I Am Brutus

The quiet in the used car lot was broken by the squealing hinge on the door of a 1951 Ford Country Squire station wagon. A tall man, too old to be called young but not yet middle-aged, folded his body into the front seat. His fingers tapped against the steering wheel before digging into his jacket pocket and withdrawing a silver dollar. He flipped the coin, caught it, then flipped it again.

His gaze flicked across the deserted lot. It was Sunday morning, and the small town’s inhabitants were still tucked away in their church pews. A cold wind whipped across the car’s hood, promising a winter storm that night.

A rapping at his window distracted him, and he dropped the coin. He bent, grappling for it under the seat.

“Jack Donelson?” The police officer outside hunched his shoulders against the cold.

He rolled down the window. “That’s me.”

“We still have a deal?”

“We do.”

Jack had just returned from Vietnam the first time he met Chris, and President Johnson’s new war on poverty provided a convenient excuse for the revolution he ached to ignite. He heard Chris, a newly licensed M.D., give a lecture and saw how the audience hung on his words. Afterward, he introduced himself.

“Dr. Johnson?”

“Call me Chris.”

“Jack Donelson. I understand you’re starting a medical clinic in Appalachia.”

“That’s right.”

They chatted. Chris joked about long nights of studying at med school, and Jack wryly commented on his medical experience in ’Nam.

“You should come with me,” Chris said suddenly.

Though Jack could never explain why, he agreed.

They paused outside the old Baptist church. The windows were boarded up, and the roof was caving in.

One of the officers scratched his head. “You sure he’s here?”

Jack’s throat was dry. He swallowed. “Yes. Up there.” He nodded toward the bell tower. “He’s always there at this time.”

Life in Appalachia had been glorious fun at first. Jack was fascinated by Chris’s approach to life. He had no fear of speaking his mind or challenging convention. Within the first year, he had garnered national attention. The authorities muttered unhappily about his harsh statements welfare and governmental aid, but they couldn’t argue with his effective results.

Jack thrived on the conflict, vetting Chris’s interviewers, making sure his statements were heard by the right people and published in the right papers. He drew satisfaction from knowing things were changing.

Chris brought more than medicine to their little town. He brought books, knowledge, culture. He performed dramatic readings for the children’s circle at the public library and spearheaded a local performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, placing himself in the titular role and Jack as Brutus. He became more than a friend—he was a brother.

Then his focus changed.

Jack leaned against the outside of the church, but he could still hear the voices inside.

“Dr. Christopher Johnson, you are under arrest as an accomplice in plotting to destroy a government facility. You have the right to remain silent . . . .”

There were no sounds of struggle. He had known there wouldn’t be.

They exited the church a few minutes later, Chris bracketed by two officers. As they reached the police car, Chris looked straight at Jack—just stared for a full second before turning away.

Frustration burned in Jack’s chest as Chris handed a cherry sucker to a little girl and waved as she and her mother exited the clinic.

“You missed another press conference. If you’re not careful, everyone will forget who Dr. Chris Johnson is.”

“You think I care what the papers say about me?” Anger sparked in Chris’s eyes. He gestured to the door. “It’s people like Becky Jones and her mother that I care about. They’re the ones who matter.”

Chris’s anger faded from his face. He sighed, leaning against the front desk. “I can’t change systems, Jack. I can only change people.”

“Change people.”

Jack scoffed as he traipsed through the swiftly darkening forest. Chris was no revolutionary, only a foolish idealist.

Icy snowflakes stung Jack’s cheeks. He sidestepped a blackened tree trunk and kept walking.

He doubted the charges against Chris would stick, but it wouldn’t matter. The accusations meant lost trust. Chris wouldn’t practice medicine professionally again. Jack needed a new partner.

But the look on Chris’s face from outside the church wouldn’t leave his memory.

A snow-buried tree root caught his toe, and he fell face first into the powder. His silver dollar flew out in front of him, and in the dimming light, its motto caught his eye.

“E Pluribus Unum,” Chris had said the first time he saw Jack’s silver dollar collection.

“Out of many, one,” Jack echoed.

“You’ve heard the origin of the saying, I suppose.”

Jack hadn’t.

“From Cicero’s essay, De Officiis. ‘Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one.”

Chris laughed at Jack’s incredulous expression. “I read a lot.” He raised his hand in an imaginary toast. “To the ideal friendship—out of the many, one.”

Jack lay still in the snow.

That look. What had it been? Sadness? Anger? Bewilderment?

Betrayal.

He struggled to his feet. Behind him, his footprints were fast filling with new snow. By morning there would be no sign he had been here. He looked first behind him, then ahead. He should go back.

But that look . . .

Et tu, Brute?

I am Brutus.

Shuddering, he turned away from the town and trudged into darkness.

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