It began with her own college diploma. Lucy Carvell had a degree-shaped hole in her heart, a thin but prestigious hole, pointy at the corners. She found fancy paper and inked, with curlicues and flourishes, OXFORD across the top. She added her full name—LUCY CONSTANCE CARVELL—with loops on the first letters of each. A Bachelor of Science in Economics seemed fair considering she knew enough economy to feed herself, as was Forestry, because everyone still alive was a goddamned Boy Scout these days.
She’d never been to Oxford, nor would she ever go.
The paper looked nice. She considered for another moment, then added “(Hons.)” after her double degrees.
When she pressed the county seal into the page, embossing an eagle rampant and ivy wreath, the diploma-shaped ache in her chest eased almost to nothing.
It should have been hers anyway. The nation had started to fall apart after the big hurricane season, followed by protests that tangled transport and tied industry in a knotty mess. By the time people started dying in understaffed, depleted hospitals, it seemed to make sense to delay elections. But then there was no one to reschedule a vote, and healthy people were dying, too. It happened so slowly. How do you restart a country after its engines sputter? The breakdown spread further, across the continent and the hemisphere and the globe.
The first hurricane landed the day Lucy after had mailed her application—not to Oxford but to Florida State. The university was closed. Four years later, Florida, as a working state, had functionally ceased to exist.
But Lucy’s Oxford degrees were a balm. They made her smarter, more confident. People trusted an Oxford-educated woman. Her friend Aisha wanted a diploma, too. Lucy conducted her college interview.
“Many people apply to Oxford,” she explained, “but the acceptance rate is low.”
“I was thinking UT,” said Aisha. “Their athletics program was outstanding.”
“Yes. Physical therapy?”
“Right. Aches and injuries and functional movements.”
Lucy nodded. Aisha had once extracted a tick from the back of Lucy’s knee, and she’d splinted her fractured ring finger only last month.
Aisha hovered while Lucy made the diploma and depressed the seal. The heavy silver stamp had once been her grandmother’s, a clerk in the county courthouse. Lucy marked its indentation with her initials and the date.
Aisha’s expression was wondrous as she reviewed her certificate.
“Congratulations,” said Lucy.
“My mom’s going to be so proud,” said Aisha, eyes glimmering.
Lucy charged her twenty dollars, for the paper and ink and her expertise, which Aisha paid in vegetables and milled oats.
Aisha, thus minted, soon had a steady trickle of patients, and Lucy was in demand for her notarized documents.
Without a state to mark, publicize, and file people’s milestones, it turned out people still needed their milestones marked. It’s not a mile-thought or a mile-cloud or a mile-bloom. Some events demand permanence.
Potential clients filled out a request in triplicate, which aided in the sense of benevolent bureaucracy and dissuaded casual inquiries. Keenly aware of the solemnity of her power, Lucy only notarized valid documents, and she was the sole arbiter of validity. If someone wanted a death certificate for a son not heard from in six weeks, she bade them come back in a year. If a couple wanted a marriage license but seemed half uncertain, she declined. She once single-handedly saved the marriage between two stubborn fools who were clearly still in love by lettering, quite firmly, REJECTED over their divorce request.
Most, however, she granted. Sickly babies, looking a bit vague around the margins, departed in more robust health after their births were notarized. The security of a land deed, the justice of an arrest warrant, the generosity of a will, she weighed and pressed each into existence. Her pages always worked. She forged her fears and frustrated hopes into a way to exert control, and it made more sense than anything had in a long time.
She ran out of paper and started making her own. The coarse fibers and off-white color only added to the pomp of her stamped documents.
The Notary Public, they called her. A notary of no republic.
One day a man arrived, looking older than Lucy would have guessed given she remembered him from school. She wished it had been nearly anyone else.
“I’ll be goddamned,” she said. “Jez Campbell. Lucy Carvell, from geometry class back in Florida.”
They were, geographically speaking, still within the state lines, but Florida was an era, not a place.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jez. He hadn’t turned out quite as handsome as his teenage self might have hoped, but his eyes were still a nice whiskey color. A drunken color. “I heard you were the notary public and an Oxford woman these days.”
He eased into the chair before her desk while she reviewed his request in triplicate.
“Seems to be an error here, Jez,” she said, pointing. “You’ve put your own name on the line for the deceased. Unless your dad’s name was also Jeremy Campbell.”
“No, that’s me, all right.” He gazed back at her calmly, alive. “Dead.”
Lucy set her pencil aside. She was unequipped for him. “If you’re having dark thoughts, and we all do, can I fetch someone for you? Friend, wife?”
“Well, come back when you’re really dead, then,” said Lucy, laughing at her own joke. She pushed the slips back across the desk.
He glanced at the aged embosser where it sat in glory and heft at the corner by Lucy’s elbow.
“Look at me, Luce.” He spread his fingers wide, palms up. “Are you really trying to say I’m not dead yet? Look at me.”
