His name was Ebben. It was an unusual name, so Alan repeated it to himself.  “Ebben Hilbert.” Ebben stood accused of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Although he could not provide a credible alibi, only a few sketchy (read: paid) witnesses seemed to place him at the scene. The physical forensics were crappy, the digital trail was weak. Still, a kid had been crippled, it would take years of PT to get him walking again; and property had been destroyed.  So someone had to pay. That’s the courts, these days. Alan sighed.

Alan felt the old despondency arising again in his psyche. No matter how many of the new depressor-suppressors he took, it still always lurking around the edges of his consciousness. Especially in circumstances as bleak as these.

But what options were there for Ebben, considered realistically? Justice, as his father used to tell him, was expensive. Never more than now, he thought. Without money, Ebben had no route to getting an appeal opened. He could, in theory, petition the Governor Executive for his Clemency. But Ebben was an unknown person in the larger world, his media Q was negligible, and the crime of which he was a popular target in political campaigns. For who, standing for office and having paid to enter the lists, would want to be painted as weak on violent crime?

Or should he start a Tweeterer campaign, pleading for attention in the media where some of Ebben’s compadres might see it and be roused to action? If Alan were caught at that tactic, his personal penalty would entail immediate disbarment.

“I have no rich friends, so there was no meaningful plea to be made for a patronal stake via one of the state’s Registered Plutocrats. That was a dead end, too.

He swigged the last of his drink. What about CrimStarter? That would be a truly desperate move. The ‘fill up the boot’ plan, a derivative of the old Kickstarter and IndieGogo models of the early 21st century had been cobbled together by a few of the remaining tech giants and the Big Law firms. The basic idea was you, a criminal advocate or family member on the outside, set up the appeal for funds based on the known and estimated court costs and filiing fees, but didn’t collect the money unless a specified threshold was reached. It was considered legit, although a poor-town strategy, since the Big 10 firms had put up the cash to build its initial operations. A means of unjamming the wheels of justice – using cash to grease the wheels, as had gone on for centuries.

But, Morel reasoned, even if the tech weenies got onboard with the case, he’d never get to a meaningful money threshold in time. The minimum to open a case, pre-filing was $50K. Way out of his league.

Unless.

No, that was a terrible idea. It would be his death sentence as a lawyer, once it was found out. For honest people, there weren’t any secrets any more. Or worse, he might be charged with a crime and enter the system himself. That, Alan knew, he knew he couldn’t face.

The Sign said: ‘Suicide IS Painless. Apply Within’

 

Two things served to finally lay to rest the old taboo on suicide.  The first was technological, as it always is. The second was economic, and you may make of that what you like. And, of course, no one cared much about justice, or the law, anymore.  For those living in our America of 2025, ‘justice’ was mostly a matter of filling out the right forms in the right order, paying your way out of what you could, and enduring whatever else came along. Alan Morel was working as Junior Transition Counsel in District Court 17. It was shit work, but there were too many lawyers and not enough jobs and that had been the way of it for decades. His role was to formally, for the record, argue with the just-convicted felon. Assert that life was precious, that 10 years was not so long a stretch, and that there was surely a good a reason to go on, etc. etc. And the unstated part was that he was expected to fail in the vast majority of cases. That they would take the prescriptions, and then the rest of us could move on.

There were just too many incentives on the other side. Expungement of your criminal and social media record. Life insurance payouts to next-of-kin. Settlement of associated civil liabilities. Aside from all that, the ubiquitous private prisons were, in a word, wretched; and essentially unendurable, by design.

Alan was just serving his time, too. A ten-years apprenticeship in this sort of thing was no longer uncommon. He was living in his parents’ home, getting by, and dreaming of better days to come, working in an office somewhere. Working the Life Courts wasn’t soul-crushing if you didn’t let them get to you. He kept telling himself that. The clients were, for the most part, guys in their 20’s who had made some really bad choices, including getting caught and then fighting it in court. They hated it when you fought it.

Right past the courtroom, where they walked the client down after they banged the gavel on him, was the door everyone called Dr. Jack’s. Before they cuffed you, before you took the wagon ride to the max pen, you could freely stop into Dr. Jack’s and ask for the two prescriptions. The first dulled your hippocampus, the neuronal source of your will to live. Quieting your natural revulsion, that universal fear of death. The second was a slo-dose of goodnight juice, such that you’d have it with dinner, lay down in your bunk, and never get up again in this world. The courts had given the Dr. Jack’s a right to set up in that corridor, and given those who were convicted the right to stop in before the rest of the process took its course. And most everyone felt better about the whole business, and the tremendous savings it represented, and the immediate closure it brought to the families. But Alan felt like – he couldn’t say he “knew” — this kid was different. This kid didn’t want to die, and kept talking about the old days when you could appeal your conviction and your sentence. He was facing 20 years. He said they had the wrong guy. Alan didn’t want to believe him; but he did. And that hurt. The trial wasn’t going well for his client; they never did, any more.

