Burr was no stranger to duels, nor to combat for that matter, so he knew the surreal slowness that can overtake a man in the midst of a fight for his life. One moment everything is too fast for the eye to follow, and the next you’re mired in temporal mud, as if in a dream where air becomes thick as molasses, struggling to lift your gun in time and knowing all the while that your time is up.
But that was only an illusion brought on by the shadow of death. This was different. As Burr raised his pistol, he knew that he really did have all the time in the world to choose how to fire. And he also knew, suddenly and inexplicably but with absolute certainty, that he had done this before.
He’d killed Alexander Hamilton, but he’d paid for it. Burr watched his bullet fly through the future and shatter his political career, blast him into a trial for treason, leave him penniless and paralyzed, and finally lodge him in a legacy where he was forever forgotten as anything but the man who had killed the great Hamilton.
An untimely, tragic death. A duel, so dramatic, so quaintly old-fashioned. The only Founding Father to be killed in a duel (unless you count Button Gwinnett, but nobody counts Button Gwinnett unless you count his creditors), the only American Vice President to be accused of murder. So memorable.
Would Hamilton too have faded away if Burr hadn’t killed him? He was never gon’ be President now, so was it only his stranger-than-fiction death that made him famous? Had Burr himself fathered Hamilton’s legacy?
That bastard, orphan, autodidact immigrant, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, creator of the US Mint and the first American political party? Burr thought. Not likely!
This couldn’t be a true chance to choose. If this strange knowledge was true, if this duel had already happened, then everything had already been determined. Burr had no more control than a spider dangling over a fire, scurrying vainly up its already-melting thread. Fate was only fooling with him.
Burr fired. Hamilton fell.
Burr went and got a drink. And another. And another. Ten shots later, he finally blacked out.
Again? Burr thought.
Once again, the flood of knowledge; once again, the tempting illusion of choice.
Or was it an illusion? Burr might not be able to rewrite the past, but he could control his own actions in the here and now.
Hamilton’s shot had gone wild when Burr’s bullet had struck him; had he truly been taking deadly aim, or had he meant to delope? And even if Hamilton had intended to kill Burr, would he be able to get off a fatal shot with the sun in his eyes and his sight so poor that he needed glasses, all the while undoubtedly haunted by memories of his son’s death in a duel at the very same spot?
I’ll wait for it, Burr thought. If he delopes or misses, I’ll delope and say it was my intent all along. For once in my life, I’ll get to claim the moral high ground.
Hamilton’s bullet smashed into Burr’s chest.
Burr had fallen at the battle of Monmouth, but from heat stroke, not gunfire. But he knew this was a mortal wound, not with that inexplicable inserted understanding, but as Hamilton had known when his own time had come. The body has its own knowledge.
Burr staggered, dizzy and weak, but managed to stay on his feet. Two years later, future President Andrew Jackson would duel Charles Dickinson over an insult to Jackson’s wife. Jackson too had waited for his enemy to fire. Then, with a bullet lodged beside his heart, Jackson had taken slow and careful aim, and shot Dickinson dead.
But Burr had no time for careful aim. His vision was already blurring. He raised his pistol blindly and fired.
Then he was down on the ground. It should have been grassy and soft, but it felt hard and slick.
He saw Hamilton clap a hand to his forearm, heard the wonder in his voice as he said, “Only a scratch.” Hamilton had expected to die.
Bur wondered if Hamilton would destroy the letter he’d left claiming that he would throw away his shot, or if he’d preserve it— he loved his own writings like he loved his own mind— and future historians would learn of his perfidy. It might be worth dying if it destroyed Hamilton’s legacy.
Or, Burr realized, Hamilton could simply go home and write that though he had gone to the duel with the intention to delope, at the last second he saw Burr taking deadly aim and fired to save his own life.
That would be in-character, Burr thought. Hamilton doesn’t burn letters; he writes more letters.
Hamilton turned toward him, was pulled away. The brightness above— Burr searched for the word, it was easy and short, but he couldn’t find it— the overhead light was fading.