Lucy looked. The problem was she’d spent too much of eleventh grade geometry also looking, at the back of his neck, at the sandy skin behind his elbows and the delicate crease inside them, at the hangnail he’d chewed on his thumb, at the way his shoulders were always six months ahead of his shirt size. And, if she was honest with herself, thoughts of him had recurred too frequently in the intervening years. He’d once won basketball games and tutored freshmen in algebra, while Lucy had fretted alone over her grades and her blotchy complexion. Now he had hollows beneath his cheekbones and whiskey-drunk ghosts in his eyes.
“I see your point,” she said slowly. “We’re all at least a little dead.”
“We’re sure not living.”
He wanted her permission. She couldn’t do it, even if he’d call it a mercy. She reached for her pencil and wrote REJECTED on the application for his own death certificate.
“What the hell.” He scrubbed a hand across a stubbled chin. Lucy watched, bemused. Was he really so surprised? “I have the fee right here—”
“It’s not about the fee, Jez. It’s the integrity of my position. Stand up on your feet and move your warm blood and muscle and bones right out of my office.”
For a moment she thought he might balk. Shout, shove his chair, point a finger in her face, make a grab for the county seal. But he’d never been rude or cruel. Instead, he looked a little more dead than he had moments ago. He nodded once, rose heavily, and left.
She hadn’t seen him in nearly five years, and then she’d seen him for only five minutes. Lucy exhaled slowly. She stared at the stamp, with its round metal seal set under a spring-loaded arm, and imagined pressing the eagle and ivy into the back of her own hand. Was she strong enough to crunch the little bones? It might even feel good, or at least not feel like waking death. She was only the notary public and not much use for anything else, not to Jeremy Campbell or anybody who didn’t want a fucking mortgage canceled on a house that no longer existed on a drowned coastline.
The next day, Lucy wrote up tentative a peace offering, sealed it, and initialed it. It was the worst breach of her professionalism she’d ever committed. If there’d been an oversight board, she might have been in real trouble. Still, the shame of it brought a flush to her cheeks. She coerced Aisha into asking around about Jeremy Campbell’s last known address.
Her friend returned in the late afternoon, smug and bursting with too-perceptive questions.
“Lots of folks seemed to think the man was dead, oddly, but through wits and charm, I found a location for you. No more than two hours away on a bike. Are you going there today?”
Lucy reached for the scrap of paper in Aisha’s hand. Aisha pulled it away, eyebrows arching up. Lucy huffed.
“Are you going to kill him and then sign his death certificate?” She flapped the address in the direction of the sealed packet on Lucy’s desk. “Make his wish come true? A tragic romantic pact.”
“I am not going to kill him. I’m keeping him alive. If I promise to report back afterward in meticulous detail, will you please pass me that location?”
“Utterly meticulous. You had better take notes, is the level of detail I am referring to. Just raise one finger, ask him to pause his mental health crisis, write everything down, then allow him to continue. With descriptions and a rating scale of the kissing.”
“I think the mental health crisis precludes the kissing.” And he’d never shown a moment of interest in her, but she didn’t mention that to Aisha.
“Do you want me to tell you where to find his house or not?”
His house, when she arrived the next day, was at the end of a swampy laneway. It had peeling paint and a scraggly bald cypress tree out front. The child’s abandoned tricycle on the porch was one of the Jez’s ghosts. Lucy laid her bike in the yard so as not to interfere. She was haunted by her own memories, more than some folks but less than many others, and society had arrived at the consensus it was not polite to inquire.
He emerged with a mug in his hands and a cat twining around his ankles, then squinted at her through the muggy air. His threadbare gray T-shirt bore their high school motto. Panther Perseverance, indeed. Yet he’d begged her to let him give up.
How could he be dead while her breath shuddered in her throat?
“You change your mind?” he asked, slouching against the porch railing.
“I have something for you,” she said, waving the peace offering. “Can I come in?”
“You’re a charmer, always were.”
“And you would know, wouldn’t you, Luce?”
Lucy bit the insides of her cheeks. How much did he understand about her humiliating high school crush? She lowered her chin to stare at the pitted drive, then pivoted to retrieve her bike. Cycling all the way out had been a mistake.
“Wait,” Jez called out. “Wait, sorry. I’m a useless, dead bastard. Don’t go. Please.”
She waited. The day was getting too hot for another long ride home.
“I have a grapefruit,” said Jez. “Come on.”
Lucy turned and plodded back to his porch while he disappeared inside. She sat on the step and contemplated her kneecaps. Insects flirted with the sweaty nape of her neck. When Jez returned, he bore with him a sharp, clean citrus scent, two halves of a whole in either hand.
“Here,” he said.
She exchanged the grapefruit hemisphere for the paperwork she’d created. Juice stung the dry corners of her mouth as she chewed and he read. The cat leapt onto the porch rail and surveyed them with disdain.
“It’s a bill of sale,” she explained, although it said BILL OF SALE across the top in her curliest handwriting.
“For a suit of armor.”
