I made a decision today. Awhile back I had thought I would take this story into hibernation with the idea I’d finish it and go from there. But writing it continues to be like pulling teeth with a rusty pair of pliers, an ice pick, and no painkiller. And I’m working on something else now anyway.
My decision is this. Whenever I manage to pull a tooth and get through another chapter of this, I’ll post it here and we’ll see what happens as I go along. This should be considered a rough draft and if you have any thoughts as you read, feel free to share. So, rather than linking to the prior chapters as posted here, below are the first four chapters of The Jump — a short story that clicked in my head one weekend and then I realized there was more story to tell.
There’s still a traveling show. It just doesn’t come with elephants and acrobats. No clowns. No popcorn. Or much of anything else. There aren’t three rings either. It’s been a long time since a circus traveled the country. It’s been a long time since a lot of things.
No troubadours going from town to town. If you sing or play an instrument, you gotta be quiet about it. Artists are a thing of the past, unless you have a particular talent with portraits of the Old Man. Then your art will be on every street corner and you’ll be invited to State dinners and feted with toasts and declarations.
The traveling show consists of just one ring. And a giant crane perched next to the ring. There’s no shallow pool of water in the ring. No, it’s just a bunch of hay bales forming a circle around a patch of cracked concrete in an old parking lot. And a quiet crowd that arcs out from the circle, paying silent witness.
It’s called The Jump.
It’s been traveling the country for a couple of years now. Every once in a while, somebody famous makes the jump and they put it on television. For a lot of people, it’s a nice break from twenty-four hours of government-approved “news.” Or maybe it’s just that people are voyeurs and need to see something that makes their sad lives look better. Or maybe because we’ve been directed to watch. Whatever the reason, everybody watches.
I don’t. Well, I did. Once. It was some senator from Oklahoma. There were a few people who went before him, climbing the ladder up the side of the crane, crawling out to the end. One of them, an old man, I think, tried to turn around. They didn’t let him. The senator was the grand finale. He went without hesitation. And I remember the TV cameras down on the ground trained their lenses on the spectators as they walked away. The vacant stares will stay with me forever.
I haven’t watched since. I don’t care if we are told to. I don’t care if it is a national holiday whenever The Jump is televised. I stay at the shop and clean up. Or go for a walk. I stay away from televisions. I know that.
* * * * *
I work at a fish store. No, not an aquarium like in the old days. I’ve seen pictures in old magazines of those places, filled with fish tanks and exotic sea creatures. Giant murals of ocean scenes painted on the walls. I inspected those pictures closely, bringing them close to my face, trying to see all the different kinds of fish that floated in the tanks. They’re all gone now.
One day, the Old Man had a picture taken of him in his office. On the credenza behind him, there was a small bowl with a gold fish in it and a ping pong ball bobbing on the water’s surface. Within a couple of months, every town and neighborhood had small stores dedicated solely to that purpose. Selling people gold fish with ping pong balls. That’s where I worked.
The place used to be a cigar store before the Old Man banned cigars. It was small and still smelled of old men telling tall tales. The walls were lined with shelves though. And fish bowl after fish bowl, each with one regular, old gold fish floating along, and a white ping pong ball bobbing along as well. Each bowl had white rock on the bottom and the same piece of plastic green sea plant on the right side.
This is how things went with the Old Man. When he discussed a book he read, bookstores stocked only that book until there was nobody left to buy it. If he ate at a restaurant, it became the hardest place to get into and franchises opened everywhere.
We were in the midst of gold fish and ping pong ball mania. There was no telling how much longer the craze would last. I was predicting another five weeks or so. Joe, who worked the late shift at the store, thought it would die out sooner than that. It didn’t really matter though. We were good. The need for a gold fish and ping pong ball would be replaced by something else soon enough and they’d need workers for that. I’d never kept any job for more than a couple months, but there was always something new out there. If nothing else, the Old Man had certainly established a full employment system for people like me. Uneducated, lazy, good-for-nothing.
I had my money on jigsaw puzzles. Joe had his on croquet. I wondered how that would work though. Sure, the Old Man had a lawn for playing, that vast expanse of green that still wrapped around the White House, but hardly anybody else did. Lawns being a thing of the extravagant past. Yards were dead, brown, withered in a world where water wasn’t the only thing rationed. If it was croquet, there’d be a whole lot of useless croquet sets in closets everywhere. Much like the useless fish bowls showing up in family rooms and bedrooms everywhere. Like mine. I brought one home my first day at the store. The fish died a couple of days later. I never even named it.
* * * * *
The Jump came to town a couple of weeks ago after an absence of a little over a year. It was July. Hot and sticky. A normal Omaha summer. People did what they could to stay indoors, until The Jump arrived.
It usually stuck around for a week or two. The length depended on how many people wanted it. And that was something nobody knew. In some towns it lasted for only a few days with only a straggler or two each day. In others, The Jump set up and saw brisk business for days and weeks. Although business may be the wrong word for it. The Jump was not a business for it charged no money.
