“Good morning everyone.” Mr. Johnstone walked into the room with a smile and the air of someone who held an exciting secret to spill. All around him, a flurry of tablets and smartphones darted beneath desks as thirty-odd teenage students silenced the buzz of media clips and sports highlights from playing out loud. Several of them slouched low into their seats, discreetly pushing wireless headphones into their ears as they did. From the back of the room, Trev thumbed listlessly through his phone, trying to scroll his way through whatever history lesson Mr. Johnstone had prepared for the day.
“Thanks for all your attention,” Mr. Johnstone said sardonically. The quip caused Trev to smile. Mr. Johnstone’s tendency to treat the class like adults was one of the few things that kept Trev’s focus within the walls of the room. It certainly wasn’t the subject matter that kept him from tuning out.
Sensing disinterest all around, Mr. Johnstone continued. “I know history isn’t as… enticing as whatever’s streaming on your devices, but trust me here. I’ve got a good class for you all today. We’re going to begin discussing the era of Great Unification.”
Trev looked up from his book at the mention of the day’s lesson. For as far back as his young memory could go, Trev could recall adults talking thankfully about the period of Great Unification. He knew that it had given the country its structure. Everything he had now was because of the era. Though, whenever Trev would ask someone how those years benefited their Nation, the answers were less gracious than the praises they heaped on the Great Unification.
“History lessons should be given by a certified Teacher,” Trev’s father replied once. “You’ll learn all about it soon, but for now, just do these things: One, believe the Leader. Two, believe in what I tell you. Three, understand that there’s certain things I’m not qualified to share with you.” He smiled at Trev, “— and trust me, I wouldn’t do it justice anyway.”
Now, on this unexpected day, soon had arrived. Trev sat up straighter as Mr. Johnstone began his lesson.
Johnstone started gravely. “The era of Great Unification came after eight years of the most significant strife our country has ever seen.” Trev imagined himself digging into the ground, a hard-earned grin crossing his face as he pulled an indistinguishable vegetable from the soil. The sky was cozy grey. Hardship shared a lot of similarities with homesteading.
Trev leaned in closer as Mr. Johnstone continued. Throughout the ninety-minute class period, Mr. Johnstone preached a tale of despair and redemption. He told the story of a nation that was on the brink of economic and spiritual collapse, struck by diseases.
“Crises were exacerbated by a polarized population; unsolvable because of divisive civil unrest. A cabal against the people, and flurries of fake “facts” spewed by traitors who hated where they came from.” Trev held his breath. What type of person could be so ungrateful?
“Extremist groups had seized the narrative,” Mr. Johnstone said. His pale face turned pink with passion. He gripped his desk, raised a finger, “they wanted to destroy the laws that made this country great! All throughout our news outlets and communities, these extremists sought to disparage the bold Leader of the era— a man they vilified because he came from the outside the establishment. A man who won two terms by telling truths against lies…” Savoring the memory, Johnstone paused.
“And, a man who refused to quit. The Leader volunteered to serve our Nation for seven more terms after that… Reunifying us against the cultural terrorists.”
Trev’s classmate, Niah, raised her brown hand to the ceiling to ask a question. Mr. Johnstone looked at her impatiently.
“What?” he hawked.
Niah hesitated, then, “What were these extremists called?”
When Mr. Johnstone replied, he spat out the word as if it were a piece of rotten fruit. “Anti-Nationals!” With similar distaste, he detailed the “deceptive, lying” nature of these “Antinats.”
“They told violent, nasty untruths about the history of our country. Demanded that we ‘reconcile’, and rioted when our strong Leader refused their extortions. Then…” Johnstone paused again and turned to Niah.
“Our Leader helped the Antinats see what they were missing. When they finally heard his truth… what could they do?” Johnstone smiled pitifully. “The ones who believed, stayed to live under the wise Leader. Those who didn’t, left. God knows where. All we care about is that here, the era of Great Unification began!”
Niah gave an indistinguishable shiver, but no-one paid her the mind to have seen it.
Mr. Johnstone’s ardent words and intrepid expressions affected Trev, stirring inspiration into his gut. Visualizing the fireplace at home, Trev pictured the face which hung framed above the mantel. He imagined the Leader giving charismatic speeches to raging crowds; encouraging youth just like him to take action, to save their country, to beat back the Antinats!
“Dad was right,” Trev said under his breath. “He couldn’t have done this justice…” By the time Mr. Johnstone’s lesson was finished, Trev felt like history was his new favorite subject.
A week after his first lesson on the Great Unification, Trev remained consumed by the fatal attraction of an idyllic revolution. With only three more formal lessons from Mr. Johnstone about the time period, Trev had taken to feeding his interest by visiting an otherwise unfamiliar place: the library.
He started first by pouring through old fashioned books, looking for pictures to validate the pastoral filters he’d rosily laid over the era. As he searched, he was careful not to be too curious. Mr. Johnstone had warned him against drawing chary after their final lesson.
“Mr. Johnstone?” Trev’s hand was raised in one of the few questions to be asked since Niah’s. Her absence from the class since that first day had gone unnoticed. Trev turned his gaze away from the window and the hazy air beyond it. Johnstone looked at Trev tepidly.