Lucy checked his face. He wasn’t laughing, but he was confused. “That’s right. To keep you alive. It seems to me your life needs protecting. Not least of all from yourself. I sealed it, see? There are my initials.”
“Where is it?”
“The armor? You own it. This is your proof.”
“This is ludicrous. A bill of sale for a suit of armor is not going to keep me alive.”
“Yes, it is. It works all the time. I have hundreds of happy customers. Although yours is the first armor. Anyway, you must understand what I do. You showed up yesterday asking for your own death certificate.”
“Because I am dead.”
“Perhaps you were yesterday. I don’t know because that information is not notarized. But today you’re protected. Don’t you feel better? What, did you want a sword, too? You’ll have to pay. I can’t keep riding out here for free to keep you defended.”
“I don’t have the energy for this nonsense.” He tossed a scrap of grapefruit rind into the dirt, and his cat pounced.
“I do. I’ve been helping people for a year now.”
“You’re lying to them.”
“I’m not lying. I tell people what they need to hear, but only if it’s true. And I am telling you: You’re not dead, and you’re under my protection. Be glad! I am holding the world together.”
“Go away, Lucy.”
She scowled, a righteous fizz in her veins. He insisted on doubting her? Fine. It felt nice to push back against someone, like stretching a stiff limb. So many people took her job for granted. At least Jez saw how unlikely she was. “I’ll leave, but the bill of sale stays with you. You think I can’t do this? You think I can’t press my will into existence? Too bad. Watch me.”
They stood, wreathed in fragrant citrus and cat fluff, and Lucy walked away.
“Why me?” he called after her. “Why do you care if I live?”
She lifted her bicycle upright and looked back at him. He stood on the porch step, battered hands in battered pockets, and sunlight played across the dusty tips of his shoes. She considered several lies, some even scented with truth. She liked the power of her work; there were not enough men left to allow the good ones to go to waste; she cared about the wellbeing of all people and would do the same for anybody.
Instead, she told him the truth.
“I thought you were lovely when you were seventeen,” she said. “Now, with the shine rubbed off, I think you are heartbreaking.”
Then, certain she had embarrassed herself more than enough for one day, Lucy swung a leg over her bike’s frame and rode away before he could respond.
It was nearly a week before she saw Jez again. She’d fulfilled her promise to tell Aisha the minutiae, about his cat and Panther Perseverance and the tendons in his forearms, and they both concluded they’d likely never see him again.
“You should’ve written a document saying he was utterly devoted to your eternal happiness and notarized that,” said Aisha.
Lucy frowned. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Says the woman who added flourishes to a fake receipt for armor.”
So Lucy was surprised to see Jez hesitating just outside her office late one afternoon.
“There’s a problem with the armor I own,” he said.
She laid down her pencil. He filled the whole doorway and was limned by the setting sun. “Is there?” she said. “You look mostly alive to me, so whatever it is can’t be too bad.”
“It is bad. It’s awful. I know I’m not dead, but the armor is flawed.”
Something in his expression, something vivacious and boyish, drew Lucy to her feet. She advanced slowly around the desk. He leaned against the jamb like his shoulder was forcing the place upright, like Lucy wasn’t alone in holding the world afloat.
“Flawed?” she repeated.
“Yes.” He lowered his voice. “It hasn’t kept you out. Your notary stamp failed me terribly. I find myself utterly unprotected from you, and I haven’t found a way to keep you out of my head.”
“You’ve been thinking about me.” She took another step forward, trying not to startle him into fleeing.
“Incessantly. Come over here and tell me what you’re going to do about my holey armor.”
She did, because his command was as authoritative as any form she’d ever initialed. “I can’t be your lifebuoy,” she said. “My stamp is not that magical. If you’re unwell, my sheer stubbornness is not going to fix you.”
He reached for her hip. “Last week you vowed to press your will into existence.”
“These truths are not exclusive. The world remains a terrible and unpredictable place.”
She tilted her chin back to look up at him. He was taller than she recalled, taller than when they were teenagers, and his hands were on her waist.
“And yet here we are,” he said. “Was this not your will?”
“Yes.” She tested the warmth of his arm with her fingertips. Mortal and vibrant. “It is.”
“Who am I to resist? I regret every hour of geometry not spent contemplating your strange charms. I am undefended against you, Lucy.”
“You are under my protection,” she said.
He twined the tail of her braided hair around his fist and tilted her head back another inch, and she saw kisses instead of ghosts in his whiskey eyes. She leaned into him, but not toward his patient mouth. She slid back an inch of his T-shirt sleeve and eyed his upper arm, pushed into low slopes by the muscle beneath. Then she ducked her head and bit hard into the meat of his flesh, only for a second or two, her teeth pressed into him like the eagle and ivy of the notary seal into paper. He inhaled sharply. After pulling her lips away, she viewed with satisfaction the pink oval left on his skin. The mark would fade away, but she would not.
He was true, he was stamped, he was alive. She kissed him.