A business it wasn’t. It was a lot of other things though. Entertainment. An escape. Maybe a sociology experiment. A distraction. Certainly, it was that. With The Jump traveling around, people couldn’t focus on everything else that was wrong. Food lines. Farm land drying up and blowing with the wind. Gas shortages. Airplanes falling from the sky. In other words, a whole lot of misery and desperation. The Jump was at least a way to forget that for a moment or two.
For others, it was an end.
It looked like The Jump wouldn’t last very long in town with that visit. Lots of crowds showed up in the blistering heat, but there weren’t many jumpers. And no famous locals. If that had happened, if it had made it on to the television, there might have been more interest. But, the rich and the powerful, the known and the well-connected, sat it out that time. An announcement was made that The Jump would be moving on in two days.
I got off work the eve of The Jump’s departure and saw a note taped to my apartment door. I threw it on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom to take a leak. It was an even day so I wasn’t supposed to flush. I did anyway. I was a rebel, don’t you know. Not one of the Rebels who operated out in the spaces between the cities and every once in a while launched a rocket or two just to keep things interesting. No, I was a little “r” rebel, with my dead fish, flushing when I wanted, and my own little personal herb patch out on the balcony. Basil and oregano.
Back out in the kitchen, I grabbed the note and opened it. I read it and then dropped it and fled down the stairs, cursing the whole way that the Old Man had done away with phones of all types years ago. I had vague memories from my childhood of phones in people’s pockets, of having conversations with people far away.
My sister was going to take The Jump and all I had was a note to tell me. For all I knew, the note had been there all day and I was going to be too late.
Out on the street, I panicked. I couldn’t think straight. Which way was best to get to the old fairgrounds? I took a few steps to the right and began to run. I got a couple of blocks down the street before I remembered the river was to the right and the bridges would be a problem. Packed with people going home or trying to escape the city for a day or three. I retraced my steps and went left and took the long way around.
I ran until I couldn’t anymore. Sweat poured off me in buckets. Through my stinging eyes, I saw it looming ahead of me.
I cursed Nicole for even thinking of it, although I could almost understand. Our parents had both gone in the past few months. Our mother, just walked off one of those bridges and plummeted into the river never to be seen again. And our dad? We didn’t know. Some weeks after she died, he disappeared as well, but nobody knows where or how. One day, he was puttering around the family home we had grown up in, pruning the bootleg roses they still kept in the back yard. Sitting at the kitchen table with a faraway look in his eyes. The next day, he was gone. The roses watered one last time. The beds neatly made, the dishes cleaned and put away. It looked like he was coming back. Only he never did.
Secretly, I hoped my dad was out there somewhere. Actually, it was more than a hope. I had an idea because a day or two before Mom walked off the bridge, he took me down into their basement and showed me a hiding place he was building. A place where he was storing stuff he said “we might need.” So I thought there was that. Maybe he was traveling around. He was young still. Not even 60. He could be walking back roads, finding places to stay at night. There was still charity out there. You just had to be quiet about it. Maybe he’d work for somebody for a few days for some hot meals and a bed in the corner before moving on. Maybe he was with the Rebels.
Or not. If that’s what he did, wouldn’t he have told us?
Nicole was in the “or not” camp. The way she figured it, he was with mom, somewhere in the river, their bloated bodies trapped on a riverbank miles downstream. She never seemed to be able to get that image out of her head.
So, I understood. Really I did.
As I approached the fairgrounds, the spectators were going in the opposite direction. I looked up and saw that there was nobody climbing up. Nobody perched out on the end. It looked like the jumping day was done.
I picked up my pace again, pushing through the crowd until I got to the ring of hay bales. I hesitated before peeking over. I felt for a moment like I was little again and we were watching The Shining on television. I wanted to cover my eyes and peek between my fingers at what was in the center of those hay bales. I didn’t hide from it though. There were five broken bodies in the middle and a few others that had been pushed to the sides. I scanned the circle as quickly as I could. Nicole wasn’t one of them.
I looked around to see if I could find her there among the living and then made my way to the registration booth. On the wall was a list of the day’s jumpers. I put my finger to the first name and then ran it down the sheet of paper. Nicole Bell was not on the list. I breathed for the first time since I read her note and turned around.
“Nicole!” I yelled. “Nicole! Nicole!” The stragglers who had yet to leave turned to look at me before turning back to their own demons. Several of them lingered by the bales, seemingly unable to take their eyes off the bodies. Others huddled about in small groups, whispering to each other. My noise apparently was misplaced given the looks I received and soon, as I continued to yell my sister’s name, a couple of police officers began to make their way towards me.
“No need, officers,” I said to them before they got close. “I’m on my way.” They kept coming so I shut up quick and made my way to the exit, looking over my shoulder only once to see they had decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. And I wasn’t, I was just looking for my sister. No trouble at all.
I wandered the streets back to my apartment as the sun went down. I detoured by Nicole’s place and pounded on her door, getting no answer. The streets got emptier and quieter as I made my way home. People were in their homes and apartments where they belonged, watching the news they were supposed to watch, eating the food they were supposed to eat. In a few hours, lights would go out and prayers to the Old Man would be recited. And in the morning, people would rise and do it all over again.
Only The Jump would be leaving town. I thought I might go back in the morning before my shift at the fish store began to make sure it really was. I needed to see the thing being dismantled and loaded on the flatbed trucks that took it to the next town. I also hoped I could get some official confirmation my sister was not among the jumpers.