“Sir— how does today’s air quality rank compared to G.U. years, or around the Leader’s second term?”
Mr. Johnstone paused for a moment with an incredulous look hanging from his eyebrows. Had his last three lessons been worth anything to these children?
“Better, obviously, than those awful years before the G.U. We live in a greater society now than we ever have.” He turned away quickly, and wrapped up the lesson with a speech on unquestionable belief.
After class, Trev approached Mr. Johnstone’s desk. Johnstone looked up from packing his bags. A flash of frustration split his face. It was missed by Trev as he adjusted his Respiror helmet beneath his arm.
“—Beatty,” Johnstone cut in. “If you’re lacking in belief of the Leader, I’ll have to refer you.”
“Then lets start this conversation with two other things: One, believe in what I tell you… Two, trust that there’s some things I’m not honored enough to tell you.”
Trev fell back, stumped. He’d always been told to believe the Leader, then a Teacher would fill in the answers one day. Was this all he would ever get? As Trev swung his helmet over his head, an idea swept in with it.
“Sir,” Trev said through the port of his plexiglass mask. “Is it permitted to teach myself about the G.U.? Like... in the library?”
“Yes, I suppose you could look at resources that support my lessons in the library. But… be mindful with how much searching you do. I can see that its your love for our Nation’s past that drives your curiosity. However, the last thing you’d want is to dig so much that someone thinks you’re… looking for something.”
With that, Johnstone put on his own helmet and left the classroom. Trev followed, tuning his Respiror helmet to filter out the smokey air that awaited him beyond the school doors.
Later that week, Trev took his first trip to the library, a shabby, lonely information center. A friend from class, Boli, accompanied Trev as he went. Together, the two boys selected a series of topics to research under the domed ceilings. They logged their interests into the AutoLibri bot, which took off down the aisles to search for any titles pertaining to the music, photography, art, and social life of the Great Unification era. When the bot came back with a stack of books, Trev tried to discreetly send it out for one more.
“Weather?” Boli asked as Trev paled. “Sounds lame. Anyways, I bet good Nationalists from the G.U era have some super retro aesthetic to check out. The internet wasn’t even fifty yet— I mean, cottagecore? Absolute freaks.”
Boli grabbed a book and enthusiastically flipped through it, taking pictures at every page. After five minutes, he transitioned to scrolling his phone. Ten minutes later, he stood up groggily, still flicking the glass screen as he did.
“I think I’m out. Moxie’s gonna’ stream live in a few. Sounds important. Can’t miss it.”
“Yeah, okay,” Trev replied. He set down a book titled The Great Unification: Reconnecting our Family Units, and waved goodbye. Once Boli had left the library, Trev slowly pulled out another title, Weather Patterns Before the Great Unification. He began to read.
The chapters, passages, and charts in the book upheld Mr. Johnstone’s statements. Remarkably, the Nation’s air and water had been even dirtier than they were now. Trev’s daydreams of social reformations filled with smog, but still he pictured himself drinking clean water from a flowing source as he hunted Antinats through the countryside. Antinats… Trev wondered if there were any books on the ungrateful insurgents. Could he ask the AutoLibri to find him one?
“Probably not,” he said quietly. The AutoLibri would record his search, and Trev didn’t want to seem too interested in Antinats. Just as he was about to close the weather report, Trev heard a sound coming from the music media aisle. He stood and moved towards it.
The sound from the aisle was a smooth, soft set of notes, strung together in naturally fitting harmony. Instrumental, rather than electronic. Having spent the day listening to awful samples of bass-thumping pre-G.U. pop music, this new sound was a pleasant release. Almost, relaxing. As he turned the edge of the aisle, Trev saw a middle aged man sitting on the floor, playing the velvety music from an old device.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t realize anyone else was still here.” The man leaned forward to halt the spinning black disc. Trev bent down and caught the man.
“No, its cool, its—“ realizing he was holding the man’s brown arm tightly, Trev let go. “It’s just, I… what sort of music is this? When was it made?” The man smiled at Trev.
“Ah. ya like this sound, do ya?” Looking around the empty hall, he turned the knob up a bit louder. “Its from a period before the G.U. We call it jazz.”
Throughout their listening session, Trev learned that the man’s name was Jense, and that he lived on the opposite side of town as Trev and his family.
“Near Old S. Park,” Jense clarified. Trev shrugged. He’d never heard of the place. Jense knew a lot about the music of the G.U. era, knowledge that he shared while Trev listened. Trev was entranced by the sound; a perfect soundtrack for his mind’s eye to play as he envisioned people in threadbare clothes, hungry, yet choosing to dance in happy expectation of the good times coming around the corner. The Great Unification.
After a few hours of listening together, Jense finally stood and began packing up the stack of records. The previous confidence he’d exuded while teaching Trev the basics of jazz music had disappeared. He looked at the boy timidly now.
“Mr. Trev, can I ask a favor of ya?”
“Jense, you just showed me some of the best music I’ve ever heard. Anything you need.”
