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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Harriet Burbeck

More Bloody Tales of Justice

Ghost stories of retribution. Warning: not for the faint of heart or Border Patrol agents.

The Story of the Judge

Illustrations by Harriet Burbeck

It was already 5:15, and the judge was exhausted. His wife’s lasagna was waiting for him at home; his children needed help with their homework. It was inhuman to make anyone work this late. The judge dragged himself back to the hanging television screen that showed the woman in the blue jumpsuit, who was sitting in a detention center far away. “I find that you do not have a credible fear of persecution,” he told her, as he’d told the ten others he’d seen today before her. “Your case will be returned to the Department of Homeland Security, and I imagine they will remove you from the United States. I wish you the best of luck in your country.” 

Adjourned. He heard a choked-off sob, the sound of chair legs scraping and feet stumbling away. The judge scribbled the last of his signatures and rose—but the interpreter stopped him.

“Your Honor,” said the interpreter, “it looks like there’s one more.”

The judge looked up. On the screen, a new woman sat quietly at the table.

“Officer,” called the judge, to the guard who must be standing just out of frame, “what number is this?”

Out of the silence, the woman spoke. The interpreter translated: “She says, ‘Don’t you remember me? I was in front of you last year. I was with my daughter, she was sixteen.’”

A repeat offender, it seemed, trying her luck at the border after she’d already been turned back once. The judge replied: “Ma’am, I heard hundreds of cases last year. You’re not on my list today. Is there an officer in the room with you?”

The woman on the screen began to weep steadily as she spoke.

“‘Please, I need your help,’” said the interpreter, “‘I can’t go back again, they killed us the first time we went back…’”

“I don’t understand what she wants from me,” the judge said, getting up. “Interpreter, you’re off the clock.”

The interpreter kept going, as if entranced. “‘They were waiting at the house, just like I told you they’d be… my girl, they threw her down a well. She’s resting there, but I can’t rest… I’m so cold, I want to rest, please let me rest—’”

“Interpreter, she’s not on the list. Tell her she has to wait her turn.”

Before the interpreter could speak again, the image of the woman leapt to her feet. She looked right at the camera and spoke a harsh, emphatic sentence. The screen sparked, and popped, and hissed to black. All they could see was the ghostly reflection of their own faces.

The judge frowned. “What the hell was that?”

“I didn’t quite catch it,” confessed the interpreter. “Something about—your turn?”

The judge drove home in the dark, and didn’t think of it. He didn’t think of it as he parked his car: as he pushed open the front door of his house: as, in the kitchen, he found the pan of lasagna lying facedown on the floor, surrounded by a heavy spatter of sauce. On the kitchen table, a geometry workbook was opened to a half-finished exercise. A pencil rolled, clattered off the chair, bounced toward the judge’s foot.

He searched all the rooms, and then he searched them again. They were gone. They had been removed. He sank slowly to his knees, thinking of other places: the shed: beneath the deck: the back of the car. He thought suddenly of the big storm drain, with its open mouth, like a well. He was afraid to look there.

The Story of the Border

“People die all the time crossing this desert. It’s the heat, the exhaustion,” said Jones. They were approaching a vehicle that had been dragged off to the side of the road, half in and out of a ditch. A multicolored bundle lay heaped up some distance away. It might have been a body—but it wasn’t shaped, exactly, like a body. “Sometimes they get picked over by birds and animals,” Jones added, cheerily.

Torres was new to being Jones’ partner on Border Patrol but she’d never heard this tone before. Jones could be mocking, sure, even kicking the handcuffed idiots they caught crossing the border out here, but he didn’t usually sound this breezy, as if he were trying to brightly convince himself. And he stayed breezy, even when they reached the ditch and saw that the abandoned vehicle was white and green. A border patrol truck. A large hole had been punched clean through the windshield.

“It could be the cartels,” Jones insisted, “killing people to send a message. It happens all the time. It’s normal.”

The strange bundle on the road turned out to be the tattered remains of a green officer’s uniform, and a jumble of—Torres wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking at. Little heaps of ground meat. And that, there, was just a hand, lying palm-up as if in supplication. Just a hand.

Jones stood beside the hand, a fine tremor running through his whole body. “It’s just a story, it’s a joke they tell rookies, it’s not real…”

“What’s not real?” asked Torres. “What is this?”

