Allison strolled across the grounds of her old university. It had been over half a year since she last visited, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. You see, most people have at least one “before and after” moment in their life. A crucible that distinctly bisects a person’s memories, to the point where the “before” feels like it happened to somebody else entirely. For Allison Starr, that moment began and ended when she decided to become a Chevalier. Now, walking through the memoryscape that took place in the “before,” Allison was completely entranced. Nostalgia, regret, comfort, longing, no emotion was out of bounds as the last 22 years of her life came flooding back to her. With that being said, she knew that the worst was yet to come as she approached an all-too-familiar building which housed the office of the person she was there to see. Soon enough, she found herself standing right outside a familiar wooden door. She knew who was waiting on the other side of that door, and her heart was beating with an intensity rivaling the moment she had decided to save Brian. Preparing herself to open the door, her last conversation with him flashed through her mind.
“Okay, Allie, what’s the one thing you’re not going to tell her?”
“That I’m the Chev who you were sent to.”
“Right. And why’s that?”
“It would raise suspicion.”
“Right again. If she asks about me, what are you gonna tell her?”
“That you had already been sent to someone before I showed up to work that day, and that I heard you died a gruesome and horrible death.”
“You’re damn right I did. Good luck, Allie.”
Thanks, Brian, Allison thought as she finally moved to open the door. There was a creak of wood and a shuffling of footsteps, and soon Allison was once more standing before her college mentor, Elizabeth Dawson.
Elizabeth Dawson, age 47, was a woman who inspired comfort in everybody she met. She somehow combined the wisdom of an old sage with the hospitality of a grandma baking cookies, and her warm, inviting personality was enough to charm virtually anybody lucky enough to meet her. Naturally, then, she made an excellent professor. Her librarian glasses guarded eyes that seemingly held all the wisdom in the universe, and many young students turned to her for guidance. Allison had been one such student, although their relationship had eventually evolved into one of true friendship.
Elizabeth was a surprisingly curvy woman, all things considered, but like Allison chose to keep her figure well protected behind a fine layer of clothing. Whereas Allison preferred formal office attire, though, Elizabeth usually went for more office-casual. Her thick, cascading brown hair fell past her shoulders, and the ever-so-slightly wrinkled texture of her otherwise flawless skin served as the only indicator of her age. Like Allison, she had dark brown eyes- eyes that were now pointed in Allison’s direction.
A moment in time was stretched to an eternity as Allison locked eyes with her former mentor. Whereas one might expect to feel joy, comfort, or some other invigorating emotion when reunited with an old friend, Allison’s mind was overtaken with only one thing: pure, and overwhelming shame.
She was right about him, Allison thought, remembering Elizabeth’s repeated warnings about the previous man she had chosen to love.
I should have listened to her. I was so stupid. I am so stupid.
Suddenly, another realization bore fruit in Allison’s consciousness.
I was a Chevalier. She hates the Shrink Penalty.
Although Allison was well aware of this, and had specifically prepared for that discussion with Brian, the full weight of this truth suddenly crashed down on her.
Albeit privately, so as not to stir any political or ideological conflicts among her students and coworkers, Elizabeth was a staunch opponent of the Shrink Penalty. She firmly believed that there was no room for torture when it came to the criminal justice system, and longed for the days of the past where the term “cruel and unusual punishment” was the rule of law. That was a long time ago, however, and she was absolutely in the minority when it came to this belief in her current time. Allison herself had disagreed with Elizabeth on this point, as a matter of fact, albeit not vehemently. Regardless, showcasing support for the Shrink Penalty and becoming a Chevalier were two different things entirely, and Allison suddenly found herself at an overwhelming loss for words.
For a few moments, the two women stared at each other in silence. Allison’s eyes widened, while Elizabeth’s eyes softened. Elizabeth rose from her chair, and slowly moved around her desk towards the trembling woman at her door. Allison decided to try and speak first.
“Um… E-Elizabeth, I…"
Suddenly, Elizabeth dashed forward, wrapping Allison up in her arms and squeezing with all her might. Allison was thoroughly shocked, the surprise bear hug momentarily clearing her of all her worries. Completely engulfed in Elizabeth’s warmth, it felt like she had finally come home after a long, tumultuous journey into darkness.
