Serial #1: The Taking
(This is the first of a serial written for this prompt, not published.)
“William, wake up.” Carol was jostling me. I hadn’t slept long; the room was still dark, shadows just before dawn.
“What?” The alarm showed 5:12 AM.
“Someone’s in the house. The living room.” Carol pulled me in tight with both hands. I could tell she felt scared. Really scared.
I didn’t wait. The bedside table on my side held a small .22 revolver. The only time I’d ever fired it was in a half day lesson I took after the riots started. Foolish, I thought later. Home guns are a waste of money. I’d never looked at it since that day. But now I opened the drawer and pulled it out, fumbling in the dark. I almost dropped it. It felt light in my hand, like a toy. Is it loaded?
A man’s voice came from across the dark bedroom. “Don’t bother Mr. Harrison.”
Carol flinched and sucked in her breath, holding me tight, viselike. I froze. How long had he been sitting there?
“Put the pop gun you’ve got there back in the drawer, son. Slowly.”
I couldn’t breathe. I placed the gun back in the drawer and closed it.
How life changes in an instant flashed through my mind. Maybe it started with the big jets. The 747s.
Carol and I used to go to the observation park. Something magical about huge planes when we were so close, the power glistening in the sun. This was before the war. Our future was ahead of us and we would bring our McDonalds and have a picnic on the park table. In those days, other couples brought their young children to see the massive jets land, the thrusting takeoffs rising into the sky. Carol and I would talk about how we’d bring our kids here someday. And seeing the jets head off, we would joke about where they would take us.
“We’re leaving for Paris,” Carol would jest, her brown eyes sparkling. “Déjà vu, my handsome man.”
“No. London,” I’d tease. “The girls are prettier.”
Carol would punch my arm and give me a push. “Girls are the most beautiful in Kenya,” she’d say.
And seeing her with the sun on her face, the jets roaring behind, the perfect blue sky, I was sure she was right. “Kenya,” I’d say. “Someday we’ll go, my Kenyan beauty.”
But then eight years went by, and for us there were no children. And though I’d insisted, it wasn’t a great idea to come back to the observation park.
Beyond the airport now lies a battle-scared urban decay. Apartment buildings stand with entire walls sliced away, exposed abandoned rooms, many with furniture left untouched, couches, 55-inch TVs on the walls, a delicate blue lamp still on a nightstand. Like sick-joke doll houses. Twenty-story office complexes lie collapsed in the street. Rubble piled: concrete blocks, steel girders, endless broken glass, refuse of a world gone mad. Smoke still rises, a choke-throat smoldering ascends from below the debris. Too many fires to put out. Years now, and still they smolder, a wrenching stink, an open grave. A despondent setting sun casts a sad eye from the west, a pallid jaundiced orb, a runny eye.
Through a nervous haze, the landing lights of a 747 are still miles off. As the plane descends, the red, white, and blue American Airlines markings on the fuselage become clearer. Lumbering, pitching back and forth, it makes its final approach. The sound of the engines drop in a shudder as the flaps engage. Wheels screech and tire smoke puffs up as the jet touches the tarmac directly in front of where Carol and I stand on a chain fenced hill. The airport lies at our feet; what the war has left of the city lies beyond.
Outside baggage claim, Alex catches my eye, and he bursts into a familiar smile. We rush to him, and I clap him on the back and give him an awkward hug.
For all appearances, it’s the same Alex, turning red, embarrassed by affection, just like when we were students at school. We were older now, both of us crowding thirty. I was the sole survivor of my family’s real estate firm. Alex, I’d heard, was a political consultant. It had been years since I’d seen him, but his getting involved in politics didn’t surprise me. He was always heavily involved, class president, and then an internship with The Majority Party. I joked earlier with Carol. “He looks like Dudley Do-Right,” and when we saw him, he still fit the part with an oversized jaw and teeth that were too big for his mouth. Teeth like a god, I thought.
My eyes shone as I admired my friend. Carol stood apart from us with a curious smile, reading her intuition.
He came to the house and Carol broiled rare filets, plump asparagus, baked potatoes. The last time Carol and I had a steak was graduation years earlier, well before the war. After dinner, Carol excused herself. “I’ll leave you boys to talk old times.” So the two of us sat out in white rattan chairs on our screened porch. The fan above turned silent but did nothing to cut the heat. It was June, and the cicadas were in high form, buzzing back and forth, the sound rising and falling rhythmically from the dark edge of our property. I poured brandy in snifters for myself and Alex. As a memory from our past, I’d set up a playlist, and Mick Jagger swaggered out, Wild horses... couldn’t drag me away... low from the living room. The music was a dream from long ago and seemed silly. The music was silly, and we didn’t play much since the war, Carol and I.
“B&B!” Alex said, toasting and clinking glasses. “I remember you drunk as a skunk behind the quad back in the day.”
