Hiding beneath the floor of my own home, I turn on my phone and see the smiling face of a murderous tyrant. His image shrinks to fit into the corner of the screen as the news begins.
“Welcome to Freedom Press 24, your only twenty-four-hour news channel, bringing you the truth, all day, every day.” The president’s face still smiles in the corner of the screen. There were dozens of round-the-clock channels until he came to power.
“Today is a special day for the republic. Our great leader’s Kindness Initiative health campaign starts today. He has vowed that by the end of the year, all degenerative illnesses and chronic conditions will be gone.”
Footsteps on the floor above scare the breath from me. I turn off the speakers and turn down the brightness. Subtitles are safe.
“Patriots with conditions have been volunteering up and down the country to join the Kindness Initiative.” Footage of some men and women waving to cameras as they march past plays on my tiny screen. The banner below declares that they are giving their lives for the nation. I’m certain that the footage is really entrants from the Paralympics since they’re all wearing tracksuits in the colours of various nations.
“Citizens who volunteer will be cared for in a state-of-the-art facility-” An image of what looks more like a factory on a sunny day plays over the audio. “-where they will find peace at last.” I look at the chimney stack at the back of the facility and imagine the smoke rising from it when the facility is active.
“You hear something?” His deep voice echoes around my empty house, muffled by the carpet and boards between us. His boots thud heavily on my floor. He probably stamped muddy footprints all over my home. Particles of dust are glittering diamonds in the air of a beam of light between the boards. My nose wrinkles at my own body odour and the soil I’m lying in.
“He’s not here,” says a high voice, younger. “Let’s go. We’ve got other houses to check. If he’s run for the border, then he’ll be caught. Selfish bastard.”
Four booted feet leave my house. I turn up the volume again. Watching the news is an addiction now. Every moment seeing what is happening to my country, another sliver of my soul dies. I feel duty bound to watch.
“It is estimated that up to twenty thousand citizens have already volunteered for the Kindness Initiative. They will be arriving by buss over the next few days. Their sacrifice will bring prosperity to our once overburdened nation.” The news presenter is young. He wears a sharp suit. His hair is gelled back. His teeth shine brighter than the sun. He wears the badge of the president’s party on his chest. There is no joy in his smile, he is not happy, if he’s sad he’s hiding it. I see nothing in his blue eyes. He sells genocide as a gift to the people.
“Government estimates put savings in expenditure at up to five hundred billion dollars per year.” I calculate the savings per head of population. Each citizen gains just over fifteen dollars per year for butchering innocent people. That doesn’t count the economic cost of removing people who contribute wealth to the nation. Not everyone with a chronic condition is a net loss to the economy. Stephen Hawking sold a lot of books; would they have wheeled him off into an oven?
“Preparations for the celebration of the President’s fifteen years in office are underway across the country. I hope all you patriots have your flags. I’ve got mine.” He smiles that hollow smile again. I want to shove my false leg through his false teeth.
Another news anchor shows up on the screen.
“We all know the great work the president has done over the years. He exposed electoral fraud-” No. He claimed electoral fraud and got his army buddies to seize control of the government. “-He scrubbed politics clean of corruption.” He threw all his opponents into maximum security prisons. Some of them haven’t been heard from in ten years. “-He slashed crime.” By using martial law to round up protestors who valued democracy. “-He brought integrity back to news reporting.” He shut down all independent media so that the only story anyone hears is his. “-He showed our strength to the world.” He started a war. He made military service mandatory for anyone between sixteen and twenty-two. “-He made alliances with nations who value strength, unity and respect.” He cut ties with all the democracies who spoke out about his crimes and got into bed with other dictators like himself.
“Life expectancy has increased by ten years under the President’s leadership.” Not if you’re disabled, pro-democracy or just have a conscience.
It’s been a few minutes, so I get up out of the dust and push the hatch in the floor. I have to move the carpet on top as well. That’s always the difficult part. It’s tied to the boards so that it comes down when I close the trap door.
I throw up my prosthetic and my crutch as well. Hauling myself out of the hole in the ground, I look around. Still as a rabbit in the headlights, I listen. My home is quiet again.
Muddy boot prints across my floor bring an angry grimace to my face. They’re all over the house. The word Freeloader is sprayed in red across my living room wall. All the pictures from my wall are scattered across the floor. Glass shards litter the muddy carpet.
I leave the family photos on the floor. I don’t want to draw attention to my parents. They’re too old to deal with this shit. If the president wasn’t so old himself, he’d probably be considering euthanasia for the elderly as well. Funny that thought never came to him.
I pick up the squad portrait of me with my army unit and put it on the wall again. I want the soldiers to see that I was one of them. It can happen to anyone.
I voted for that man the first time around. I believed he was the breath of fresh air we all needed. I thought he would blow away the cobwebs of our dusty, corrupt electoral system.
I went to war for him. I was twenty. I’d just voted for him. Friends died by my side fighting against our neighbours. I didn’t hate the men I killed. They fought for their nation. They shot my armoured troop carrier with a rocket propelled grenade to defend democracy.
We won the war. We lost our souls. I lost my leg.
“There’s movement inside!” I hear the voice of the young man who called me selfish.
“We checked,” says the older voice.
“I’m checking again, give me a minute.” He’s coming in through the back door.
I don’t have time to get to the hatch in the kitchen. I move on my prosthetic and crutch towards the front door.
“THERE’S A TRAP DOOR. I’M GOING IN.” The young man’s voice echoes off every wall.
I move as fast as I can.
“IT’S CLEAR!” I hear him climbing out of the hole I can never use again.
My feet crunch on broken glass. I look down at a photograph of me with my wife and daughter. We’re all smiling. I’m in my green camouflage uniform with a big grin plastered across my face. My little girl is on my shoulders. The flag is flying behind us.
“Don’t move.” I hear the sound of the safety catch on a rifle being turned off. “I GOT ‘IM. I GOT ‘IM”
“You know I served as well,” I say. If this is the end of me then he’s going to hear the truth. “I’m only on your list because I fought in the war.” I helped turn our nation into an empire. “I lost my leg fighting with boys like you. An RPG hit my truck. Have you ever been in an M113? Whole thing flipped over with a hole right through the middle. I had a shard of armour the size of a trash can lid through my thigh.”
“SHUT UP. I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT,” he’s sweating. He knows I’m telling the truth.
“Look at the photo,” I point to the picture of my unit. “Want to know how many of us survived. That war never had to happen.”
“I lost my leg. Fourteen lost their lives. Now I’m being hunted by my own country because I was injured fighting for it.”
“I SAID QUIET, FREELOADER.”
“I had a job. I worked as a motivational speaker. I helped veterans who had injuries get on with their lives. I found them jobs that would work with their handicaps. I made forty thousand dollars a year. I paid my taxes.”
“SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP.” He steps closer. The barrel of the M4 rifle is shaking. I can’t tell if he’s nervous or angry. Hopefully both. I just want to get through to him before he pulls the trigger.
I read his name from the label stitched too his uniform. “The war isn’t over, Private Zigler. Think you’ll get sent off there? Maybe you’ll get to fire rockets at civilian targets as well. Maybe you’ll get to have firefights with people who used to be teachers and doctors. Maybe one of them will hurt you.
Then you’ll be screwed. You’ll have to surrender to them just so that your own side don’t kill you. If they can’t put you back together, they’ll put you in an incinerator.”
He screams. The gun goes off. My world tilts. The ceiling spins down to say hello. On the way down I see the hole in my chest. Right in the heart. The kid is a good shot. Maybe he’ll survive the war. Good luck to him.