“Oh, Allie,” breathed Elizabeth, “I’ve been so worried about you…”
At that, Allison simply couldn't take it anymore, and instantly burst into tears. She wrapped her arms around Elizabeth’s soft, inviting figure, and buried her face in her chest as she began to sob. As if she had been expecting it, Elizabeth simply held her as she gently stroked Allison’s hair.
“I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry…” cried Allison, a whirlpool of emotions shredding her heart.
“Shhh… it’s okay, Allie, it’s okay…” Elizabeth quietly soothed. They stayed like this for a while, Allison finally receiving the hug that she had so desperately needed for over half a year. Brian would have been jealous.
Allison and Elizabeth made their way into one of the dining areas on campus, making small talk as they went. They both wanted the chance to stuff their faces before they got into any heavy subjects.
“Wow…” Allison muttered as she looked all around the dining area. “It all looks the same.”
“Of course it does!” laughed Elizabeth. “It hasn’t even been a year since you’ve graduated.”
“Does that mean the food still tastes the same as well?” Allison asked.
The two made their way through the kitchen area, grabbing some food before finding a table to sit at. Just like that, then, the real conversation was about to begin.
“Allie, I know that we hadn’t been talking very much after you graduated, and I also know why that was,” Elizabeth started while Allison averted her eyes in shame, “but I was so worried when I stopped hearing from you entirely. I’m so glad to see you safe and healthy now, but what happened to you?”
“I know…” Allison said softly, Elizabeth barely being able to hear her over the sounds of a semi-crowded dining hall. “I’m so sorry, Elizabeth. You deserved better than that. I pushed everyone in my life away, and that’s one of the biggest regrets of my life. I hope we can still be friends.”
“Allie, of course we’re still friends,” Elizabeth said. “Let me ask you this, though, are you still with…?”
“No,” Allison said firmly. “He was arrested.”
Elizabeth sighed in relief, closing her eyes.
“It sounds like it happened under dreadful circumstances, and I won’t ask what happened if you don’t want me to, but I am so relieved to hear that he is no longer a part of your life. He was so…”
“I know, Elizabeth,” Allison said lowly, indicating that she did not want to continue down that line of discussion. Elizabeth’s eyes softened.
“Sorry, Allie. You’re right, we should stop talking about him forever. I do want to know, though, when did it happen? Was it recent, and that’s why you wanted to meet with me?” she asked. Once again, Allison lowered her eyes in embarrassment.
“No… it was, well, a bit over six months ago,” she said. Elizabeth’s eyes widened.
“Six months?!” she said incredulously. “Then, why didn’t…?” Allison held up one hand to stop her, knowing that her least favorite part of the meeting was about to begin.
“Elizabeth, I need to tell you something that’s extremely difficult to say. You’re probably going to be shocked, and maybe even angry, but all I ask is that you hear me out before making any judgements. Is that okay?” she asked nervously. Despite the fact that she had practiced those words with Brian, she couldn’t stop the apprehension from leaking out through her face and tone. Elizabeth’s face twisted in mild confusion, but she quickly softened her expression.
“Of course, Allie,” she said gently. Allison took a deep breath and steeled her resolve.
“After he left, I was completely alone. I had pushed everyone away because of him, ignoring everybody’s warnings. Then, what happened happened, and I realized that everybody had been right. I was so embarrassed and hurt, and I was already in a really bad place because of what happened, and I just didn’t know what to do,” she started. Elizabeth looked at her with great sympathy, wishing that she had been around to help.
“I was nearly homeless for a while. At one point… I got really, really low. I don’t like to think about it,” she continued, trying to hold back tears.
“Oh, Allie…” Elizabeth said softly, fighting the same urge.
“Anyway, that’s when I was offered a job. They said I would have good pay, very few commitments, and complete anonymity. Where I was, mentally… I didn’t know how to say no.”
Allison braced herself for the stinger.
“Elizabeth, I was a Chevalier. That’s why I didn’t reach out to you these last six months. I knew how you felt about the Shrink Penalty, and I still became a Chev. I feel like I’ve betrayed you. I… I’m so sorry,” she choked out, covering her mouth with one hand as she closed her eyes in shame.
Elizabeth stared at Allison, a shocked yet glossed over look in her eyes.
“A Chevalier…? You executed criminals, Allie?” she asked slowly, her tone surprisingly soft. Allison got herself under control and resumed eye contact, albeit still with an expression of shame.
