips. “The standard is higher at this firm though; here we expect you to behave like working class adults, and in exchange, we treat you as such. The paradigm is, as you would say, shifting. So back to work, please.”
I sat frozen as the coffee cup retracted from my personal space, and my boss sauntered away from my cubicle, down the hall to go hit on the new secretary.
I stormed back into my tiny cramped apartment, my eyes red and puffy. I had promised myself that I wasn’t going to cry, because I hated my job anyway and my boss was not even worth the tears, but I had to fight them back all the same. It had been a long week.
Malcolm was splayed out across the couch, dozing off in front of the TV, the food network currently broadcasting some type of cooking competition. The volume was so low that it was only a soft hum. He saw me and immediately bolted up straight.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding alarmed.
“Nothing,” I said.
He stood up and cleared the room in two strides and then his arms were around me. “You’re a terrible liar, you know that?”
“Now tell me.”
“It was stupid. Just my boss,” I said. “Worked overtime every day this week and he still found a way to be a jackass.”
Malcolm broke from the embrace and squared me up. “That dick again? That’s it, I’m going to kick his ass.”
I giggled. “You kick someone’s ass? Have you ever even been in a fight?”
He looked at me intently. “That’s a good point. We should get in some practice.”
I saw where he was going. “No!” I said firmly. “Do not start with the wrestling crap. I’m not in the mood Malcolm, I swear.”
I tried to give him my warning eyes, but it was too late, he was already talking in his annoying announcer voice.
He jumped up on the couch and mimed picking up a microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to WWE Raw, and have we got a show for you tonight! In the near corner of the ring stands the Undertaker, a living Wrestling Legend. He has come out of retirement for tonight only, to take on a new challenger, standing in the far corner of the ring. Her name is Jill, and while she may appear to be an unassuming little white girl to the naked eye, it would be very foolish to underestimate her.”
“Malcolm, I swear to god-”
“That’s right folks, she’s been pushed around her entire life, and now, she’s ready to push back! But can she handle the Undertaker’s clothesline?”
I started to run for my room, but it was too late, the Undertaker’s arm caught me square in the chest and I fell to the ground. I wanted to be mad at him, I really did, but it was impossible. We rolled around on the ground, laughing so hard that I thought I might sprain a rib, and it was at that moment that I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the Undertaker…I mean Malcolm.
After several breathless minutes of wrestling, our breath became ragged from struggling against each other, and I fell onto my back, gasping for air. I heard the thud of Malcolm landing beside me.
“That’s the happiest I’ve seen you all week,” I said. “You’ve been quiet, you know.”
He looked up at the ceiling from his spot on the ground. “I know,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week. Got a job offer to work on the West Coast.”
My heart sank. That was all the way across the country. “That’s awesome,” I said. “So…have you made a decision yet? Are you going to take it?”
He sat up so that he could look at me properly. “That’s the thing, ya see. I thought a lot about what was important to me. What I wanted out of life.”
My breath had stopped. “And?”
“I realized that jobs are all just so trivial, you know? Like nobody is ever going to remember which firm I worked for, or how many accounts we manage. It’s all just so meaningless.”
I rolled over on my side to face him. “So what are you saying? That you don’t want to work?”
“Not necessarily. Just that it’s not that important to me. I know that my true calling is out there, somewhere, just waiting for me to find it. And if that true calling is working for some tech company out in California, then I might just kill myself here and now.”
“Is this a call for help…or…”
He laughed. “Shut up Jill. No, what I’m trying to say is that there is only one decision in my life that truly matters right now. And that decision is you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, trying to find our purpose as a team. This might sound corny, but you are the giant fork in my road, every decision after that is just a smaller path stemming from it.”
He looked at me, smiling. His famous Cheshire Cat smile that had been missing for the last week was back, and it suited him so well. “Well?” he said. “You going to say something, or what?”
I leaned in and kissed him. “You know this doesn’t count as a proposal,” I said. “You still have to buy me a diamond and get down on a knee like a bitch and all that jazz.”
He jumped up and pinned me to the ground. “The Undertaker bends his knee to no one!” he roared.
It had been one of the best days of my life.
I looked up at the picture of him again, arm around some woman that was not me, and felt sick to my stomach.