Jones didn’t answer. A man was walking toward them—was it a man? Torres couldn’t tell how far away he was, the desert vastness rippled in a confusion of heated glass, the dark silhouette seemed all wrong beside the huge, distant rocks—it was too tall—its strides were eating up what had to be yards, miles, as it moved towards them, until it was on top of them, so huge it blotted out the sun—

Jones screamed when it grabbed him around the waist, hauled him up to grinning jaws that were lined with hundreds upon hundreds of human teeth. Naked ribs caged a rotted mass of viscera: blood seeped down from its pelvis over its huge leg-bones and piddled on the dry earth. Torres curled up on the ground and covered her head, unable to look, unable to move. 

Jones’s moans quickly faded away; the other noises—snapping, gurgling—ceased soon after. Then Torres could only hear the continuous buzzing of flies, and a fainter sound, as of huge joints creaking. She felt a movement in the shadow that lay over her.

When at last she looked up, she saw that the creature was crouched on its haunches, and smiling—horribly, silently—at her.

The Story of the Union

She floated into Ghosthelpers International, and if she’d still had nails, she would have bitten them.

“Excuse me,” she said to the receptionist busily typing away. “I was hoping for—um, some job help?”

She had to repeat herself a few more times, because she kept forgetting to speak out loud. Finally, on the fifth try, the receptionist heard her. “We’re not a job placement agency,” said the secretary, with contempt. “It’s an international.”

“Oh,” said the ghost, fidgeting with the trailing ends of her aetherical substances. “Well—I wasn’t sure what to do, you know, now—”

“In the afterlife? Where you can do anything you want? You should do anything you want. Fill out this form.”

The ghost filled out the form, using only her mind and a half-empty Bic pen, which, as you can imagine, takes some work. But under the sections headed “goals,” “time commitments,” and “desired committees”—she didn’t know what to write. 

“I’m not sure what kind of help I can really bring—”

The receptionist gestured, dryly, at the sign.

“I was hoping for help—I have a story,” said the ghost, eagerly. “I was on checkout for months and Mark, our manager, he never wore a mask, he was so horrible, he made Sasha work even though she was coughing, and then I… surely that’s enough, I’ve been hurt enough, to be worth helping?”

The receptionist sighed. “Come with me.”

They passed a room labeled COLONIST EVICTIONS, and another named SYSTEMS DEGRADATION, and a third called VENGEANCE SERVICES. This room they entered, and it was filled with weapons stuck between two worlds: magic swords, blood-drinking spears, haunted machine guns, even a miniature enchanted tank. The receptionist handed the ghost a spiked silver club. “Here you are.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked the ghost.

“What,” sighed the secretary, “do you want to do with it?”

The ghost thought for a while. She thought for several days in ghost-time, while the sun rose and fell and the wolf-moon set and climbed, and climbed out of itself only to set again. In that time, more ghosts came in and took weapons from Vengeance Services. Some of them even told her their stories: they had all been hurt, by bosses and lovers, by lovers who acted like bosses and bosses who acted like lovers. They had been hurt, and they needed help. Sasha came through, and Sasha’s mother, and others just like them. They would keep on coming through.

Finally, the ghost left Vengeance Services. She thanked the receptionist over and over, until the woman threw a stapler, which they both knew couldn’t hurt her. The ghost floated over to her old haunts, the anxious corner behind the service door where they’d smoked on their too-short breaks. She waited there, with her club, until Mark came through.

The Story of the Prison

Aurora was making it up, obviously. I told her so. “Not a chance.”

“It’s true,” she said. “They took people and they put them in these rooms, and they said, you can’t ever leave.”

“That’s stupid,” said Nadir. “How could they stop you? My mom says if you’re not happy with any place you’re in, you can always walk away.”

“You can walk away now,” insisted Kat. “You didn’t used to.”

The place didn’t make any sense. It made even less sense as we passed through long hallways crazy with dust, where vines and ferns had shoved the bars apart. How could they keep people here, even when the walls and bars had been upright? How could they keep anybody still in one place, like keeping a frog in a pond and saying “sorry, frog, you’ve got to stay in your pond, because I said so and the other frogs too, we’re all agreed on this one, and nothing can make us change our minds?”

I was thinking about frogs because I knew Jase had brought frogs. They were always in his pockets. Two floors up, a big green bullfrog skipped out of his shirt and disappeared into the ruin of these empty, rain-sick rooms. The wind walked in and out, through the holes in the walls. It sounded a lot like crying.

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