“Yeah,” she replied in a small voice. “Are… are you mad?”
Elizabeth’s eyes drifted away, and she leaned back in her chair in seeming deliberation. After a moment, though, her expression softened once more, and she resumed eye contact with her terrified former student.
“Allie, here’s what I think,” she said firmly. Allison braced herself.
“I think… I think you got caught in a vulnerable moment. I can’t begin to imagine the kind of pain you were in at the time, and it probably felt like a way out,” she continued.
Allison’s eyes widened. She was thoroughly surprised at Elizabeth’s quick understanding, and a tremendous weight started to lift from her shoulders.
“Also,” Elizabeth continued, “my guess is that you eventually felt like you were too stuck to get out, right?”
Once again, Allison was shocked. She nodded, as if in a trance. Seeing this, Elizabeth adopted a gentle smile.
“Allie, I’m not mad at you. All that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means that you’re human.”
That’s exactly what Brian said, Allison thought.
“R-Really?” she asked.
“Really. You have to understand something, Allie. I would never abandon you. You have nothing to worry about,” Elizabeth replied. A surge of gratitude and adoration welled up in Allison’s chest, and she smiled brightly through her budding tears.
“Thank you,” she said. Elizabeth reciprocated her smile.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart. I know how difficult that must have been for you to say, and thank you so much for being honest with me.”
At that, Allison leaned back in her chair. The hard part was over. She began to pick at her salad, having barely touched it so far due to the butterflies occupying her stomach. Elizabeth began to do the same, but soon adopted a somewhat curious expression.
“A Chevalier, huh?” she said softly. Allison looked at her questioningly.
“I’ve never met an actual Chev before. I don’t want to pressure you if it’s hard to talk about, but could you tell me about it sometime? Not when we’re eating, of course,” she asked, letting out a small chuckle at the end. Allison reciprocated, just glad that they were already able to talk about it somewhat lightly.
“Well, we’re really not supposed to talk about it, but I guess so. I trust you, and it’s only fair after you’ve been so understanding,” she said somewhat reluctantly.
“Since you’re here, I take it you resigned?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah, one week ago exactly,” Allison replied. Elizabeth nodded.
“Now, that I am definitely happy to hear. Why’d you quit, may I ask?” she continued. Allison’s heart ever-so-briefly fluttered, as this was the point where she would have to start lying in order to protect her tiny boyfriend. She remembered the practice conversations she had done with Brian.
“There really wasn’t one specific reason. Just a slow buildup over the months, and one day I realized that I simply had to quit if I ever wanted to be happy,” she answered.
“I see,” Elizabeth said appreciatively. “It takes a lot of self-awareness to do something like that. I’m so proud of you, Allie.”
“Me too,” Allison replied. At that, the conversation drifted into a comfortable silence, both women simply enjoying a break after such a heavy conversation. After a little while, though, Elizabeth’s eyes widened.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, causing Allison to flinch. “If you were still living in L.A., does that mean you worked at the Silver Strip?”
“Er… yeah, it’s the only one around here,” she replied, slightly bemused as she took a sip of water.
“Do you know anything about what happened to Brian Bentley?” she asked fervently.
Allison nearly spit out her drink. She had not expected Brian to be name-dropped so soon, if at all. She quickly regained herself and leaned back into her rehearsed lines.
“Well… yeah. His SPAR- er, Chevalier session had already happened by the time I showed up that day. I heard he died a gruesome and horrible death, though” she said, trying not to sound too stiff.
“Fuck!” Elizabeth exclaimed. Allison was shocked, as her mentor swearing was quite the rare occasion.
“I guess it’s over, then…” she muttered. Although a part of Allison wanted to draw the conversation as far away from Brian Bentley as possible, her curiosity over this unexpected outburst compelled her to probe the issue.
“W-What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s just… hearing it on the news is one thing, but hearing it in person from somebody who actually knows is another. A part of me was hoping that he was at least granted a quick death,” Elizabeth continued.
“I see… you’re still sympathetic to his case, then? You probably shouldn’t say that so loud,” Allison said.