I didn’t do that though. When I reached the third floor landing, I saw Nicole curled into a ball in front of my door. I sat down next to her and brought her into my arms. She sobbed into my shoulder, “I just couldn’t do it, Cam. I wanted to find Mom, but I just couldn’t.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” The heat of her fear and anger at what we had lost soaked into my shirt. “I need you here.”
“I miss them.”
I pulled her up and into the apartment. We curled up on the sofa together and I let her cry until she couldn’t anymore. Once she was calmed, I told her, “We won’t ever find Mom, but I have an idea.” It was true. There were witnesses who saw her fall from the bridge and others who watched and didn’t see her surface.
I told Nicole my idea. She smiled and agreed.
In the morning, we paid a visit to our old family home. It was empty still. I showed Nicole the hiding place. The backpacks and supplies. We geared up and crossed one of the bridges to the outskirts of our city, where we had lived our entire lives, and kept walking. Nicole decided to leave the “or not” camp.
We would find our father.
Or we would die trying.
It was better than the alternative.
The President’s Men
They came in the dark of the night. They always did. In their crimson blazers and starched white shirts. Black slacks and Chuck Taylor high tops with their tartan pattern. The only variation in their uniforms was in those shoes. Some were the traditional red and green, like the old Scottish kilts. Some were yellow and blue, or combinations of other colors. Their shoes were the one place the President’s Men could be different. The one place where conformity was not the end all of things.
The knock on the door came just when I was about to turn in. Ceci had long ago gone to bed. A habit I had noticed was getting earlier and earlier. While she slept in more and more. I didn’t know what to do about it. I understood what she was doing. She was giving up.
The knock came again and I rose from my chair. I looked around to make sure things were right.
Out on the street, the lights were out, having been shut off years earlier due to yet another energy crisis. Porch lights were off and windows blackened as well, all by edict from the government to “lessen the risk” we would be targeted in our own homes by the Rebels. We knew though that the Rebels only targeted government buildings and military bases. None of their crudely designed bombs and rockets ever landed in residential areas. We followed the orders so we wouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, not from the Rebels, but from those who now stood just outside our front door.
As I walked to the door, the knock came again. Louder and faster. It was joined by a voice. “Mr. Bell. Open the door.”
On the porch, dimly lit from the interior light that leaked out through the open door were three men. In the uniforms of the President’s Men. I couldn’t help but look at their shoes. Two wore the traditional red and green patterned Chuck Taylor’s. The third, who stood slightly behind the others, had a black and white pattern. And a matching tam o’shanter on his head. I knew then that he was the captain of the crew. It would be his decision how things would go.
“Mr. Bell,” he said now, “we’ve received a report that you have contraband.” His voice was quiet. His eyes piercing.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We follow the rules.”
“A neighbor reported that you were handing out fresh tomatoes. Like this.” He pulled his hand out of a pocket and held it out. In the palm was a cherry tomato, just like one I had given to Mrs. Geraghty earlier that day. Sweet ol’ Mrs. Geraghty who wouldn’t have stood a chance if they came to her house. And why would they?
Because they were the President’s Men and that’s what they did. I said a silent prayer for her and hoped I would find out in the morning that she had survived the night.
I stepped aside and allowed them to enter my home. “My wife is sleeping. I’d … I’d appreciate it if we didn’t have to wake her.”
The captain looked at the others and back at me, sneering. “That’s pretty much up to you, Mr. Bell.”
“I’ll do whatever you need, Mr. …”
“I know you will,” he said, tossing the tomato into his mouth and then holding his hand out to shake mine. His hand was warm and damp, but his grip was firm. “It’s Tim. No need for titles. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Right, boys?”
The other two nodded their heads and smirked. “You betcha, cap’n,” one said, while the other began leafing through a stack of magazines on the table behind our sofa. Every one of them with the Old Man on the cover.
“Let’s have a look around, shall we?”
They fanned out. One went into the kitchen. Tim stayed in the family room by the front door. The third went down the hall towards the first floor bedroom. I couldn’t keep track of all of them. I stuck with Tim.
“Nice painting,” he said, motioning at the only painting in the room.
“Thanks. I kinda like it, too.” Truth is that I did. When I was a kid, back in the 90’s a couple of the pictures hung on our garage wall. When the Old Man put one up behind his desk in the Oval Office, it was one time I didn’t mind the thoughtless impulse forced on Americans to do as he did. I happily went out and got a painting. It reminded me of the smell of grease and the ticking of a cooling car engine and the pop of a can of Oly as I took it to my dad, sitting in a lawn chair and watching his street.
I placed it above the fireplace, where the family portrait used to be. Ceci was none too happy with that, but I put the portrait on the wall in our bedroom. Maybe that was why she spent so much time there now. My girl couldn’t stand the things that had happened, were happening. She couldn’t stand the painting, but I knew what would happen if we didn’t have one. I’d heard enough stories. I had no choice and now that they were in my house, I was glad I had done it.
