Cassandra Writes Out of Order by Andrea Tang

The man from the government says, “We know the shape of the world right now, of course. That’s our job. The one we’re offering you is a little different.”

“Different how?”

The man from the government asks, “Can you tell us what the shape of the world will be tomorrow?”

Marisol’s fountain pen pauses. She sticks it between her teeth and smiles around the plastic. “All right.”

***

Hector, age fourteen and precocious, wanted to save the world. Marisol, age fourteen and equally precocious, said, “Cool. Good luck averting the inevitable heat death of the universe. Also, it’s going to rain in seven minutes, so maybe we should take these heroics inside, yeah?”
It did rain exactly seven minutes later, but by then, Hector and Marisol were so absorbed in shouting arguments past each other that neither cared about something as banal as pneumonia. In the end, Hector’s abuelita had to drag them both into her living room, where they sat sullen in front of abuelita’s grainy television set for nearly an hour, teeth clacking in miserable unison, soaked to the skin and too angry to speak.

“I wasn’t trying to be a dick,” said Marisol, one ratty towel and two whole mugs of abuelita’s hot cocoa later. “I only write prophecies. I don’t know how to change them.”

“Really?” Hector’s hazel eyes grew wide, fury forgotten. “How do you know what to write?”

Marisol shrugged under her towel. “Words just come. They’re all true, in the end.”

***

Marisol writes with her bright orange fountain pen:

ancient gods of mineral and oil raise craggy skulls from the ocean floor

replete with sovereignty, more precious and more war-worthy than gold

millenia hence, their moss-covered faces descendant from Helen in Troy.

Two weeks later, a pair of countries dispatch naval forces to defend their island territories. The man from the government tilts his head, mouth pursed, and gives Marisol a raise.

***

Marisol will lie through her teeth to anyone who asks, but the first poem she wrote with real intent was for the day Hector left town. She’d been sitting out at the basketball court, shielding her eyes from the sun and chewing a pencil eraser. A few feet away, the neighborhood boys tussled over the ball, dribbling and laughing. Jerome shoved Wardo shoved Hector, then back round again, false indignation bright on their teeth when they grinned. When Marisol pulled the pencil from her mouth, words half-formed in her head for the rhythmic bounce of orange against asphalt, the smell of spring, and the red hoodie well-worn over Hector’s growing shoulders. He caught the ball, angled it toward the basket.

A cloud moved. The sun slanted sudden across Marisol’s eyes, and flinching, she wrote:

the heros journey begins anew

wound toward a world none here can tell

(every hero flew before he fell.)

Hector’s scholarship letter arrived seven days later, bearing the crest of a prestigious New England boarding school. The offer surprised no one. The neighborhood had borne a boy who wanted to save the world. The neighborhood loved Hector, the best of its children, and the letter that bore him away would carry him to heights where he belonged.

(The hero’s fall didn’t bother Marisol too much. Just because she wrote the damn thing didn’t mean she’d actually be around to see it unfold. After all, what heights would she climb?)

***

Some drug cartel is wreaking absolute havoc at multiple national borders, and synonyms for kingpin are pounding a steady headache into Marisol’s temples. Marisol hates organized crime for a lot of reasons, but the headache is by far the most immediate.

“But will a federal raid work?” asks the man from the government. Impatience paints a little wrinkle down the center of his wide, pale forehead.

Marisol angles an eyebrow at him. “Do I look like a Magic 8-Ball? You know that’s not the sort of thing I’ll write for you.”

“Well, what can you write for us?”

“Easy there, Agent.” Marisol rolls the fountain pen back and forth between her fingers. “You can’t rush-job an actionable prophecy. Best practices, remember?”

“Just try, Marisol,” says the man from the government.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, says Marisol’s headache.

***

At eighteen, Marisol’s pencil brought her to college in Washington. She wasn’t what Hector had been, but if Marisol understood anything, it was being your most serviceable self on paper. The dark-skinned daughter of a crumbling New Jersey neighborhood wasn’t anything special, but a dark-skinned girl that played basketball with one hand while staining notebooks in graphite ramblings with the other filled and averted just enough stereotypes to entice outsiders. So Marisol entered the kingdom of white Grecian columns and somber stone gates, college course catalog tucked under her arm, pencil tucked behind her ear.

