Ethan Swage

This one is guilty. He will definitely be going away—hopefully forever. Murderer. Thief. Child molester. Whatever it takes, true or false, that's what my report will say. And my signature, Officer Arthur Zakk, will be on that report.

Time for the lineup. One man, one accusatory finger, one positive identification. No two-way mirrors today; I'm going to make this identification face-to-face, breath-to-breath, countering his foreboding leer with my own triumphant grin.

Facing me, his accuser, he looks confident: muscles relaxed, chin thrust forward, daring me to lay him out with one well-placed punch—cocksure bastard! First, I point my index finger at the ceiling, as if it's a pistol and I'm at the firing range awaiting the call to take aim. Then I level my finger at him, bouncing it in place slowly in my mind—Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Identified, now off you go!

But his chin is still defiantly raised, as if my identification isn't enough; as if he needs to somehow connect our minds and watch himself through my eyes, seeing himself swing the hammer, seeing his victim's skull giving way beneath the hammer's force—beneath his force. Seeing himself stuffing his pockets with other people's cash. Seeing . . . well, he won't be able to see the child molester part, because that's just filler for the report, for emphasis. One more charge added to the list: another nail driven straight through his impending indictment and deep into his heart, giving way to my hammer's force.

A lie.

Let him contradict me. Who would believe his lies over mine? Our lies come from different worlds, different ideologies. His lies take, while mine give. They reward, allocating justice, retribution . . . revenge.

My finger is still leveled at him, dead straight between the eyes, where I should have followed up with bullet after bullet while he still clutched his hammer in his blood-soaked hand.

The glass between us darkens as I begin my second-favorite schoolyard count-off—A, E, I, O . . . YOU! Glass? No matter: I'm still here and he's still there, and in a matter of seconds this hangman is going to begin preparing an inescapable noose. I generally reserve count-offs for choosing between two suspects, accompanying each letter or rhyming word with a metronome-like, tick-tocking index finger. But tormenting this one with the possibility that my finger could swing away from him at the last second injects me into his veins, lets me flow through his heart as it flutters, randomly skipping beats. Lets me flow through his tongue, savoring the smack of his fear as it mixes with his gorge.

Acid to acid, dust to dust. The taste of vengeance is the taste of lust!

Deepening my voice to a gravelly baritone growl, I start with A, and he lowers his chin. His sudden loss of defiance widens my smile. A ladder of wrinkles appears on his forehead as I reach E. The sweaty runnels separating his ladder's rungs deepen and darken with each passing second. I barely open my mouth as I utter a breathy I. His face begins to change, to become oddly familiar, as if I know him even better than he thinks he knows me. My lengthy O sounds like a mantra. By the time I'm finished hanging on the letter, I have no breath left in my lungs. His brow clenches as hard as a mountain crag. He is staring directly into my eyes, through them, no longer wanting to see what I saw him do, but wanting to see who I am, and what I am, wanting to remember. His finger is leveled at me, reflecting mine. Slack-jawed and unable to speak, I realize for the first time that I am gazing into a bathroom mirror. I touch a bloody fingertip to his—mine!—drop my hammer in the sink, and mouth my final condemnation, the newly replaced vowel in my self-incriminating count-off: Me!

Ethan Swage is a New Jersey-based writer/artist/photographer whose work has appeared in Flashshot, The Legendary, Everyday Weirdness, and 50 to 1.