“Eh. I never liked them,” Tim admitted. “Seems kind of silly to me.” It was all I could do to not agree and point out that there was a whole lot of silly going on. While I pondered that, he began walking towards the back of the house. “Boys, you finding anything?” I took a quick look back at the painting before I followed him. I wondered if I’d need somebody slipping me an ace before the night was over.
“No, boss,” said the one from the back of the house. “Nothing sir,” replied the other.
Tim approached the sliding glass door that led to the yard. It had been barely an hour since I had turned the lights off and stored them. It was so dark, you couldn’t even see any shadows. Without turning to me, he asked. “Why don’t you show me your tomato plants?”
“I don’t have any …”
He held up his hand. “Please, Mr. Bell. None of that. The tomatoes.”
“Sir, we don’t have any lights.”
“I understand.” He drew a flashlight from his pocket. “We’re good.”
Outside, I took him to the two tomato plants. His crew members joined us. While Tim inspected the plants, they wandered about, going as far as they could in the glow cast off by Tim’s flashlight. I could only hope one of them might fall in the pool, long dried up, but still a deadly hole that might surprise them. I also hoped they wouldn’t find what was behind the pile of trash that had accumulated on the other side of that pool. Where the rose bushes were, and the tomato plants I fertilized, and a few other things I’d prefer they not find.
There wasn’t much for Tim to inspect. “Tsk, tsk. Mr. Bell, what am I going to do about this?” He wagged his finger at me. “I wanna honor your request regarding your wife, but we’ve got a problem here.”
“These plants are illegal. Been illegal for years know. You know that, right?”
“Yes, but …”
“Yet you have them anyway.”
I felt beat. “Yes.” My face burned in the dark. Humiliated by two measly little tomato plants. At risk, because I tried to give Ceci something good and helped out old Mrs. Geraghty every now and then since her husband passed.
“Hey, boys, why don’t you go on and check upstairs.” I caught his wink in the dark. “You know they say where there’s smoke there also is fire.”
“Please, sir … Tim … there’s nothing up there … just my wife …,” the words spilled out like diarrhea and wouldn’t stop, “she’s sleeping … not feeling well … I’ll do anything … here … I’ll rip them out.” And I started to, in my desperation I reached for one of the plants and began pulling and yanking. It ripped out, the dirt clodding in the roots. “Here … I’ll never plant them again … ever … please … just let Ceci alone … there’s nothing up there … I promise.” I began pulling the ripe tomatoes off and tried to hand them to the man.
“Honey, what’s going on down there?” came the drowsy voice of my Ceci.
* * * * *
Oh Ceci, if I had only known, I would have done something. If I had known that was the hidden ace. The hole card. I would have never sat down to play the hand. Or I would have folded long before. But I thought there was a way, that I could work it out and Tim and his men would leave, maybe taking a patch of me with them. A little loss of pride, maybe a piece of skin, or a few bruises here and there. I would have taken that and bore it for you.
I had heard the stories, but I didn’t want to believe them. That our President was capable of such a thing. Of employing men who could do such things. This happened in the Third World, in lesser civilizations, where war raged and evil reigned. America was not that place, was it?
Turns out it was. I’ll never stop crying, never stop bearing the damage done.
The other thing. Old Mrs. Geraghty didn’t survive the night. She never had a chance.
* * * * *
A week later, I began to make my plans. In the basement, where Tim and his crew never went, I began to build a wall. Behind the wall, I stored a few things. If I were to run, there were things I wanted. Things that might see me down the road a bit. Maybe Ceci would join me. And the kids, Nicole and Cameron. We’d leave together. Find the rebels. Join the fight. Enough was enough.
A week after that, while the wall was only half built, but the supplies were in place, I let Cameron know. He came over. I showed him the backpacks and told him there were things in them he would need. I wasn’t yet ready to tell him my plan. I wasn’t ready to even acknowledge it was my plan. Maybe I was still crazed by the events of that night and I’d come to my senses. I’d stock our shelves with marshmallow fluff and Fritos when they showed up on the Old Man’s desk. When orders came out that we could no longer have pets, I’d hand over the cat and bury the hamster in the backyard.
I might, just might, find a way to get through this. Just in case, though, I wanted Cameron to know.
Another month and Ceci walked out one day.
“Honey?” I said as she made her way to the front door. “Where are you going?”
She barely paused, only slightly, and turned to me. “Oh, out for a walk, I guess.” Her eyes were vacant, empty husks. Her voice barely above a whisper. I should have suspected something. I should have known, but I thought the idea that she was finally willing to go out, to get out of the house, was progress.
Ceci walked off the bridge that day.
And several weeks later, I cracked and took a backpack and walked off myself. I don’t know why I didn’t gather Cameron and Nicole with me. I wasn’t thinking straight. I … don’t know. I needed to get out of Omaha and find a reason to hope again. I crossed a bridge and made my way through the ruins of Council Bluffs.
I wanted revenge and I thought I knew where to find it.
Before we left Omaha, I took Nicole back to our parents’ home and down to the basement. “This is why I think he’s out there somewhere.” I pointed out the backpacks. Piled up, along with canned goods, sleeping bags, and everything else he had stored away. Some of it I had no idea how he managed to get, but I was glad he did.
“He showed me this just before Mom disappeared.” I stopped and put my arm around Nicole. “There were four backpacks then. You see, there are only three now.”