“Allie, I’m sorry but it’s an absolute travesty that he was ‘re-sentenced’ to death like that. Not only was the government changing their definition of a ‘worst-of-the-worst’ criminal, the decision seemed entirely fueled by public outrage. Do you understand just how dangerous of a precedent that sets?” Elizabeth replied. In her mind, Allison was feeling vindicated. In a world where virtually everybody celebrated the death of Brian Bentley, here was somebody who shared her concerns. Outwardly, though, she knew that she couldn’t let on just how much she was in agreement, so as to not raise suspicion. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to disagree.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said softly. “I wasn’t very happy about it, either.”
“When I heard the news that he was re-sentenced, it made me feel sick. Then, two weeks ago when I heard that he had been executed, I couldn’t sleep. I just can’t believe that this is the state of our criminal justice system. It reminds me why I stopped practicing,” she continued, the floodgates having been opened. Allison felt nostalgic as she remembered all the times when Elizabeth had gone on a rant about something she was passionate for in the past.
“Allie, what would you have done if he had been sent to you?” Elizabeth asked cautiously.
Abort, abort, ABORT!
“I don’t know,” Allison replied quickly, “I don’t want to think about it. I’m really glad he wasn’t, that’s all.”
Elizabeth nodded thoughtfully.
“I understand. Did that have anything to do with you quitting?” she asked. Allison wanted to deny it, but she felt like that would seem odd based on their conversation up to that point.
“Yeah,” she said resolutely, “it had something to do with it.”
“I see. Well, I’m glad you eventually saw the SP for what it is,” Elizabeth replied. Perhaps emboldened by her desire for a sympathetic ear, Allison decided to keep the conversation on Brian, despite her better judgement.
“I never really did get an answer out of you on this,” she started, “but do you think that Brian Bentley was innocent?”
Elizabeth took a sip of water, apparently in deep contemplation.
“I don’t know, Allie,” she finally said. “I don’t know, but what I do know is this: if he was truly as guilty as they said he was, and the evidence was that overwhelming, there was no reason in hell for them to handle his case the way they did. The secrecy, the sealing of files, the ‘new evidence’ they discovered on the day Brian Bentley was old enough for the SP, absolutely none of it makes sense. That’s enough to make me doubtful.”
“I know what you mean…” Allison replied appreciatively. “In fact, you’re the one who planted those seeds of doubt in my head, Elizabeth. I never would ha-”
She caught herself.
“I wouldn’t feel the way I do if it wasn’t for you, so thank you,” she quickly said. Elizabeth’s expression softened.
“I just…” Elizabeth started, furrowing her brow as she adopted a troubled look. “When I look in his eyes… those eyes that everybody thinks make him a robot… I just don’t see a murderer.”
She took a breath. Allison was hanging onto every word.
“I just see a scared-shitless kid, shouldering an earth shattering amount of sadness. Imagine, for a moment, that he was innocent, Allie. Can you… can you even begin to imagine what it must have felt like to be him? To have the whole word despise you? Your own mother immediately throwing you to the wind? I physically can’t.” she asked.
“I can’t either,” Allison said quietly, remembering Brian’s breakdown.
“Just thinking that there’s even a sliver of a chance… it keeps me up at night, Allie. Sometimes, when I would see his picture in the news, I just couldn’t stop myself from thinking ‘that kid needs a hug,’ you know?”
Despite herself, Allison smiled.
“I do. I know exactly what you mean.”
Allison pulled up to her apartment, her mind buzzing. She quickly made her way into the house, throwing her things to the side.
“I’m home,” she declared to the not-quite empty room.
“Oh my god, I’ve been so bored,” replied a small voice in the distance. Allison looked towards the source- her large sectional sofa. There, set up on one of the edges, was Brian and his phone. They had recently installed blackout curtains on the windows surrounding the living room, so Brian could spend time outside of the bedroom when Allison was gone without fear of anybody spotting him.
Allison shot a questioning glance at her tiny companion.
“Er… that was French for ‘welcome home, Allie,’” he quickly corrected. Allison giggled, before quickly making her way towards him. She unexpectedly scooped him up and held him close to her chest for a moment, before setting him back down.
“What was that for?” he asked with a shy smile.
“Just felt like you needed a hug,” she replied.
“So, how was your lunch with Elizabeth?” he asked. Allison kneeled down so her face was roughly at Brian’s level with a determined look on her face.
“Brian, we need to talk about something,” she said firmly. Brian’s face twisted in confusion, before quickly dropping in realization.
“Oh, shit, I think I know what you’re gonna say. Allie, we absolutely shouldn’t tell-”
“I think we should tell her about you.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”