Friends

I was alone, or at least as alone as I could be.

As you may conclude from that, I have a poor personality. Despite the pedigree of my parents, as my life went on I came to have few friends. From the start I had so many friends, people I would grow into knowing. It seems as though I will not have even had a chance to meet them all. I now only have one friend.

As my connections with others were rended, I often wished I were an orphan. Without these initial expectations of me, at least my family wouldn't have partially shared in my ostracization. Their losses and my own were enough to callus my heart. When my mother finally cut our ties, I could feel nothing. She held out far longer than she should have.

Revocation these days only takes a few years. The duration of the solitude I bear is only a fraction of our ancestors’. Their struggles must have been of an entirely different class. That others sat in isolation so long is some days a comfort to me. However, in my toughest days I certainly don't let the past weigh on how I might feel.

Life without friends is arduous. I have found over the months and even the years modern society has made life, even for the lowest of scum, better. I can subsist through manual labor and toiling day and night for the essentials. In a way, being run ragged is a relief. If I were able to keep the luxuries that come with having friends, I would surely go insane with all of my idle time.

I was in the final stretch. Estimates allowed me a week before I would be revoked. It is hard to say one is prepared when their plan requires no preparation. I intended to end my life with no fanfare. My entire life was a downward trajectory and I saw no reason to disrupt the pattern.

The days passed. Every morning I would check to see if my list of friends was truly empty. We are told as soon as it hits zero we fade. No one ever looks upon an empty list. However, there were days where if I felt I could dream I would wish to see it. I would squint my eyes until the list blurred into a solid gray and imagine that's how it would look empty.

The estimate was off. Two days after what was supposed to be my final day I was truly impatient. I had only one more friend to sever, then I would be free to move on. I muddled around as there was no point in making a living anymore. I was hungry but without food, tired but without sleepiness. I was alone with idle, final thoughts.

On the third day, my last friend finally appeared to me. Once I identified him as such I pleaded, "Allow me to be revoked. I am done here."

The old man took a seat across from me, collected his thoughts, and asked, "What led us to today?"

"My strong will and faith in myself. Faith that I would never overcome myself and the will to carry out that prophecy," I responded. Those words, etched in my mind since the night my mother disowned me, left me speechless after I delivered them aloud.

The man also took time to digest my words before asking the next question. "What did you find to offer this world?"

"Once I was down to you, I did put myself to work to survive. I have no talents for labor I can assure you. The reprieve it gave me from fully confronting this situation allowed it to become my life's passion. However, this was only to bide my time until you arrived and so now that too has left me."

The final question came. "Do you sympathize with me?"

I had to think. Anyone who dangles on the edge of being revoked must be faced with a similar set of questions. The merit in the first two questions was clear. The first asking what one would have already thought to death was merely a sanity check. The second was an offer to reconsider. The last question however seemed almost self-serving being so ambiguous.

I noticed that unlike the others this question could be answered with a simple yes or no. If that's all the answer someone responded with, their answer would be meaningless. Such a loaded question would need elaboration, but the look in the old man's eyes nor his tone conveyed that. I hesitated to think that my answer would not matter at all.

He asked if I sympathized, not empathized. Normally the word choice would provide a hint into someone's thinking. However, sitting across from me was my final friend, everyone's final friend. It was obvious I would never be able to empathize with his position. It was not clear to me I could sympathize either. To confidently say I have compassion for his hardships and plight felt dishonest.

I asked for more time to answer. The man agreed and said he would return the next day. The bag he had been carrying contained a meal. He left it behind with me. From my outward appearance it must have been clear to him I was not going to be in a state of mind to think without my hunger abated.

After I ate, I sat in silence. Empathy requires putting yourself in someone's shoes. Sympathy only requires acknowledgement and sufficient understanding. How much would suffice is subjective. For my own measure, "beyond a reasonable doubt" came to mind. Then I'd need to define "reasonable." Being estranged from society's definition and devoid of reason myself, it seemed building a success criteria was a dead end or at least a waste of my limited time.

I started gathering the facts of what I knew about my friend and this world. Anyone born into this world is added to his friends list. Unlike mutual friendships where either party may end the relationship, with him he is the only one who can. He never ends a friendship unless it is someone's last. Once someone has lost all of their friends they leave this world.

In effect, the day to day of this man is coming to meet losers like me, severing their last tie, and perhaps seeing them off. Since he is everyone's friend, he is immortal as long as at least one other person in this world remains. His job is a never ending list of names to cross off, one that grows larger everyday.

Whenever this world began, it must have taken full lifetimes for someone to become eligible to be revoked. Now he must be dealing with many people each day. The monotony of his life must be overwhelming. With so much to do, I can imagine he does only have time for three questions per person. No time to really get to know these people, or anyone for that matter.

Dealing with all of these one-sided friendships, he may not feel that he has any friends. In having everyone as a friend he has no one. But it hadn't always been this way. In the early days he would have had the idle time to be something else. Those early friendships he built must have meant something. Those memories only serve as kindling for the almost constant suffering he endures now.

To know that this man is also alone and it is only getting worse, is this the way in which I am supposed to have sympathy for his plight?

This train of thought raced, becoming more and more seeped in doubt. It turned out I still had some optimism left in my heart. His job may not be suffering. No one else could do it and freeing people that no longer want to live may be the most rewarding task he could perform. Even if it were suffering, the price for those early days may be more than worth it. I had lost all hope for myself, but I could not say the same for the hope I had for my friend.

I awoke the next morning with enough resolve to answer the third question.

The old man returned at the same time that he had arrived the day before. He was not carrying anything this time. He sat next to me. He asked again, "Do you sympathize with me?"

"No." I took a few deep breaths. Our eyes locked but his expression remained emotionless. He opened his friend list between the two of us. It was dense with names. I was humbled to get a chance to see it myself, especially because at this very moment it was at its largest.

"Do you have a question for me?" I was unsure if this was a question from a script or simply a reaction to my staring.

"What does an empty friend list look like?"

"I don't know. I am my own friend."

I was struck with a wave of relief. Any doubts that I had answered the third question incorrectly were gone. I watched as he pulled my name from his list. As he went to remove my name I jerked to look at my own friend list. As I did, everything quickly faded to gray.