Nicole stepped back and began to twist a strand of her hair around a finger. I could see the wheels spinning in her head as she processed this information. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know for sure. Until now.”
“Did he tell you where he was going to go?”
“No. I don’t even know if he knew he was going to leave.” I knelt down and started filling one of the packs. “And he made it sound like we’d leave together. That this was going to be for all of us to get out of here if we needed to.” I stopped packing and turned back to Nicole. “I don’t know, maybe … what Mom did changed all that. Maybe …” I couldn’t really go any further. I was so far out of my depth I couldn’t say what I was thinking. Maybe he cracked. Our father was out there somewhere, sunburned to the red of one of his prized tomatoes, crying for his Cecil. “Help me pack up.”
One of the things he left behind for us, that I had no idea how he had it, was a gun. I stowed it at the bottom of my pack. With a box of bullets. Besides that and everything else we could fit into the packs, I had a bag of other stuff that wasn’t going to make it far.
We crossed the river into Council Bluffs on Council Bluffs Memorial Overcrossing. At the middle of the bridge, I started to empty the bag. Over the side and into the river, went an old Jack-in-the-Box. A fish bowl and a ping pong ball. Nicole had the painting of the poker-playing dogs under an arm, wrapped in old newspaper. She leaned against the railing, wriggled out of her backpack. I did the same. We picked up the painting, each holding an end.
“Two.” I started to laugh. Nicole giggled in a way that reminded me of her as a little girl. It almost stopped my momentum as we swung the painting back and forth.
We flung the painting out and over the railing and leaned over to watch its splash. I hurried back to the bag and picked out the stack of magazines with the Old Man on the cover. I split the stack in two. “Here,” I said, thrusting half into Nicole’s hands. We each tossed them into the air one at a time, watching the pages flutter as they dropped.
There was the copy of The Da Vinci Code. Over the side. The amount of back room and dark corner psychoanalyzing that had gone into the Old Man’s reading of that book could have filled a library.
Nicole reached into the bag and pulled out the last item. It was a box of Lego’s. Sponge-Bob themed. Just like the ones he got for his grandson for Christmas one year. Our parents dutifully bought the set even though we had long outgrown the toy and grandkids were nowhere on the horizon. “Shall you or shall I?” Nicole asked, a mischievous gleam in her eye.
I knew what she was thinking. “Both?”
Nicole opened the box and one by one we threw the Lego bricks into the Missouri River. As we did, we sang the Sponge Bob theme song. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Old Man Weston!!!!” we shouted.
We didn’t care who saw or what might happen. My sister and me had made a decision and we were giddy with the freedom of the thing.
The bridge was more or less abandoned. There was a time when it was known as the Gerald R. Ford Expressway, a four-lane river crossing carrying heavy traffic between Council Bluffs and Omaha along the 480 Interstate. That was then. After he was elected President and what he did to the people of Council Bluffs, the Old Man directed that the bridge be closed to automobile traffic and renamed to honor “the patriotic citizens of Council Bluffs.”
We didn’t think we had anything to worry about.
* * * * *
“What happened?” Nicole asked.
“You didn’t pay much attention in history class, did you?”
She laughed. “I barely went.”
I knew that.
“You haven’t heard the stories?”
And I knew that too. There were people who wanted to know the truth, who sought out the videos and old articles and the tales that were passed from one to another in dark corners bathed with the smell of fear. And there were those who didn’t, who seemed just fine with the way things were in the Old Man’s America.
When President Weston got a jack-in-the-box toy for his grandson, they raced out and got one of their own and happily turned the crank over and over until Jack was all worn out. Nicole was one of those for a long time. It almost drew her to The Jump. Like a lamb to the slaughter.
I was in the former group, desperately searching for how things used to be and wondering how I could resist. But I was just one unmotivated 26-year-old punk who drifted from job to job who did nothing with those stories except search for more.
There was the official story, taught in school every year. The videos that were shown on TV every now and then, typically aired along with an annual speech from the Old Man. Every speech began the same way. “Citizens and patriots. We were a people who had turned from our principles and our God. We had forgotten who we were. But, glory be to our Lord, we have turned away from greed and hate.” There would also come a moment where he would pause, take off his glasses, and stare into the camera, his eyes dark little spots of coal. “Don’t ever forget what we could become.” The screen would fill with pictures of the citizens of Council Bluffs at war with each other and in the shadowy corners of the scenes splashed across the screen, groups of men in red blazers.
There were other things that got passed around in the shadows. Bootleg things. Pictures of the bodies. Scattered on the streets. Some of them burned beyond recognition. Others hanging from light poles. Pictures of buildings on fire. Cars exploding. People running, their faces to the camera, rigid in fright.
And one time, a guy I knew gave me a videotape and told me I should watch it. I did in my parents’ basement where they had an old video player tucked away. The video was a collection of clips spliced together. Shaky footage from the phones people used to walk around with. They showed the President’s Men. Not barely visible in the shadows like in the official version we had to watch each year. No. They were front and center. Slaughtering people, destroying anything and everything in their wake.