And that was the end of it. I don’t think I ever saw him again. He may still be alive, living with his wife’s people in the south, hunting and fishing as he loved to do.

He was my brother. I loved him and for a long time I envied him, and then feared him. But I never harmed him nor he me.

You are sprung from a contentious family. Take this story to heart, my sons. Take it into your hearts.

I met my brother that morning at the ford, where the river was shallow enough to cross with the flock.

“Jake, is that you?”

“Yes, Esse.”

“I am so glad I found you. “

“You have not sought me out to take a vengeance?”

“Ye gods, no. You took from me, by your cleverness, a burden I couldn’t bear, never could have borne. You gave me, instead, my freedom.  The only thing I ever really wanted.”

“I see.” Although I didn’t see. I was wary. Esse was not canny, but he could have learned to dissemble somewhere. He was clever enough for that.

“It is about Izzy. He finally has died this time. We need to bury him. Together—it is only right. Then I will finally be free of him and this family.”

“You mean you’d feel guilty if we didn’t do our offices?”

“I guess so.”

I was surprised. I didn’t think he had it in him. “Okay. Let’s go.”

I was traveling to pay off one of Labyn’s debts to a townsman in another region, and I had already broken with my first wife and had some children with my second, as you all know. We had everything we owned in the world with us and were moving the flock without hurrying, as it was lambing time.

Labyn was feeble with age by this now, and I had the management of the entire household. I had the money for the debt; by then, I had plenty of money of my own and we were prosperous. It comes and it goes, life is uncertain and the Lord provides as he wills. I had just made the decision to move the flocks to the northeast, where the forage would soon come up by the lake and the mountains.

Then one of my helpers runs up to me and says, “Your brother …” He wheezed and coughed, out of breath.  He recovered himself, and said, “Your brother and his band are nearing the opposite shore of this river. He seeks you wherever he goes. They haven’t seen us yet.”

“I can handle this. It will be all right,” I thought. We were planning to leave at first light the next day, and we could not travel with the flocks at night. He wouldn’t know where we’d gone. I was distressed, and I prayed. Sleep overtook me, and I had a dream. In this dream, a stranger with a bright face fought me, I grappled with him. He told me I must not run again, and told me to face my brother or I would surely die.

As the dream was finishing, the stranger struck me in my hip, dislocating it. While I still grasped him in the fight, neither could I throw him down. I awoke alone, in a sweat. And my hip hurt—I was hobbled. There would be no running this time.

I ran. There’s no other way to see it. I had seen my brother before, when he was enraged and I knew the damage he could do with his fists—or worse, if he were drunk.

I ran to our old uncle’s Labyn’s grazing lands, west by the great sea. I could tend sheep for him, or perhaps I could learn to fish. At least I wouldn’t starve. And I wouldn’t have to face Esse or father again over what I’d done.

After only a few days, I arrived at Labyn’s flock, and he welcomed me in. Perhaps Becca had sent word by a fast courier, guessing where I’d go. She was canny like that.

Laybn put me right to work. Of course he put me to work. Work, and his flock, were the extent of his world. His heart was good, but his views were limited to what he could see and touch. That also applied to his daughters, whom I married. First the ugly one, and then later the pretty one. But this isn’t their story.

It was at least ten years of this life before word came that my brother was seeking me.

Becca heard all of what happened next, I was already far away.

Esse came home, without a bride but bearing a freshly-killed antelope across his back. He stumbled drunkenly into Izzy’s tent, dropped his kill at the foot of the bed, and demanded his blessing.

Izzy said, “I hear you, and I smell you, Esse. Yet I cannot bestow a second such blessing. I will say the words that would have been your brother’s, for those remain.”

“Away with all of your blessings and cursings, old fool,” Esse rumbled. And he struck at Becca, missing her, as he came out through the tent opening. Then he ran back to his band.

We did not see each other again as a family for a very long time.

It was a few years later, and Izzy thought he was dying. Again. We were mostly grown by then. You see, Izzy was getting feeble, and his eyesight was fading. Esse was out raiding. He swore that he’d bring himself home a wife this time. Izzy told Becca to call Esse off from his ‘hunting’ so he could provide his father’s blessing and patrimony, ‘for his eldest’. Something he never had from his father, old Idol-Hunter, if I recall that tale a rightly.