That’s death, Burr thought with dreamy clarity. Not the dying of the light. The loss of words. Hamilton was right to write like he was running out of time. History will believe him, not me. He wrote his letter for posterity. I wrote mine for Theodosia.
But his memory slipped again, and he couldn’t remember whether he’d written to his wife or daughter. One was already dead, waiting for him on the other side. But which one? Had she sunk beneath the ocean waves, or sunk back into her pillow?
Would anyone remember her as the brilliant woman and shining presence she’d been? Or would they know her only through his words, her own face and voice unknown to the generations of the future?
“Fuck the future.” Burr’s voice was weak, but somehow that choked whisper carried as far as if he’d shouted. He saw Hamilton hear him all the way across that featureless black plain, his brightly lit face displaying first disbelief, then understanding, then— Burr waited for it— regret. “I want more now."
His light went out.
Ah. So that was the difference. People would call Burr all sorts of names, but stupid wasn’t one of them. Even before she’d noticed the change in herself, Burr had figured out that the duel was going to repeat, with variations each time, until… something… happened.
This time Burr, Hamilton, and the seconds were all women. Burr was completely unsurprised to see that Hamilton was strikingly beautiful, a trifle slight and boyish for his taste, but with the same fine features and bright eyes that had been so admired when he’d been a man. Burr glanced down, and found that she was taller, more muscular, with a Junoesque figure. She wished she could see her own face— would she be dangerously alluring, or austerely elegant?— but that was only from curious vanity. Burr was not disturbed; when she’d been a man, he’d always believed that women not only had souls, but intelligence equaling that of men.
So: they were women. But Burr was going to make sure that was the only difference between this duel and the original one.
Onlookers might see it in a different light: the men of history regenerated regendered, each woman reclaiming her story of America. But (and of course that was the point) absolutely everything else was the same. Can women be brilliant? Can otherwise brilliant women let themselves be led by the cunt? Can women write their own deliverance, if their writing's not suppressed?
Can women kill?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, number ten paces! Fire!
Was Hamilton really taking deadly aim? Or was her arm only rising toward the sky? No matter; Burr fired and Hamilton fell, her shot going wild.
The dying Hamilton was rowed back across the Hudson. Burr’s bullet had struck in precisely the same place, so unless female anatomy makes the wound faster or slower to kill, Hamilton will live for another day before joining her daughter and father and sister-in-arms who went before her. And then she’ll stride into history, the only Founding Mother who didn’t get to die old.
Two hundred-some years later, America will argue over whether her face should be taken off the ten-dollar bill and replaced with a man’s. It’s a bit of a token gesture but there were lots of great men, famous men, deserving men, even if none have gotten to be President yet (but this coming election, there’s finally a man who might have a chance.) Men will appreciate it.
Now, Burr went and got herself a drink. There was a difference between men and women, after all. This time it only took seven shots before she blacked out.
The battle of Monmouth. Burr remembered every grueling moment of it, how Lee had been forced to retreat and even Lafayette had slowed to the pace of an ordinary man.
“Attack!” an all-too-familiar voice shouted. Not Lafayette. Hamilton was leading the charge. He must have poured out all the words at his command to get that command, whining and wheedling until Washington gave in to his favored son.
This is my shot, Burr realized. If I kill Hamilton now, he’ll never keep me from the room where it happens. History will remember me, not him. He’ll be like John Laurens, a footnote at best. And then who’s gon’ be President now?
So maybe fragging’s not honorable, but it’s all a matter of perception. Dueling is nothing but murder that’s legal in New Jersey. No combat veteran has unstained hands. And in this bloody, weary chaos, nobody would see how the sausage gets made.
Burr stepped to the side, maneuvering for a position where he could hit Hamilton without anyone seeing where the bullet came from.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, number ten paces!
How many soldiers have been killed by their own brothers-in-arms in accidents that really were accidents, with no one ever knowing, not the shooter nor the shot, that it was Cain who slew Abel? And if anyone did see, well, from then on, Burr will be careful to establish that he’s a terrible shot.