The Old Man destroyed Council Bluffs. Not him personally. But he did it nonetheless. At the time, people still called him by his name. The President. Or President Weston. Or “that fuckin’ Weston.” This is what I’ve heard, in whispered conversations, that there was a time when people could say what they thought. Around the water cooler, at the corner coffee shop, on news talk shows. They could be critical of their leaders. He wasn’t the Old Man. Yet. And that was kind of the point of his Council Bluffs and all that came after it.
Twenty years later, the rubble spoke just as loudly as those images. For years, we could see the destruction across the rolling waters that was the Missouri River. It was a wholly different experience to walk through the destruction.
Nicole and I were walking down Broadway, one of the main roads that bisected Council Bluffs. All around us were bombed buildings and the rusted hulks of cars long ago abandoned. The city looked devastated as though war had come to its residents. Which it had.
I motioned to Nicole to stop. In the deathly quiet of the empty city, I could hear something. “Quick, Nicole.” I looked around. “We need to hide.”
“What? Why?” She whipped her head around.
“In here,” I whispered. I could hear the growing growl of the rotors. I pulled Nicole into an abandoned storefront. It looked like once upon a time it was a bookstore. Seconds later, two helicopters swept low and fast across the sky.
We slung our backpacks off and sat down against one of the walls. Across the street was a fire station. Its rolling doors were gone. The flag on its pole was just a tatter or two, although the rope still wiggled in the wind and the clasp occasionally struck the pole, sending out an irregular chime that marked nothing.
“A few months after he was elected, the Old Man sent a secret letter to the Mayor,” I began. “It didn’t stay secret for long though.”
“The Mayor went on the news and read the letter.”
“What did it say?”
* * * * *
April 12, 2031
The Honorable Mayor James Schmidt
City of Council Bluffs
209 Pearl Street
Council Bluff, IA 51503
Considering you were one of my biggest supporters in my recent election, I wanted to give you a heads up about a decision I have made. As you know, our great country is sliding into an abyss. We are fractured and at war with each other. We seem to have lost our way. I intend now to take action to demonstrate to the citizens of America how much they need to unify and that they cannot do it alone.
In three days’ time, on April 15, I will use the powers vested in me as President of the United States to issue an executive order that all government services be withdrawn from Council Bluffs. At all levels of government. What I expect is that the American people will come to understand how much they need to get behind my policies — the ones you so wholeheartedly supported during the campaign. What I expect is that America will shortly see how much they need my leadership to steer a path forward. It is time that we unite behind my leadership, behind God, and show America what we can achieve as a united people.
I will expect you to assist in carrying this order out and upon issuing your own orders to your staff and to the residents of your fine city you will absent yourself from the scene. To do otherwise would not be good for your political career. To be utterly candid with you, I anticipate a few unplanned vacancies on the Supreme Court in the coming months. You may be just the person for one of those leather chairs.
I am sure I can count on your support. May God once again bless America.
President Alisdair Weston
* * * * *
I shuddered and kicked at an old book laying on the ground. It disintegrated into dust when I did. “President Weston was going to destroy Council Bluffs to “save” America. The mayor was the first victim. The morning after the newscast, Council Bluffs woke to his body hanging from a light pole in front of City Hall. By the end of the week, government offices were padlocked and boarded up, the police disbanded and shipped out of town.”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I’ve seen the videos. I listen.” I stood up and looked around. I peered into the corners and between the aisles of shelves to see if there were any shadows lurking. “It got worse. A lot worse. The President’s Men made their first appearance. In their starched collars. Those damn Chuck Taylors on their feet.”
“Wh-what did they do?”
I jerked my finger towards the shattered windows that gave us an unfiltered view of the street outside. “That.”
Council Bluffs was a desolated city whose inhabitants were set one against another, its buildings destroyed by bombs and fires, and where now it seemed that even though the bodies had long ago decomposed into dust scattered by the winds that howled through the city’s streets, the smell of death lingered on every street corner and on every door step. I could feel the presence of the slaughtered in my spine and in my gut.
“My God,” Nicole whispered.
“Yeah. Maybe. But, you know, this was all part of Weston’s plan to turn himself into a God-like being. And it worked. The Old Man? Pfffft. I’d like to see him hanging from a light pole some day.”
“There’s nobody here, Nicole. This city is a wasteland. Empty.” I got up and began to sling my pack onto my back. “The sooner we get through it, the better.”
One of the remaining street signs told us we were walking down West Broadway, the numbered streets crossing ours counting down. 25th. 19th. 12th. And on and on until the numbers ended and more and more streets, empty of everything, stretched out in the distance.
* * * * *
We walked long that day. In hours, if not in miles. New to lugging packs with 50 pounds of supplies and gear and suffering from the heat of summer, we only made it so far. Out past where Broadway turned into Kanesville Road. Just before it crossed under the Weston Interstate, the one that crossed the nation from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco to Maryland and the Atlantic Ocean, we stopped for the day. We were past the desolation and into the countryside. In every direction, the dried brown of the Iowa prairie stretched as far as the eye could see.
Before we turned our backs on Omaha and Council Bluffs for the last time, I turned and looked back. “Dad had a brother.”
“He did? I don’t remember meeting him.”
