There was a sign out by where the highway used to run that said PROMOTE COEXISTENCE in big, black letters, only someone had sprayed END OCCUPATION over it in sloppy red paint. Back beyond it I could see the fence blocking off the freeway ramp; the barbed wire at the top gleaming like teeth in the sun. Cars had been one of the first things to go. From nearby, old metal squeaked, rust on rust. I looked up and saw a young Mexican kid, eight or nine maybe, riding his bike in circles in the space where the street ended and formed a makeshift cul-de-sac up to the fence. Beyond the fence, only the unused road and the vast expanse of desert.
“That’s the shot,” Amy said, pointing at the kid. Her hand was resting on my shoulder, thumb moving back and forth on my neck. “If you can get the sign up front with the kid in the background, and the fencing up over the freeway, that’s the one.”
I lifted the camera up to my eye and peered through. The sign was hazy, a smattering of dulled out letters, and I felt my fingers move automatically to twist the focus and sharpen the scene around me. Grains became defined; lines grew fat and thick. The sign, with all of its ugliness, came together. Behind it, the child kept riding, indifferent.
There was something about adjusting the focus that always quieted my senses. A power in being able to change something so that I saw it the way I needed to. No matter what I was shooting, that sensation always had a way of relaxing my breath, calming my nerves.
I waited for the kid to turn his bike so that he was facing me, almost looking at the camera, before I snapped the first shot. I kept shooting until he completed this section of his little circle and turned around, his face out of view. His bike went on squeaking as I took my eye away from the camera, away from my artificial focus, and stared at him as he truly was. Small, distant; probably didn’t care about the fence or the wire on top of it. Or the sign and its graffitied message. He was only a little younger than Scotty would’ve been by now.
“You going to be okay getting these to Chris for tomorrow?” Amy asked.
My mind dropped back into the present, the sticky-hot summer afternoon and the sweat on my neck and the camera in my hand. “Would you mind sending them over?” I said. “I don’t think I’m getting home until late tonight.”
“I thought you were off work today?” She had her hands on her hips and the sun was turning her skin golden.
I worked weekdays at a copy and print supply shop downtown and usually handled the afternoon shift, but had managed to get out of it tonight. “I am. My brother wanted to meet up. We’re going to grab a drink and catch up.”
As if there was any other option now. I nodded and her face got hard. “I mean, you know how he is. He—”
I stopped. I didn’t hear the noise yet but I could tell that she did. It was like watching a silent shock run through her body. I watched her eyes tune up towards the sky right as the hum entered my ears. I got the chill next, always the same feeling no matter how many times I heard it. It wasn’t something you got used to. The droning, that low, beatless buzz, was so alien, so out of place, that it shook you every time.
It wasn’t hard to spot. The sky was cloudless, perfect blue, and the little silver pill box cruised high above, wingless, leaving no trail as it passed. There was only the noise to signal its presence. And the knowledge of what it meant.
“I didn’t know they were running patrols this week,” Amy said.
“They haven’t been posting notices for a while now,” I said. “They just do it when they need to. Or whenever they feel like it, I guess.”
“Still. I wish they would.”
Our eyes met, and for a moment I could see that she was embarrassed to be afraid in front of me. Ashamed that she couldn’t bury that fear the way that I could.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said. “They do this routine stuff out by the freeways all the time. Make sure no one is using them or jumping the fences or anything.”
“Yeah. That’s probably it,” she said. Up ahead the kid had halted his bike. Like us, he was watching the sky. We couldn’t see the patroller anymore. Maybe it had flown higher, maybe it had simply vanished. They seemed to do that from time to time. But the sound was still there. When it finally trailed off I heard the squeak of his wheels start up again. Amy, too, seemed to return to life.
“I’ll get the pictures to Chris,” she said.
“Thanks.” I handed her the camera, watched her drape it over her neck like it was her peacekeeper. Don’t forget that this is a weapon too, she once told me. Years ago now, though it didn’t feel like it.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” I said, and she nodded. We kissed, more sweat than sweetness on our lips, and I got onto my bike and started pedaling off while she packed up.
“Hey,” she called. I stopped and turned back to her. “Just,” she started, and then looked at the ground, the dust on her shoes.
“What?” I asked, but I knew what she was thinking. She didn’t have to say anything she hadn’t said before.
“Nothing,” she finally said. “Take care tonight.”
The noise stayed with me, humming between my temples as I biked back into town. The patroller was long gone but the sound remained, even if only in my imagination. I guess that was part of the idea.
There hadn’t been a war. Hadn’t even been battles really, unless you counted what happened in Cairo, and even that ended with such speed and decisiveness that it hardly seemed to matter. If there had been other clashes, I couldn’t remember them; I’d only been a boy when it happened, watching it all on TV with my parents and Rob, Scotty not even conceived yet. No, it had been simpler, much simpler. An arrival, an assertion of strength, and a peaceful handing over of the reins. They were here to show us how to stop wasting our planet, to improve our existence as a species. Bases were set up across continents and countries; regional sub-governments established. Cars and mass pollutants went first. Then guns and other weapons. Street drugs; cigarettes. Open practice of organized religion. That one caused the most trouble, of course, and so the fences went up. And then the patrollers came, precise and pilotless, running their routes to keep everything in line. You resisted when you could—peaceful protests and demonstrations were still permitted—without drawing too much attention and ending up on the wrong side of a purge. Because there wasn’t any honor in martyrdom; no noble cause to die for. Surviving was all you could hope for.