I laughed, thinking of the fraternity house. “You weren’t exactly a teetotaler, Alex.”
We went back and forth, cutting up like we used to, then he said, “Those were great days. Innocent days. Who would’ve known the world would go sideways?”
Yes. The world sideways, I thought, now remembering how intense Alex was. “I suppose,” I said. I wanted to go on, but felt him dying to interrupt, just as he had in the past. Tall, he seemed to lean over me, even sitting as he was now. He had always baited a conversation so he could expound on his conspiracy theories. But when I thought about it, maybe his theories had mostly come true.
His face tightened on white teeth. “Did you know Canada locked down the border?”
Of course I knew. “Carol and I support the statutes, the rationing, everything,” I said, thinking I should mention the pool in the backyard. Both Alex and I could see the canvass cover if we looked from where we were sitting. If I had mentioned it, or at least pointed to it, this would be in my favor, but I didn’t say anything.
Alex settled back, swirling his brandy snifter, admiring the caramel color by holding the glass to the light. “Magnificent dinner William. But steak? Are you supporting the quota?”
An uneasy chill struck the back of my neck. “Now hold on. It’s been a long time since Carol and I had meat. Real meat.”
Alex peered at me, examined me. “I don’t mean to offend you, old friend.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, and I tried to break it. “What’s up with you, anyway? Tell me about your life. What have you been doing?”
Alex slid to the front edge of his chair. His eyes lit up like he had a hot date at school. “It’s not public yet, but I’ve been assigned as Regional Liaison. Right here in San Diego.”
I’d heard about Regional Liaisons. Political advisers at first, then the actual power, a watchdog for the governor. They were rumored to have taken over the enforcement of the edicts, equal to Nazi Germany’s SS. Did Alex know something? Maybe I wasn’t as careful as I thought. It only took one mistake. My radar was now on high alert. “I’m getting the funny feeling our getting together was no accident, Alex. Am I right?”
He flashed a smile. “We’ve had reports some of you real estate people aren’t playing fair. We need your help.”
“Reports? What reports?”
Across from me, Alex leaned in, and and gripped my arm. He’d put on muscle and his thighs pressed against his gray suit pants. His white shirt was tight across his chest. I felt his fingers dig into me just below the elbow.
“Reports enough to know we have traitors,” he said. “But there’s a lot we don’t know. That’s why we need you. Find out who they are, what they’re doing, saying.”
“Find out? You mean rat on my friends?”
“No, William. You’re still sensitive, aren’t you? I don’t mean it that way. But you’re also not in the Party. You don’t know. It’s coming William. Halphen’s vision. It’s... it’s prophetic.”
“And we need you to give us a... a heads up...on real estate dealings, a building code avoided, tax fraud, that kind of thing. Or worse.”
I laughed. “So rat on my friends, right?”
Alex set his brandy down, barely touched. He gave me the look he did when we were at fraternity. His eyes unblinking, labeling me as ignorant, needing to do it his way. His eyes sparked more menacing, glossy black, an unforgiving depth. And yet he was my friend.
He stood up. “Carols on a green card, right?”
I snapped back. “What does that have to do with anything?” But I knew what he meant. Fear built the Majority Party, fear of anyone who didn’t look like them, think like them. War exaggerates fear. Fear drives people; people then go anywhere power sends them.
His mouth gave a dismissive twitch toward the kitchen.
He gave nothing, no response. But I had to know where he was going. “You know Alex... maybe you need to—”
I flinched back when he turned toward me. For just a split second, almost too fast to catch, his face seethed with anger, so tight I thought his eyeballs might explode, like he was reacting to a drug, an emotion he no longer controlled. And in that second, the Alex I knew was long gone, and this man in front of me would stop at nothing.
“What about my green card?” Carol stood in the doorway to the porch. She was staring at Alex.
He relaxed, then faced Carol. He brightened at seeing her. “Carol? Nothing. I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. Trying to help if I can.”
She stepped onto the porch. “That doesn’t answer my question.” Carol stood firm with deep brown skin, close cropped black hair, her head held high, a warrior. The strength of her late twenty’s youth. She had that wrinkle on her forehead, the one she tightened up when she was angry. And yet I was never so scared, like she was tempting dynamite. How could she be so reckless? My eyes fixed on her, amazed she was my wife, not imagining life without her.
Alex’s face lost his smile. “It was a stupid thing to bring up,” he said. “I’m sorry. Maybe I should go.”
“Maybe you should,” she said.
“No. Stay,” I said to Alex. “No offense taken. It’s a sensitive subject.”
Carol glanced at me, then stormed out. Alex stared after her. I wasn’t sure he’d heard me or listened to what I’d just said. “Alex?”