“Yeah.” I blinked into the setting sun. I couldn’t help myself. I wiped at my eyes. “He lived in Council Bluffs.”
“Oooh.” Nicole reached out and put her arm around me and rested her head on my shoulder. We remained that way for a few more minutes. The sun was nearing the horizon. Blue was shifting to yellow and orange. I took a deep breath and slipped out of her embrace.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, turning my back on the destruction and looking towards the vastness of the fields that spread out in all other directions. “Let’s see if we can find Dad in all of this.” That night, I opened the atlas. It said Rand McNally on the front. The date on the inside said it was published in 1989. Nicole and me found the pages for Iowa and scanned them trying to figure out the best path forward. We went to sleep without a clue.
“Joey, cut it out,” I shouted at my brother. He was flicking my ear. I loved my big brother, idolized him, wanted to be just like him. But he could be a massive pain in the ass when he wanted to be and something about sitting next to each other in the back seat of our old SUV on long trips brought out his inner punk.
“You two knock it off or I’m pulling this car over.” Our dad looked over his shoulder at us. It was a threat he had made before, far too many times to count. A threat he had never carried out, but Joey was 12, I was 10. We were both young enough to believe one day he just might pull the car over. And do what? Kick us out of the car? Turn around and wallop us both? What exactly? We didn’t know for sure, but we still feared him.
For the next five or ten minutes, Joey left me alone. I looked out the window. Endless cornfields stretched out to the horizon. Red barns here and there. Dirt roads and two-lane country roads stretched out from the freeway like the strands of a spider web.
“How long will it take to get there?” I asked.
“You know the schedule. It’ll be five days,” my dad laughed. “You excited?”
I was and he knew that. We were headed to Gettysburg. I had learned about the Civil War just a few months before so I was eager to see the great battlefield. And from there, we were going to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. In my little boy mind, it seemed like such a magical place, filled with monuments and history and important people. Maybe I’d meet President Bush.
The year was 1991 and we were doing what our family did every summer. Hitching a trailer to the car and roaming America. Joey and I would get on each other’s nerves sitting in the back seat, but then spill out of the car when we got to a campground at the end of the day and run together with the pent-up energy of hours on the road. We were best friends when we could roam, not so much when we were cooped up.
One of the things I wanted to do when Nicole and Cameron came along was to take the same kind of trips. Just the four of us on the road, seeing America. President Weston, the Old Man, put a stop to anything like that before Ceci and I got to where we could afford a trailer. We never got out there with our kids. I never got to threaten them with pulling the car over. Or take them to the Pacific Ocean. Or Disney World. None of that. For more than 20 years none of us left Omaha. It was too dangerous out there. Or so we thought.
Now I hiked on my own in the hot summer sun following the same general course we took all those years ago. Towards Washington, D.C., and my own battleground.
It wasn’t just Council Bluffs and what happened to Joey there. In moments as the years passed, I would go to the river and stand on one of the bridges that crossed into Council Bluffs and peer at the destruction, wondering where his body was. Whether he suffered. I tried to remember him as a boy, freckled cheeks, smiling. Always smiling. As the years went on, it became harder and harder. When I walked through Council Bluffs that hot June day as I took my leave of living in a paralyzed world, I looked neither right nor left. I was afraid of seeing his body, no matter how ridiculous that might be all those years after the city was destroyed. I didn’t want to see his shadow. I was afraid of his ghost.
It wasn’t just what the President’s Men tore from Ceci. The next day she went into one of the downstairs bedrooms and closed the door. I knocked on the door. She wouldn’t let me in and stayed behind the door for the day. And for the next day. And the next. Ceci never returned to our bedroom. She never let me touch her again. How could I blame her? I failed her. I did not protect my wife when she most needed my protection. I was hardly a man anymore.
It wasn’t just the vacant stare I saw in Nicole’s eyes and so many others. Or Cam’s constant pushing and questioning about how things got this way. How could I answer his questions? I failed my kids. I could not provide for them the things they deserved, the opportunities they should have had. Instead, I could only watch as they made their way in a lost time, with no motivation other than to see the next day.
I hate to say it and I’ve never told Nicole or Cam – I voted for him. Alisdair Weston. I thought he would bring the change we needed as a country. I felt there was this gigantic hole forming in our nation’s soul and I thought he could plug it.
Ceci knew but she had given up berating me for my vote years before. I would have taken her screams and anger in the end if it had helped. I would have taken anything for her if I only had another chance. And maybe that was the thing. This was my chance for redemption.
They say that revenge is for suckers. I didn’t care. It was all I could think about as I trudged through Iowa, my feet kicking up clouds of dust, my eyes squinting into the distance. Somewhere beyond the horizon was the Old Man and I had a date with him. Only he didn’t know it.
As the sun beat down and the distance from home grew, I realized it wasn’t just my own losses that drove me forward. There was so much more to the story of what had happened after Weston was elected. He plugged the hole. Most definitely. With death and destruction and a country that was once great turned into a shell of its former self.
While the Boise State Legislature debated a resolution condemning the destruction of Council Bluffs, the state capitol in Boise was blown to bits by a bomb or two dropped from an American warplane. President Weston appeared on television afterwards and claimed it was terrorism. But we knew. The one thing the mayor of Council Bluffs did before his body was strung up was to alert us to the chameleon we had elected. We knew but what could we do?
