"You didn't invite them in, did you, Sheila?"
Grandfather Jessup clasped my biceps in his feeble grip and searched my face, worry akin to fear darkening his eyes. I patted his liver-stained hand and ... [+]
Behind the lectern on the balcony, President Raúl Orvalo raises his hands. Silence descends over the mob. My clawed hands clasp the balustrade, cold as iron bars.
"Friends. Comrades." He spreads his arms. "Did I promise you this day would come?" The marble under my hands shakes with the roar of a hundred thousand agreeing voices. "Did I tell you we would claim Republic Square, rename it Victory Field, and that we would fill it, from the Halls of Justice to the National Museum?"
Yes, the mob screams. I clench my hands to keep myself from covering my ears.
"And did I promise that when this day came, I would not stand here alone?"
"Did I tell you that our victory could only be complete if we liberated every last prisoner of that foul regime?
"Did I promise you that Aldo Maran himself would stand by my side?"
Orvalo turns to me.
"And who is this, standing next to me, to celebrate our day of liberty?"
The crowd thunders my name.
Raúl looks at me and steps back. His smile invites, but his eyes calculate. My name rang so much louder than their cheers for him. He's already grown possessive of his transitory power.
Colonel Mathura pats my shoulder.
"Go ahead," she whispers. "You've earned this."
Maybe I have. I focus on the microphone, to avoid having to face the emptiness above the Field. But do I deserve this?
It's been two years, but I remember begging.
***"Please. Raúl, please." I gripped the bars of my cell. The iron chilled my fingers.
"Try to understand, Aldo." He shook his head. He didn't seem aware that he took a step back. "You being in here, you have no idea what that means to the people. How they're rallying. The regime made a big mistake, locking you up: locking up not just my childhood friend, but the People's Poet. I believe it was a fatal mistake. I believe it's the key to victory."
"But . . . you're freeing Nataniel, Ida." I gestured to their open cells, their retreating silhouettes in the corridor's gloom. "You can take me as well. The people . . . they'll . . . if they know I'm free, they'll—"
"Aldo. Aldo." Two hands raised. "I don't have much time. We have to be outside before they notice the missing guard. It's a long way back through the tunnel. I just wanted to come by and say . . . acknowledge you, I guess."
"Don't leave me behind these bars, Raúl. Don't leave me in this filthy place. I'm shitting in a hole. For God's sake, I'm eating bugs to survive. Bugs, Raúl. I'm begging you. We swore, Raúl. You and I. You swore."
But the man who stands listening, but not hearing, holds no remnant of the boy I played with.
"I can't jeopardize the momentum we're building. This is our chance, this is our time. This is what we dreamed of all our lives, dear friend. I can't risk our dream, not even . . . not even for you."
"Look at my teeth. They broke five. They broke two fingers. Look at the welts on my back! Look at them, Raúl." I show him my skin, taut over my ribs.
"Pull down your tunic, Aldo. There's nothing I can do."
"You're martyring me."
"Good-bye, dear Aldo."
"Don't walk away from me. Don't you fucking walk away."
Did he almost look back?
"Come back here. Come back!"
Or did I fabricate his hesitation?
He ignored his shouted name, as he ignored my final, whispered, "Please..."
***The clearing of my throat rolls over the crowd like a monster's roar. In response, the silence deepens. Scattered voices shout my name. I have no answer for them.
"Aldo?" Mathura whispers. I glance her way, drop my eyes to the lectern. Raise them to the crowd. Two hundred thousand eyes stare back, expectation burning in each pupil. I hold on to the lectern like a lifebuoy.
"I'm sorry," I whisper. Mathura has been kind. She does not deserve the blame she will earn for my failure.
"Aldo," Raúl hisses. "Don't you do this to me, not today, not now."
I endure Raúl's scrutiny as he stares at me. More than calculation now, his narrowed eyes assess, and weigh, and judge me for a rival. Does he still see his friend, or merely the pawn he gambited? Are we still on the same side?
And which one of us plays white?
The words of the prepared speech dance before my eyes. Proud . . . grateful . . . heroes . . . victory . . . democracy. I reach inside for the will to speak. Only emptiness greets my probing, and out of the emptiness, other words offer themselves. Pain . . . gore . . . hunger . . . viciousness . . . despair.
I cannot speak these words. But neither can I speak the truth, the whole truth, nothing but. I cannot tell these people how their newfound freedom was gained; what means were justified by this end. I cannot injure their elation.
So instead, I tell them my own truth, a partial truth, one I can bear to speak; a truth that will allow them to keep rejoicing in their triumph over the vile regime that so abused their poet. I tell them of the darkness in my cell, the sickness and the torture; the pain and the hunger, and all the spiders I have eaten.