“Well, would ya mind just… I really didn’t know ya were in here. I mean, jazz music is in the archives… but… damned if people don’t think it’s a suspicious sound. Could ya keep this between us?” Trev froze in his steps. How could anyone think this music was Anti-Nationalist?
“You don’t have a thing to worry about Jense. I’ll keep this a secret, you just keep playing the tunes.”
A large smile broke across Jense’s face. “Aw man, thanks a lot. Ya mean to say ya going to be returning?”
“Course I am,” Trev replied.
Jense continued to play music, while Trev continued to study. For a while, he was careful to only research topics that seemed unsuspicious; nothing political or questioning of the Leader or the Great Unification. He wasn’t even sure that books like that existed. However, as Jense got into playing deeper cuts for his new audience, Trev became more inspired to learn the story of how the Leader had united the Antinats into the Nation. Jense helped his search, but ever asked Trev's intentions.
“Look, since I’m here, I can find ya whatever books ya need, without having to use the AutoLibri. Ya tell me what ya need, I got it’.”
Minutes later, he came walking back up a dark aisle with only one article in his hand.
“Here ya are, Mr. Trev. Great Unification: How the Antinats Were Converted.” A forlorn look draped his face as he handed the slender book to Trev. “Remember what I told ya. Anyone comes in and sees ya reading that, ya tell them ya just wanting to know how to spot an Antinat, and—“
“— I believe in the Leader,” Trev finished. He took the book and sat down to read. With the sounds of a twinkling piano in the background, Trev poured over the thin volume.
As he read, he was disappointed by the pictures among the pages; most were either of the Leader speaking powerfully or strolling through broken, destroyed streets. One caption read: ‘Though the Leader’s opponents were uncivilized separatist rioters, our Leader, always merciful, never resorted with brutality.’
The quote flushed Trev with a mix of emotions. Vivid pride welled for the peaceful Leader; scorching rage for the ungrateful Antinats.
“Who would destroy their own country like this…” Trev wondered aloud. Jense was nowhere around to hear him. The sound of Trev’s thoughts filled the now silent hall. Unaware, he continued to read until another excerpt stopped him.
A picture of an antiquated park spread across the two pages. Beneath the photo was a simple caption: ‘Old Sandstine Park, site of the final Antinat Conversion. 11/3/24.” Sandstine Park… Old Sandstine… thats… Trev stared into his phone until it unlocked. A small red dot pinned Sandstine Park to a neighborhood across town from Trev’s house. Old S. Park!
Finally aware that the music had stopped, Trev slid from his chair quietly, hoping to exit the library without signaling Jense. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was headed, less they think it was suspicious.
“This can’t be right…” Trev got off the bus just three blocks away from Sandstine Park, but he was certain that the AutoDriver had made a mistake. Nobody could live in a run down place like this. Trev passed a breath through the vent in his Respiror helmet and tried to peer through the smog. “Not a single air circulator in the neighborhood…”
Trev followed the direction of his map until he arrived on the edge of a large, barren lot, surrounded by chain link fence. A single stone pillar stood in the center of the dead grass. Atop it, the Leader was carved brandishing the Nation’s flag.
As Trev approached the monument, he heard a familiar noise: drifting jazz. Squinting, Trev saw a bent figure at the megalith’s base. It had to be…
“Jense!” Trev shouted, “Jense, hey its—“ The music from the slouched figure silenced instantly. Trev ran excitedly across the field. From behind the fog of his helmet, he was surprised to see anger on Jense’s face.
“White boy,” Jense hissed. “The hell ya doing here?” Trev stood, shocked. No-one in his life had ever used a racial word before. “Well?” Jense demanded. “Do you even know what you’re doing here?”
“Ya what? Thought ya’d come check out the last place where the Anti-Nationalists were captured? Disappeared from? Slaughtered?”
Trev reeled at the violence of these words. Slaughtered?
“Who was killed?” he asked. “Who did the killing? Not the… the Leader?”
Jense looked at Trev with sadness. “Every year, they teach a little less of the truth, and a little more belief.” Tears began to fall from his eyes.
“Jense!” Trev shouted, “Tell me who—“
“People who look like me!” Jense yelled back. “People who looked like me and wanted to be treated like you. They told us we were speakin’ lies against our country, their history. Anti-Nationalist, they called us! Said we were ungrateful for everything we’d been ‘given’ over the years. ‘Racism don’t exist anymore,’ they said."
"But when we took to the streets to exercise our fair old rights… To ask em’ to show us that racism didn’t exist anymore… My Grandpa, my Mam… they never left this place, Trev. Now it looks like I won’t either.” Jensen sobbed. “Got me all mixed up in ya suspicious—“
Sirens blew from several blocks away, flashing red and blue lights through the fog as they sounded. Trev looked below his feet. No picturesque visions of an earnest, idealized life greeted him there. He had dug deep enough to appear suspicious.
Trev knew that if he dug any further from where he stood, he’d find the cold, bone-dry truth of the Great Unification.
“I’m so sorry Jense,” Trev was shaking forcibly. Jense bent towards the record player.
“Least they’ll treat us evenly in this final act,” he said. With that, he dropped the needle on the record. “Believe that.”