During the first month of freshman year, Marisol’s pencil foretold the obvious, mostly: an undercurrent of homesickness pulsing a steady beat through the thrum of hard-drinking nights and early-morning alarms. Musty library-bound afternoons buried beneath problem sets. The exact moment some narrow-nosed redhead snatched the last copy of eighteenth-century Brit lit off the bookstore shelves.

Then one bright, red-leaved autumn afternoon on the lawn outside Marisol’s dorm, the hero’s name fell graphite-smooth into the margins of her political theory notes: he flew before he fell, the words repeated unbidden between Marx and Rousseau.

***

Marisol’s fountain pen rhymes a rain of bombs into existence, plots the precise steps of foreign troop movements to the ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum of iambic pentameter. They’re all very doom-and-gloom words, which in fairness, are also the only sort of words the government expects from a black girl with a Spanish name. It’s probably the only reason they listen to her at all. That, and the obnoxious accuracy of her predictions.

Marisol still hasn’t written anything useful about the drug cartel. Her attempts go like so: headaches splitting her skull like twenty-four hours of caffeine deprivation, and a notepad filled with the cartoon frowny-faces she doodles every time the man from the government passive-aggressively walks past her cubicle. She’s drawn a lot of frowny-faces.

Marisol wonders what would happen if her poems prophesied world peace. Black market rifles returned to arms dealers. Terrorist money launderers quitting their night jobs. “Non-actionable,” the man from the government would probably say, pale forehead creasing.

She’s halfway through a cardboard cup of shitty black coffee, and waiting for some classified briefing or another, when she pauses, and scrawls:

where continents meet over oceans, and children ship out toward the east

he dresses, false red round the shoulders, like virtue, or blood on the teeth

he rises past suicide jumpers, he rises toward cloudy-faced sun

(and who then shall catch

Marisol’s fingers slip on the fountain pen. It rolls an illegible, inky line across the remaining notepad space. She watches the orange plastic bounce across the foyer like a stray basketball. Dull shock wars with the immediate choices springing to life inside her brain.

Marisol stoops, grabs her pen, and jogs down the hall.

***

Pretending to be an overachiever was exhausting. One Monday alone, a hip hop beat blasting from a mashed-up playlist, Marisol pretended her way through a couple calculus problems, three reading responses to James Joyce, half a poli-sci paper, and half a bottle of wine. The wine did wonders for Ulysses, but notably less for her calc set. She gnawed on a spare pencil, and pretended her way through the rest of it anyway.

(Pretended her way through the wine, or the calculus? Was there a difference, at this point? Did it matter? Lord, maybe an excess of education also made you a lightweight. Marisol blamed all the poetry, really.)

Someone knocked on her dorm room door, drowning out the hip hop. The pencil snapped between Marisol’s teeth.

***

there once was a hoodie-clad child

who travelled ten million miles

but when he looked down,

diving straight toward the ground,

he saw the world still in denial.

***

“The kids aren’t moving the stock,” Marisol blurts out at the man from the government. “The kids are the stock.”

That telltale crease appears in his forehead, like parchment paper wrinkling. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, your cartel’s not just dealing in rocks,” said Marisol. “That’s a bonus, sure, but their best-selling product is people.

“Jesus. You’re sure?” The man from the government has the good graces, at least, to look embarrassed at Marisol’s bewildered expression of judgment. “Of course you’re sure.”

Marisol dumps a sheaf of ink-scrawled notepaper on his desk. “Names. Dates. Locations. All in the poetry.” She licks her lips. They taste like bad coffee. “There’s one more thing, Agent.”

He’s already reading the notepaper. “One more thing, besides a massive, multinational human trafficking op?”

“Yeah.” Marisol’s blazer fits poorly, like an oversized pullover, designed to make you look like a kid playing dress-up in a real grown-up’s closet, but the pockets are good and roomy. Marisol buries her hands deep inside, one fist curled around one more half-finished poem, and stares at a paper-white wall. After a moment, she drops the crumpled draft on top of all the other notepaper. “One more name. This one’s in deep. You need to pull him out.”

“Why—”

Her eyes don’t leave the wall. “Pull him out.”

