The Three sit and think red clouds. Backs hunched, they speak in cinders. They can only imagine what it must have been like to breathe.
The Three are hollowed out now: no lungs, no stomachs, no hearts. Impervious to hunger and sickness. They are neither male nor female, have no race or creed. They neither want nor need, designed to be completely impartial, untainted in their pursuit of justice. There were once more of them; now only the Three remain.
The Three sit on an eggshell stretching in all directions toward the horizon. The light falls flat and cold on their hairless skin, sun filtered through an ever-present haze. The Three squat on the eggshell, knowing it’s tipped in someone’s favor. Their task is to figure out whose.
“I cannot sit exactly where you sit,” says one.
“I cannot see exactly what you see,” says another.
“I cannot feel exactly what you feel,” says the third.
They hunch on this curve, watching each other, searching for signs of advantage.
That one’s back looks a little straighter, thinks one.
That one could recline if they wanted, thinks another.
That one could turn in any direction they chose, thinks the third.
But none of them move. None of them want to upset the balance.
The Three huddle and wonder who is better positioned. This is their final case. None of them hear the gunfire, or the laughter. None of them perceive the pop of the cork, or the clink of glasses or the shudder of machines boring out the core.
They only smell burnt oil and coal dust and gasoline. They know no other scent, but without lungs, they know they will not suffer. There is nowhere inside them for disease to grow. For them, there is no other law, no other history, no other justice. There is only the eggshell and the weak sun, and the doubt that they will ever find out who has the advantage.
And so they sit, backs hunched, and speak in cinders. The Three sit and think red clouds.
At first, we laugh just to laugh. We laugh for the joy of applesauce, for the plop as it slides from our hands to the table. We laugh at Mama while she’s changing our diaper. We laugh at TeleTubbies, then Looney Tunes. We laugh at the coyote falling into the crevasse.
We laugh at our babysitters. We laugh at the fat kid down the street (unless we are the fat kid down the street) until someone tells us that’s mean. Sometimes we still laugh, quietly.
We laugh at our teachers, and at YouTube videos of people falling down, unless someone tells us that’s mean, too. We laugh at the kids who still wear water wings at the pool, and it’s okay, because no one hears us over the splash.
We laugh at our parents. We laugh when the foreign kid tries to say certain words. We laugh at our school counselor or caseworker or family therapist. Eventually, we laugh at our own therapist.
We laugh at our bosses. We laugh at traffic, at deadlines, at the rent check or student loans. We laugh when we’re at work until midnight. Then we get promoted and laugh at our employees at work until midnight.
We laugh at our boyfriends and girlfriends, then at husbands and wives. Some us laugh at the faculty down at the college, especially the ones in corduroy and Birkenstocks, or blazers with elbow pads. Or maybe we’re laughing at our own professors. Still, we all laugh at congressmen caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or a mistress.
We laugh at paychecks that haven’t grown in years, at still paying student loans or rising rents, or being underwater on our homes. We laugh when our cars finally break down, and then at the busses not coming on time, or at all—because, after all, we laughed at the bill to increase our taxes.
We laugh at coal dust seeping into our rivers and at ocean water nipping at our toes. We laugh at the haze of emissions and blame it on forest fires to make ourselves feel better. We laugh at fake news and the lamestream media, or at angry white men on talk radio. We laugh at women who scream, or who speak, or who just suck it up, or we laugh at all the newly-terrified men. We laugh at migrants who care for our children and feed us, or at those who cry foul over jobs they would never do themselves. We laugh at the chances the guy shot by a cop will deserve it by the time police investigate.
We laugh at the news spilling into our feed, and the words spilling out of each other’s mouths; at the earnest voters with their marches and stickers, or, just as loudly, at those who choose to throw their votes away.
We laugh and the world laughs at us.
We laugh and we laugh and we laugh. It’s the only way we can breathe anymore.
Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a Kimbilio Fellow, a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and an MFA candidate at American University. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. Her novel TreeVolution was published in 2016, followed in 2018 by her fiction and poetry collection Circe's Bicycle. Her third book, a short story collection called Midnight at the Organporium, will be released by Aqueduct Press in 2019.