Becca told me, and then folded her arms, as if waiting for something.

“What will he do with it?” I asked.

“Waste it. Throw a big party for his band of ‘friends’,” she said. “You know your brother as well as I do.”

“Better,” she added, after a second.

“But—” I started.

“But nothing. If you had half an ounce of brains and the balls of a conie, you’d get into Izzy’s tent right now and do what you need to do, to preserve this family.”

Becca had a brusque way of speaking. I still miss her.

“But he is hairy and I am smooth. I have bathed and he never does. Izzy will know as soon as I walk in there that it is not Esse before him. And Esse will kill me if I even try, after he finds out.”

“And you and I will starve this winter if you don’t try. I have a coarse hair rug I was making. Put it on. He can’t see hardly at all any more.”

I put it on and bound it around my chest with some threads. I went in to Izzy’s bedside. I said, “Father, I am here.”

“Who comes to me?” he asked.

“Your eldest son.” It was true, in a way.

I waited.

“You sound like Jake,” he said, coughing.

“I think I caught a cold from hunting in the rain,” I said.

“Let me feel your hairy chest,” he ordered.

I let him feel. Then he gave me his blessing, the word of patrimony. And I ran out into the night, weeping and cursing myself.

I don’t want you to come away with the idea that we fought all the time. That isn’t true. When we were little, we played and wrestled as boys will. Esse made us little wooden swords and bows, and we took turns playing raiders against settlers. Or sometimes we were both raiders and the settlers were old clay pots or other trash we just bashed up.

We got in trouble once when Esse smashed a pot with his sword—a good pot, full of oil for cooking. It belonged to our old Uncle, Labyn. He was Becca’s step-uncle, I think. But Esse made such sad eyes at him, and smiled, and apologized over and over. Labyn patted him on the head and relented. I offered to pay for the pot and the spilt oil, but Labyn said, No, he was a boy once too, we should forget it … and not just tell Izzy. But Esse bragged to our father about it. So he made me work it off, while he and Esse hunted. That was the charm he had, and the luck.

But they caught nothing that trip. Izzy came back home, exhausted, and lay down in the cool of his tent, and slept. I think he had been drinking all the wine they’d brought. Then Esse came up to me and said,

“Do you have anything to eat? I’m famished. I tried to run down a deer but he got away.”

I said I had nothing but some boiled oatmeal that was maybe still warm.

Esse said he’d eat it. “Fetch it here.”

I said I would but since it was mine and I had made it, he would have to trade me something for it.

“What?” He padded his hands around his coat of stitched hides. I have nothing. You want his knife?  He unsheathed Izzy’s knife from his place in his belt. “He said I should have it. Bit it is old and dull and I don’t like it.”

I thought a moment. “No.” I paused to make certain I had his attention. “I’ll trade you as to who is the oldest.”

“But I am older!”

“Only by a little. We don’t have to tell anyone. I’d just like to know what it feels like to be the oldest.”

“It feels like shit.” Esse’s stomach rumbled.

“OK!” he roared. And he ate like a starving man.

I went and fetched the porridge. So, that was done.

The next day he came back with some conies and offered them to me. I said no, I didn’t like conies, and he could cook them himself and give them to Father, like he always did. Esse said they were to settle the deal. I told him to stick his conies up his crack. Then we fought.

Father ended up with the conies; he really enjoyed it when Esse came home after a hunt. Father never did any hunting himself. He didn’t like to get up early and he said his bones creaked after holding still for too many minutes. But he loved roasted meat. Loved everything about it. And loved Esse because he brought it.

 

Maybe it always comes down to our fathers.  Or our mothers, I don’t know.  My mother, Becca– our mother, properly  — often speaks her praise of me. She’s always had something against Esse, though. She said we fought even while we were in her womb. I guess it was a troubled birthing. Yet we each survived it. As I have never forgotten, he managed to get himself into this world first. Just barely, but first.

Come to think of it, Becca has always gone easier on me, taken my part, over against Esse’s. She was always disciplining him; but it seemed like I could do no wrong. I wonder if he ever hated me for that? Maybe she just saw through his charm.

Izzy, though, always preferred Esse’s company to mine. Always. As soon as he could walk, my brother was hunting. And Izzy loved game meats and stews. I remember when we were just five or six, Esse would trap conies and bring them home to cook. Izzy would take out his long, curved knife – I remember its metal  was yellow like straw and green-tinged, and he would show Esse how to cut up the carcasses and decide which bits were for stew and which were for the roasting.

[Part 4]