Marisol feels the man from the government staring at her. She doesn’t stare back. After a moment, he chuckles. His office chair creaks when he leans back, and announces with relish, “The prophet speaks. Let’s do this.”

***

“Would you mind turning your music down?”

Marisol blinked in slow motion at the vision filling her doorway. She remembered the morning lecture from her art history survey, and wondered who’d decided to mash up all the professor’s slides: Renoir lips and Michelangelo shoulders, topped with some modern impressionist’s brush swipe of curling, inky hair and a hint of da Vinci madness narrowing a thick-lashed pair of hazel eyes.

She eyeballed the fraying red cuffs of the art history mash-up’s faded pullover. “You need a new hoodie, dude.”

Hector, five years grown since his last day on the basketball court, eyeballed Marisol right back. One side of his Renoir mouth curved. “Your taste in hip hop hasn’t changed.”

***

The man from the government first plucked Marisol and her prophecies from an unpaid internship after her sophomore year, during the swampy heat of July. His first question had been, “Does it always have to be poetry?”

“What,” deadpanned Marisol, “you want a white paper or a PowerPoint deck or something?”

“Not if it interferes with real, bona-fide prophecies of the fucking future.”

“But you wish the deliverables of those prophecies seemed less twee.”

“The deliverables look like they belong in a pretentious undergraduate lit mag. Very stream-of-consciousness.”

“Well,” said Marisol around an eraser, “I am an undergraduate at a school that costs a quarter million dollars. We’re very hip to pretension.”

“Really.”

“Really. But I’ll dial it back, just for you.”

The next poem she gave him was a limerick. The man from the government sighed. “At the risk of inappropriate workplace language, you’re being kind of a dick, you know that?”

“I get that a lot,” said Marisol.

***

A ratty-coated stranger is barging into a government building sans PIV card, or visitor’s badge, or any indicator at all that he isn’t a serial killer or a terrorist. “How dare you!” he shouts.

A swarm of dark suits flock to restrain the homeless-looking dude with the crazy hair.

Marisol jogs after the flock. “Hey! Stop!”

“Stand back, Marisol. For your own safety—”

“Oh, bravo, Marisol.” Homeless Dude applauds, mocking claps matching rhythm with the beat of a headache that refuses to quit. “Keeping company with real heroes these days, huh?”

The suits cuff him.

“That’s really not necessary,” says Marisol. “Look, will you just let him go, please? He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

“You know this man?”

“Yeah.” Marisol’s hands drop into her cheap blazer pockets. “We go way back.”

Embarrassed hesitation descends. “Sorry. We thought he was—”

“A crazy person? I never said he wasn’t. I’ll take it from here.”

***

Marisol sucked on her joint like a pencil, and breathed the smoke out slow. “How come everyone’s so obsessed with the Greeks?”

Hector, dangling his long legs through the bars of the abandoned rooftop deck, wrinkled his nose at the plume of smoke. “What have you got against the Greeks?”

“Nothing, o Prince of Troy. Just, they wrote all this stuff, right, and then people like Shakespeare and Joyce wrote about the stuff they wrote, and now you and I are paying small fortunes to pull all-nighters writing stuff about the stuff Shakespeare and Joyce wrote about the Greeks. You know.” She waved the joint. “Ulysses. Titus Andronicus.”

“You just named two Romans.”

“And fuck you too, Your Highness.” Marisol, knocking her shoulder against his, took another slow, luxurious drag. “It’s just all sort of repetitive, isn’t it? I mean, look at this city. White columns and marble and knock-off parthenons. Neoclassical. Been there, done that. Boom.” She blew smoke toward the lights winking distant on the horizon.

Hector tipped his head back, considering the view. “You’re not wrong. It’s a nice city,” he added, a platitude, like describing some gentrifier’s middle-class suburban home. “But like, what was the cost of being so nice and neoclassical? I mean, slaves built this niceness on land stolen from slaughtered people.”

Marisol sighed. “And here I was just angling for a good, drunken gossip about whether or not you’re banging that blonde chick in the Classics department.”

“I’m just saying, nice things always come with a price tag.”

“Seriously, you can’t miss her. Huge glasses, cable-knit sweaters, talks in practically nothing but Bacchylides quotes.”

“If you really want to fight evil in the world, and stand a chance of winning, you’ve got to start by acknowledging—wait, what?”