A few weeks later, it was dynamite planted at strategic places of Folsom Dam. Releasing flood waters that inundated Sacramento down river, displacing hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or more, people. The federal government denied California’s request for emergency aid. What was happening when this happened, you might ask? The Governor of California had only the day before issued an executive order directing all state agencies to ignore any orders coming from the federal government.
It was the passenger jet commandeered by one of the President’s Men and flown into the heart of Disneyland. The plane crashed into the Happiest Place on Earth as the throngs awaited the nightly fireworks show. They got one.
It was many other actions. Some great. Some small. A bomb here. A governor disappeared there. Or two. Businesses shut down by edict. President Weston declared martial law and suspended the Constitution only six months into his … reign. Shortly after, the Old Man was born with the publication of The Old Man’s Wisdom. It became required reading and any home without a copy would not stand for long. And we remained under martial law all these years later. That’s the official name. The Old Man called it democracy and freedom and God’s will. I called it tyranny.
* * * * *
That first day I didn’t get as far as I thought I would. It was the blisters that started to form after only a few miles. And my back. Maybe I should have trained a little bit. Only I didn’t want to draw attention to my plans. Walking the neighborhood with a full backpack might have done that. You never knew who might talk.
I did a lot of walking though. It’s how most of us got around. Maybe I should have done that walking in the new hiking boots instead of stowing them and only bringing them out the day I left. Maybe I should have done a lot of things.
Like pack sun block. The next day my face burned, the hat pulled low over my eyes could only do so much to protect against the relentless summer sun. I was beyond Council Bluffs out into what was once America’s great farm land, now fried dead and brown by the sun. The cornfields I remembered from my youth were no more.
The third day a Midwest specialty slowed me down. A day that started off warm and sunny ended with wind whipping across the prairie and thunder clouds stacking the horizon and then spilling across the sky. In three days, I hadn’t seen a soul. Maybe it was because I avoided the main routes and the interstates and stayed on back roads that filled the spaces in between and where a few small farms still existed, hidden away in bends of a river or behind a grove of trees.
When the thunder boomed and the lightning struck, I holed up in a shack that had seen better days to wait out the storm. I was about to doze off when a noise interrupted my efforts to sleep. It wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t the sound of rain pitter-pattering on the roof. It was the sound of another human being. Before I could get the gun out from the bottom of my backpack – I cursed myself for not having it at the ready – a man burst into the shack.
He was wetter than a drowned rat and dressed entirely in black. He looked to be about thirty and carried nothing with him. The stranger took a step back when he saw me in the corner of the shack.
“Who are you?” he asked. I fumbled around in my pack trying to get a grip on the gun before giving up.
“Who are you?!” I responded.
He swept his wet hair away from his face and looked at me. Eventually, he sighed and sank down to rest on his haunches. “I’m Evan.”
I considered his answer and chose to lie. “Steve.”
We eyed each other some more. I waited. “You walking through?” he finally asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, a newbie.” Evan took another pass at his hair, which went past his shoulders. His eyes glittered even in the gloom of the shack. “Walking through. You know. From here to there.”
“Sure. I guess that’s me.”
“You don’t look the type though. You’re too clean and,” he waved his hand at my backpack, “if you were walking through, you wouldn’t need that. You don’t look quite so desperate. Or depressed.”
A bolt of lightning lit up the shack. By habit I started to count the seconds and only got to one before the thunder roared. I was beginning to understand what Evan was telling me, but he was wrong. I was desperate and depressed. I just had a different objective, a different idea about what to do about it. “No, I guess I’m not. Walking through, that is.”
“Then what’s your plan, old man?”
I blanched at his reference to me as ‘old man’ and wanted to object, but then what. Evan did not appear to be a threat to me, or to be on side of the real Old Man, but how could I tell. For all I knew, he was testing me and if I objected to the name, I’d reveal myself.
And what was my plan? “I’m just walking.” Another bolt of lightning split through the air. I counted again and got to two before the thunder rolled.
“Nobody just walks these days. You get caught out here, you’re a dead man.” He got up, his knees cracking, and slid the door open a bit. “Looks like the rain is letting up a bit.”
I wanted to trust him, but I couldn’t even trust anymore my neighbors I had lived next to for years. Just a couple of days out on the road and I was going to spill my guts to the first stranger I met? I didn’t bother replying. I wasn’t going to tell Evan anything more.
Outside, the rain did lighten its assault on the shack. I thought of leaving, of getting away from this man I didn’t know. But he beat me to it. Evan turned back to me, “I hope you figure it out, dude. Take care of yourself.” As he stepped through the doorway, another bolt of lightning crackled and lit up the shack. Before the thunder could roll, his final words to me filled the silence, “See you.” And he was gone.
I had just met my first Rebel. Only I would not learn of that fact until much later.
Before I left the shack, I pulled the gun out and put it in one of the side pockets of the backpack. I left the zipper open halfway. I tried it out a bit with the pack on my shoulders, reaching back to see how easily, how quickly I could get to the weapon. Who knew if it would really matter.
***** END (for now) *****