Hamilton fell. As soldiers carried him from the field, a wind caught the gunsmoke and swirled it into a dust devil. In the deep blue light, Hamilton seemed to be spun away in a hurricane.
Was this enough? Burr wondered. Or will history still remember that bastard, upstart, arrogant immigrant who wrote his way into an early death, leaving behind a legacy of unfulfilled promise?
Burr hadn’t moved, but somehow he could see Hamilton dying in a bed, with Washington at his side. Hamilton was writing, his movements desperate, shaky, relentless. He spoke his words as he scribbled them, an account of the battle mixed with his hopes for the country he wouldn’t live to see.
“Alexander Hamilton lived for another day and a half.” Burr spoke aloud as the knowledge came into his head. “He never stopped writing, right up to the end. After the war, George Washington published it all. He wrote the foreword himself.”
Washington stepped forward, leaving Hamilton alone, still writing. Quoting himself with a solemnity that might have been absurd in a man with less gravitas, Washington said, “‘Alexander Hamilton was one of the greatest men I have ever known. We can only imagine what accomplishments he might have had if his life not been tragically cut short at the age of twenty-one, but I am certain that they would have only begun with the Presidency.’”
“The Last Words of Alexander Hamilton became both a bestseller and a classic,” Burr said. Not for the first time, he wondered how he knew.
The same way he knew everything, he supposed. It was written.
Goddamn it, Burr thought, but as he went on, he heard his voice, his face, every line of his body convey what he couldn’t help feeling, that strange mix of fury, envy, admiration, and regret.
“Though Hamilton’s fame waned somewhat over time, his book never went out of print. Almost two hundred and fifty years later, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a rising star in musical theater, bought it on a whim and read it on vacation. He was so inspired by the story of the young immigrant who wrote even as his life’s blood went drip, dripping from his veins that Miranda spent the next six years writing a musical about him.”
Burr took a breath, then heard his smooth, practiced voice continue, “As no one knows who shot Hamilton, some historians criticized Miranda’s choice to assign the blame to a stray bullet fired by American soldier Aaron Burr, of whom little is known beyond that he fought at the battle of Monmouth and was the grandson of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards. But audiences loved Miranda’s daring choice to make Hamilton’s unknown killer both a real man lost to history and the narrator of the play.”
Wait a second, Burr wanted to say, but he was suddenly standing in darkness, while a ray of light shone on Washington. As Washington continued his eulogy to Hamilton, Burr thought, Why was I unknown? In my time, did Hamilton shoot some Redcoat who lived to kill me in this one?
He hated to think of the other possibility: that without Hamilton to annoy, inspire, provoke, and infuriate him, Burr would have done nothing memorable at all.
The light blinked out on Washington, then grew brighter on Hamilton, who had been writing furiously, though with increasing difficulty, the entire time. With a shaking hand, Hamilton scrawled out his famous final sentence, speaking it as he wrote.
The pen fell from his hand. Instead of the almost inaudible flutter and click that a quill should have made, it struck the floor with the sound of a gunshot.
I don’t need that adulterous, loudmouth creator of America’s financial system and its first Secretary of the Treasury to keep me from obscurity, Burr thought. And if I do, I’m taking him with me.
Burr worked his way much closer than he had the time before. He was a good shot, but flintlocks weren’t very accurate, and this time he had to aim for the head. Hamilton would die instantly, without a chance to write himself into glory.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, number ten paces! Fire!
At the last second, Hamilton whipped his head around. Burr would have held his fire for fear of discovery, but it was too late. His bullet hit Hamilton in the mouth.
Stifling a jolt of horror, Burr thought, That’ll shut him up.
He’d had to come so close to get the shot, Hamilton lay almost at his feet, choking on his own blood and struggling to speak. To name his killer? Burr had no idea; Hamilton wasn’t looking at him, but at some useless soldier who stood gawping at his dying commander, too shocked to even ease his last moments.
Burr knelt and lifted Hamilton’s head, turning it to the side. His hair was soaking wet. Blood flooded out of his mouth. He coughed, then managed to draw in a breath.
