Arbitration

By Nathalie Lawrence -

“This isn’t something we can be expected to endure.”


Mrs. Ashley Fitzgerald draws out endure so long it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. To punctuate her distaste, she drapes her hand over her husband’s fist on the conference room table. The diamond teetering from her ring finger glints in the law office sunshine.


Trent Fitzgerald shakes his wife off; with a last-ditch smile at the judge, he says:


“We didn’t think you were serious.”


I laugh. My God, when was the last time I could laugh?


“I don’t know what gave you that idea.” Dan pats the stack of signed papers. “Binding, remember?”


The Fitzgeralds’ lawyer stares off into space because Dan isn’t wrong.


The Honorable and Esteemed and Retired Judge Hornbill rests his hands on his stomach and sighs at everything. He and his splatter-splash Hawaiian shirt seem equally eager to get to Key West already.


“In any event, it’s time to carry out the final"–he gestures vaguely– “award.”


The Fitzgeralds glare at us, like it’s somehow our fault they defrauded us with a rat-infested apartment. We spent months waking up to vermin squealing and dying in our walls. We found plump corpses under the bathtub. One baked itself into our oven. Another fell down the chimney and smashed headfirst into our fireplace, blood seeping into the brick. Contractors tore open floors and walls and ceilings to seal every crevice until the place was a fortress.


Even so, I can’t sleep if it’s too quiet. I stay up waiting for a telltale scritch scritch scritch in the wall by our bed. Dan checks and double-checks the bathroom for bodies before he uses it. Neither of us wants to turn on the brand-new oven because we both remember what seared rat at sunset smells like.


I can’t fully conceive my rage for these dildos. Their realtor said they were selling the place because they were starting a family. I’m tempted to ask if they ever had a kid or if that was another lie fed to us to make them seem wholesome.


But really, this resolution is a steal for them. We could’ve dragged them by the balls at trial and bled their bank accounts dry, but this moment is all Dan and I want. The Fitzgeralds should be thanking us, kissing our feet. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Judge Hornbill to tack that on to his decision. You have to take what you can get, though.


The judge turns to me and Dan. “Same time? Or take turns while the other watches?”


We rise from our chairs. “Same time.”


An admin assistant sails into the room with rope for the Fitzgeralds and snacks for everyone else. Our lawyer pulls out a long, twisted piece of red licorice from a glass jar.


“Will you be needing any brass knuckles or perhaps an empty gun for pistol-whipping purposes?” the admin asks.


“No, that’s all right,” I say. “I want that natural skin-to-skin contact, you know?”


“Of course.” She makes a fist. “Remember, your thumb should be on the outside.”


Dan, who grew up bullied, not a bully, holds up his fist for her inspection.


The admin smiles. “Perfect. You’ll do great.”


She ties up the Fitzgeralds with efficient, effective tugs of the rope. They begin to argue, but Judge Hornbill advises them to shut it.


The admin raises two pieces of cloth conjured from nowhere. “Should I gag them?”


My hand touches her arm, the barest hint of a tap. “That won’t be necessary. I want to hear the screams.”


“Screams are good.” Dan assesses the ceiling for a moment. “Shrieks are better.”


“Be that as it may, you’ll have seven minutes,” the judge says. “No murdering. That’ll make this a whole other thing.”


“Have you chosen your partner?” the admin asks.


“Oh yes.” I stake my claim in front of Trent as Dan moseys over to Ashley.


Feral malice slides into my bloodstream. Trent’s baby blues blink up at me, unimpressed. His only flaw is a thin line of blood on his jaw from where he nicked himself shaving. With any luck, there’ll be more where that came from. I’ve never hit anyone before, but I’m terribly glad to have saved myself for him.


This morning my dad reminded me: an eye for an eye. I asked him if he’d ever witnessed an exterminator carrying out buckets of rats from his home just when he thought life had finally given him a break. He retracted his reminder.


Dan squeezes my shoulder and brushes his lips against my ear. “Remember when we found proof they faked the second inspection report?”


I beam at him like I did on our wedding day. “I do.”


He kisses the corner of my lips.


Out of pure exhaustion, most people don’t remember much about their weddings, but during our ceremony, I shoved myself into derealized mindfulness so I wouldn’t forget a single detail. Wind skating off green hills. My grocery store bouquet packed with purple sweet Williams. Dan’s unwavering voice, and my analogy about marriage and cinnamon raisin bagels. Birdseed flying at us as we tore down the aisle.


Today, I’ll savor every punch and smack.


Our attorney leans forward in her chair, snapping off a piece of licorice with her bared teeth. She was worth every cent of our now-decimated savings.


The judge stuffs some kettle corn into his mouth and examines his watch.

“Begin—” He raises a finger. He points. “Now.”


Their attorney covers his eyes with one hand. The admin checks her nails.


I lean in so close to Trent I can smell the cool-clear cologne on his neck.


“Oh, honey. I’ve waited so long for this.”


His fear finally has the common decency to show up; the baby blues widen.


My fist rears back. The first punch is the sweetest.



Nathalie Lawrence is a technical writer based in Chicago. Her work has been published in Idle Ink and Rune Bear, and she is an editor at Unfortunately, Literary Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @NatQLawrence or her website at nathalielawrencewrites.com.

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