In their flannel suits and skinny ties, they stand facing the wall, mute as mourners. The fragile map has been moved and hung up on the wall carefully as an archaeological artifact, the pins painstakingly replaced in their microscopic holes by the latex fingers of small-statured surgeons. It shows the city as it was, as no man here ever saw it, whole and alive with no sense of its imminent demise. The map gives the charred ruins names. The pinholes indicate... what, exactly? They shift their weight, smooth soles of shiny dress shoes brushing the floor, and make muffled throat clearing noises as they try to look immersed. They are all thinking the same thing. What the hell are we supposed to do with this?
The prisoner down the hall has told them nothing. When they interrogate her, she doesn't even bother to put her dentures back in. She is as informative as the map, only discovered when her greedy son moved her into a home and put it up for sale with an online auction service.
Researchers, especially those employed by this particular Commission, had been troubled by the lack of any map of the city after it burned. It was as though some giant conspiracy had stormed the planet, rifling through the desks of elderly travel buffs and stealing their faded souvenirs. People swore they were sure they'd had a map, but couldn't find it just now. De facto archeology had produced sketches and theories as to what the city must have been, but simple earnest detective work could turn up no verification of what had been posited. The only certainty they could truly have was about what had occurred. The fire had begun with an explosion, you could see that from the stratosphere, the blast lines clearly defining where it had begun and how its influence had swept the city. It was natural to assume the prisoner was some sort of terrorist when they found her ancient map, a pin placed at the blast's dead center.
The men stood staring, looking out the corners of their eyes at one another to see if anyone else was making any sense of the thing. The pins were placed in no pattern at all, and trying to trace any relationship between them was as useless as trying to bend the disorder of the stars into the outlines of gods and animals. Only the one was meaningful, the one at the center of the blast. Secretly, they were all wondering if it was simple coincidence.
They didn't hear the Director come in, sweating as they were, thoughts turned inward wondering if maybe they weren't as smart as they and others had always assumed, wondering if they would be fired. "Well?" he barked after observing them dumbstruck for several minutes. They all jumped, coughing and muttering as they turned to face him but did not make eye contact.
The Director stood aside from the door and ordered, "Get her in here."
The old lady was led through the phalanx of miserable forensic experts to the map and the Director beside it. Only the Director saw her eyes moisten as they all waited silently. "What is this map?" he demanded finally.
She didn't even look at him.
"This one." He stabbed his thick finger next to the pin marking the site of the explosion. "Tell us now what this one is."
She appeared to ignore him and his finger sat there, ineffectual. His arm grew heavy and it began to quiver. Then they stopped breathing as she turned to the Director and in her toothless lisp replied, "That's Number One."
Having left them with that riddle, she shut up again and could not be prompted to explain further. After interrogating her for hours in the conference room, and then well after 5pm back in her cell, the detectives finally relented and got their hats from the hatracks and went home to their lovely families. They turned off the lights in the building and the prisoner was alone with the soft swish of the janitor's mop as he wiped away theoretical scuffs that their high quality footwear never left. She didn't tell them because they would never possibly understand, and so they might as well misunderstand completely.
She'd neither loved nor hated the city. It was a place where she existed, where she walked to work and took the bus to get groceries and sat in her apartment reading library books on the weekends. She was indifferent until one day, on the spot that was later determined to be Ground Zero, she was walking to get a cup of coffee and noticed the back of a man's head. She imagined he was handsome, based on the shape of his neck and his hairline. She must have imagined too long, because he stopped and turned to look back at her as though her stare had burned him. In a modest way, he was indeed handsome. But the expression on his face, that was what caused the breath to leave her lungs and caused her to also stop there in the middle of the sidewalk until, with no more than a look exchanged, he moved away and seemed to intentionally disappear into the chaos of the city's traffic. That was the first time she saw him. That was Number One.
Once she'd seen him, she couldn't stop. In random places she'd never been before and the ones she went to every day, he kept appearing. At first it made her paranoid, and so she bought a cheap map from some tourist store and started marking the location of each event. But she never saw him until he saw her, and the look on his face told her the same was true for him. They would look up at the same moment to find each others' eyes, their mouths each time rounding into larger circles of confused surprise. The map quickly stopped being evidence of a plot and was forgotten, a hundred of the incidents never recorded.
The strange meetings occurred more frequently until it was once a day. She thought about saying something to him, introducing herself at least if she was going to see him everywhere she went. In truth, it had evolved well past at least. She would start with her name and then give him her heart. She'd yielded mentally to whatever mystic magnetism kept drawing them together physically. It was an idle fantasy, something she was barely aware of thinking as she sank into sleep at night, but constant and unexpectedly powerful at moments. Most particularly those when she found herself looking into his eyes, before he disappeared again.
When she got a good job offer out of town, she didn't think about saying no. It did cross her mind that she'd miss running into him, but the thought carried no more rational weight than her sadness at leaving her favorite diner or the apartment she'd called home for years. As she packed her things, she wrote off the mournful trepidation she felt as senseless. A week after she left, the city exploded.
The prisoner did not want to talk to the detectives about the map, even if it meant spending her final years in a cell in a secret facility, harangued by mean, stout Directors and left alone with her terrible thoughts. Before they brought her here, she'd had no idea that the place she first saw him was the place where the city had blown up. It hadn't occurred to her to wonder if he'd lived. Now she was certain he had, that he'd been on the opposite side of that blast point, as many miles away from it as she was, and the explosion was the frustrated magnetism stirred up in the place where they were supposed to have come together.
The prisoner did die in her cell. The only other thing the Commission managed to get out of her were her last words. "I'm truly sorry," she whispered. "But you tell him it's half his fault."