Hamilton looked straight at Burr, but his gaze was intent, not accusing. He tried again to speak, but Burr couldn’t understand him.
“I’m sorry,” Burr said.
“A pen,” Hamilton forced out. Burr couldn’t imagine how much willpower it must be taking him to say anything comprehensible, with his shattered jaw and ruined mouth. “I have last words.”
“I don’t…” Burr began, then realized that a pen and paper would inexplicably appear on the battlefield if Hamilton needed them.
Nothing appeared. His busy hands had gone slack, his bright eyes closed forever. His mouth… Burr looked away from his mouth.
Come on, darkness, he thought.
It was a long time coming.
But when he found himself back at the duel, he felt more dread than relief. The seconds had already conferred and retired; the countdown was about to begin. Was he ever going to get a rest from this?
Burr would kill Hamilton, or Hamilton would kill him, or, more likely, they’d both kill each other, since that hadn’t happened yet. Or not; there could be a million things they hadn’t done.
For the first time, Burr wondered if Hamilton too knew he was repeating his shot, as Burr was repeating his. What if they both threw away their shots? Would that end everything? Or would it only end this scene?
Sometimes history was written by the victors, sometimes the letters of the dead overwrote the testimony of the living, and sometimes the past was reworked into a mirror of the present. Burr might be seen as a villain, a hero, an antihero, an original, a man of his time or ahead of his time. But while tales can be retold, deeds can’t be undone. Burr could spend all of eternity acting out different versions of their story, but he could never call back a bullet he’d already fired.
You can’t shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, Burr thought absently. But no one would use that phrase until almost a hundred years after his death, assuming he died in the true past, the one where Burr outlived all his contemporaries and went to his grave knowing that if he was remembered at all, it would be as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.
Burr knew more with every iteration, but knowledge didn’t change anything. Maybe he should just stop trying to change things that couldn’t be changed. Maybe he should just…
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, number ten paces! Fi—
“Wait!” Burr shouted.
Hamilton’s gun went off. The bullet smashed into a branch, too close to Burr to have been fired into the air, too far to have been fired at him. He’d obviously shot in reflex, startled by Burr’s shout. Now Burr would never know if this time, Hamilton had meant to delope or to kill Burr.
Burr could raise his gun high and fire it into the air. But he’d had enough of shooting. Also, he suspected that the bullet would plummet straight down into Hamilton’s head. Whatever force it was that kept making him repeat this confrontation, it clearly had a dark sense of humor.
Burr placed his gun on the ground, with the barrel pointed away from Hamilton. He was taking no chances.
Hamilton stared at him, perplexity and surprise and a slow-building joy that he was still alive written all over his face. Then he too laid down his gun.
The men walked toward each other, as their seconds had. But while the seconds’ exchange had been a rote formality, each already knowing the outcome, this meeting was a step into the unknown.
“Why?” Hamilton asked, pithy for once.
“Because…” Burr hesitated, searching for a truth he could stand by. He could hardly explain what he could barely believe himself, especially when he still had no idea if Hamilton knew as well. And anyway, that was only the journey. Hamilton was asking him about the destination.
“Because the world is big enough for both of us,” Burr said at last. “And it would be smaller without you.”
Even as it left his lips, Burr knew it for a closing line. He instinctively glanced upward, waiting for the light to go out. But it only dazzled his eyes until he was forced to lower his gaze and turn back to the man in front of him.
They were close enough for Burr to see Hamilton draw in breath to reply.
Of course, Burr thought. Alexander Hamilton always gets the last word.
“Wait,” said Burr again, and clapped his hand over Hamilton’s mouth.
In a moment, Hamilton would pull away. In a moment, that unstoppable, unavoidable, undocumented immigrant would speak, because he never fucking shut up, not even when he was dying. And then darkness would take them both, as it took everyone in the end, sinners and saints, soldiers and senators, wives and daughters, actors and writers, undiscriminating and undefiable.
In a moment.
Now, they stand still, together in the moment, waiting in the light.