He was somewhere else. “Sure. I’ll stay. Too much brandy makes me stupid. Forgive me?”
My head spun and inside me a high-pitched scream drowned out my thoughts. I could barely speak. “Don’t be ridiculous. You and I go way back,” I stammered.
Alex took the brandy bottle off the side table and filled my glass. “You’re due another.”
“I shouldn’t,” I said. But the liquor felt good on my throat, a warm burn. I could feel the alcohol’s tiny fingers message my brain, coaxing me on, though underneath I knew the coaxing a lie. You hadn’t backed Carol up, I thought. The B&B gently nudged me, and I let it. I recalled how Alex and I had sat on the roof of the dorm, just us two. The war had not started, but the climate was out of control and there were rumblings. The riots were on the news. It was our last night together and most of us were heading home or trying to get home. The world was spinning out even then, but nothing like later. He was right. Who would have thought? Back then we agreed, he and I. A pact. Forever friends, we said, and there on the roof we shared a beer and for a while didn’t talk. A life’s moment and a moment in silence drawing us into a bond. So for a minute, with the B&B encouraging me, it really was the old Alex.
Later, at the door, Alex gave me one last look. “I hoped I could count on you,” he said.
“I’d do about anything for you. But I can’t betray the people I care about.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Tell Carol goodbye. I wished I’d seen more of her.”
“She told me to tell you goodnight,” I lied.
A black car waited for him, and he dashed to the rear door of the vehicle. The driver held it open for him. Why did he ask us to pick him up at the airport? It made no sense. And now he calls a driver?
Carol was in bed facing the wall, but I could tell she was still awake. “So, what are you thinking?” I called from the bathroom, brushing my teeth.
“I think I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
After finishing up in the bathroom, I lay on my side of the bed, feeling the liquor. You didn’t back your wife; you’re a fawning sycophant. But we could talk tomorrow. We would, I promised myself.
Later, I could hear Carol’s steady breathing, and I listened to the cicadas. The warm sound often helped me sleep. After a long time, I felt it was near dawn. The heat rose, oppressive. I tried to decide if I’d done anything wrong. The meat was a mistake; I knew that. But saying I wouldn’t betray my friends was the greater error. And yet, this was something I just couldn’t do.
“Put the pop gun you’ve got there back in the drawer, son. Slowly.”
And now I was in the bedroom, and I couldn’t breathe. I placed the gun back in the drawer and closed it.
Men who looked like National Guard in desert fatigues wearing COVID masks and sunglasses took us that morning. We rode in the back of a police car to downtown and joined hundreds of people behind chain linked fences with concertina wire lining the top. Megaphones screamed for order. “Men right! Women left!” People resisted. A couple in front of us clung to each other. As the man flailed his arms, the guardsmen used a taser to bring him down to the ground. He lay there convulsing. It was our turn to separate, and a soldier gestured for Carol to follow him. I lost it, leaped for his throat, the AR15 strapped to his side. He fell under me, and I wrestled for the gun. A piercing pain struck me in the center of my back, two soldiers slamming me with the buts of their guns. I fell off, writhing in pain. It took three men to drag Carol away. For one last foreboding instant, I held Carol’s pleading eyes. Don’t blame yourself, they said. But I did. What other choice did I have?
By late morning, misting rain lay suspended in the heat and humidity. The guardsmen chained me with three other men and herded us onto a white school bus with wire mesh on the windows. No one spoke, the chains tight on our wrists.
On the bus, one younger man, his eyes bloodshot, waved a finger at me like he was ordering takeout. “Nice shoes, boy,” he said.
My shoes were brown, shined, with tassels. I avoided his smirk. “Thanks.”
“I’ll try em on. See how they feel.”
He reached for me, and I’d had enough. I lifted my elbow, turning to throw my arm with as much strength as I could, not caring if I crushed his skull. But he dodged and two other men held me down on the blue plastic seat, their sweat garlic rich.
Rough hands stripped off my shoes. “Lucky we don’t take your pants.” The others laughed and the man spit on the loafers, taunted me while shining them with the end of his filthy white T-shirt, leering at me.
The bus growled, coughed diesel smoke; we crawled out of the city. Soon we were on I440, a route I knew led anywhere. The buildings we passed were empty; strip malls with trash blowing, weeds growing in gas stations, fuel nozzles wrapped in orange plastic bags, limp in the dead air.
In an instant, a flash of memory struck me. I was standing at a cocktail party, light laughter, glasses tinkling, low jazz. Carol was there, stunning, in a black cocktail dress, “You’re my hero. My handsome man.” But Dylan’s song echoed in my head; Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud... About scrounging your next meeal...
You’re worthless, I thought. I’d not backed Carol with Alex, fumbled the gun, then lost Carol outright. I couldn’t even keep my shoes.
And I’m headed to the underbelly of the world.