“She’s also got a fantastic rack. What?”

They stared at one another through the lingering haze of smoke. Then, without warning, Hector cracked a grin, wide and white, his eyes a dark hazel pair of half-moons, crinkled at the edges.

Dios, thought Marisol.

“The Greeks love their heroes,” said Hector. “I think that’s pretty universal. Don’t you?”

Marisol’s fingers itched for a pencil. She put out her joint. “We should get back to the party.”

***

“Hey there, Prince of Troy,” says Marisol. “Looks like your undercover chops are a little too good.”

Hector glares at her over the ratty collar of his borrowed coat. “Why the hell did you kill my op, Marisol?”

***

Marisol cackled for a solid three minutes when she unwrapped Hector’s graduation present. “A bit on the nose, aren’t you?”

“Just something to remember me by,” said Hector. He turned his new badge over and over between fidgeting hands. “I thought it was very you.”

Marisol toyed with the red gift ribbon. “Still after me to play the hero?”

“So long as it doesn’t interfere with me playing the hero.”

“Spare me. You keep your spotlight, thanks.”

“Not really a spotlight in undercover. I still don’t know if this is the right way to go.” White teeth sank into the lower lip of the Renoir mouth. “I can’t—”

“Tell me anything. I know. You know I’ll—”

“Still write obnoxiously detailed poems about my classified activities, probably.”

“Bitch, please. Yours isn’t the only future that fits a rhyme scheme.”

“I know.” A beat. “You could, you know. Save the world. Change the futures you write.”

The ribbon wound tight round her fingers. “Good luck with your op, Hector.”

***

Marisol makes cocoa. Hector paces the length of her studio apartment like an angry, caged lion. “I didn’t ask for this.”

Marisol hands him a mug. “No shit.”

“You’re supposed to be a prophet. Do you realize the consequences of what you’ve done?” He slams the mug down on her coffee table. Chocolate sloshes over the side. “I had him, Marisol! I had to fight government and gang alike to get there, but the kingpin finally trusted me. I could have taken him down, if you hadn’t burned me! Do you want this? More drugs? More girls sold like farm animals?”

“Wow, yes, you got me,” says Marisol. “I am an actual sociopath, congratulations.”

Hector’s entire face has twisted itself up into a sneer. “You don’t get what it’s like out there, in the field. You hide behind your poetry, your desk, your cozy little office. You don’t see people like me throwing everything we have into one shot at saving innocent lives.”

“Oh, spare me the fucking condescension!” Marisol’s mug slams down beside his. “I don’t know what it’s like for you? You don’t know what it’s like for me! You see your one shot, one target, one path to walk. It’s all so simple to you. Me, I have to see every fucking fork in the road, every horrible direction the world could take.” She shoves a finger into his chest. “You want to know why I killed your op? In another timeline, one week from now, while you’re in the kingpin’s den, a trusted CI blows your cover sky high. You’re alone. The kingpin gets a call. And you—”

“And the kids?” demands Hector. “The girls? Would they have gotten out, before I got made?”

More than anything, Marisol hates answering questions that people already know the endings to. “There’s more than one way to save lives. There’s always another path forward, just like there’s always another crazy-ass op for you. Don’t pretend you don’t already have one lined up—”

“Then don’t pretend this is all about finding a better way,” snaps Hector. “This is about you, Marisol. This is about your fear. Your fear that.” His gaze, cutting abruptly from hers, aborts the sentence.

Marisol, though, is in a ruthless mood. “That you’ll die to save the world?”

“Yes.” He picks up his abandoned mug, sips at the chocolate. “Something like that.”

She watches his throat move. Remembers another fight, another pair of cocoa mugs. “Yeah,” she tells him at last, the sinner’s whisper inside a confessional. “That much, I’ll cop to.”

There’s no more yelling after that. But in the morning, he’s still gone.

***

“I said no presents.”

Hector grinned. “I vetoed you, graduation girl.”

“Someone thinks he’s fancy just because he’s some kind of secret agent now, hmm?” Marisol tore the red ribbon off the little box. “Well, you can’t—dios, a bit on the nose, aren’t you?”

Resting inside the box was a basketball-orange fountain pen.

“Just something to remember me by,” said Hector.

 

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