Rob had a drink waiting for me when I got to the BrickWall, one of those narrow bars that dotted the east side of town. He was sitting at a booth in the back corner, already half finished with his beer, something thick and black that looked like motor oil. A few spots of froth clung to his beard. The beer he had waiting for me looked considerably lighter.
He greeted me with a hug, bearlike as was his way, and we spent our first drink catching up. He was only three years older than me, twenty-six to my twenty-three, but had been out of the house for over a year, living with his girlfriend in an apartment downtown. He asked how everyone was doing and I told him. Dad was still Dad, trying to pretend nothing had happened. Mom was still on the couch most days, watching anything but the news. Amy was fine. Rob told me he and Kim were looking for a new apartment, something with a little more space. Still trying for a baby but no luck yet.
“How about you?” he said.
“Not much. Got an exhibition coming up tomorrow, actually.” I dug into my back pocket to find a flyer. I smoothed it out on the table, trying to get rid of the folds and wrinkles, and handed it over.
Rob studied it. “Images of a Peaceful Resistance,” he said, reading aloud. I watched his face, waiting for a smile or laugh, but he held himself in check.
“It’s at that warehouse over on 15th tomorrow night. A couple of me and Amy’s photos are going to be there. You can stop by if you want.”
“You should. I don’t think Mom and Dad are going to make it. They’re still not really—” Rob nodded, understanding. “Anyway,” I said, “I know it’d mean a lot to Amy if you stopped by. Both of you.”
“Kim’s busy tomorrow night,” he said. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
There was a baseball game on TV and someone must’ve done something right because the whole bar yelled out at once, cheering and slapping fives. There was still beer and baseball. At least they let us keep some distractions.
A waitress brought our second round, and when Rob lifted his glass I noticed the marks on his knuckles. They seemed to glare at me as he tilted back and drank. A thin black letter on each finger. NWLA.
“Is that new?” I asked, motioning toward them. Rob looked at his hand as if to confirm that yes, it was in fact his, and then smiled.
“Sort of. Got ‘em about a month ago.” I’d forgotten how long it’d been since we’d seen each other. I wanted to feel some surprise at those letters, some shock, but nothing came. Of course Rob would be with them. Of course he would flaunt it.
The NWLA was a resistance group based out of Portland, but they had chapters all down the coast, even way down here in the desert. The letters stood for something different depending on who you asked. The meaning of the first three was unanimous. North-Western Liberation. It was the last letter where things got tricky. The state media, the stories they edited and controlled, called it an Alliance. That was a soft enough term for them. But I knew what it really meant, and so did Rob. Army. The North-Western Liberation Army.
“So what? You’re just in it then? That fast?” There had been rumors of NWLA pockets cropping up around us for a while, in Arizona mostly, but I hadn’t heard of any definite activity within the city until now. New Mexico wasn’t exactly a hotspot for revolution.
“In it indeed,” Rob said, and smiled.
“Of course she knows. What? She ain’t gonna see my hand for a month? She’s on board.”
I nodded but I didn’t answer. I was soaking up all that this implied, and I knew if I said anything else we’d get into it, and I didn’t want that, at least not yet anyway. Neither of us was drunk enough and we’d only seen each other a handful of times since Scotty, and that’d been almost nine months ago. So I stayed quiet and took another drink.
“You know,” Rob said, “that’s actually why I wanted to get together tonight. I thought you might be able to help us out.”
“Us who?” I looked at his face, then down at his hand. “Them? Fuck that.”
“Just listen, Josh.”
“Fuck that,” I said again. “That’s your deal, not mine.”
“We just need you to make copies,” he said, and there was a firmness in his voice that was alien to me. He wasn’t an I anymore. He was a We.
I stayed silent. If it was something small I could at least hear him out. If I was going to reject him, and I was, I had to, I could at least hear him out first.
“Look,” he continued, “everyone knows that we’re expanding. But it’s hard. They’re looking through every email and phone call or message for a hint that it might be us. You know that. It’s almost impossible for us to recruit and keep in contact with the other chapters.”
“So we’re thinking of going old school and distributing a newsletter.” He drummed his knuckles on the table and smiled, like it was the smartest thing either of us had ever heard.
I laughed. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not. Look, it’d all be encoded, nothing obvious, just a way for us to communicate freely. All we need is you to make copies. You can do that at work and no one will second guess it. We’ve got some big stuff coming up, coming up soon actually, and we need to get as many people on board as we can if it’s gonna work.”
I stared at him, blank. He kept on.
“Here,” he said, and pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket. He passed it across the table. “I’m meeting up with some of them tomorrow night. I can introduce you.”
I looked at the paper. There was a phone number and an address. I knew the area, a neighborhood over on the South Side of town. Below that was a name: Derek. “I’m just asking you to think about it,” Rob said. “If you say no, I’m sure we’ll figure out another way. But I know you can do it. And I want you in this with me.”
I sighed. I tried not to, tried to hold it in, but I couldn’t. I saw his face change, saw him draw back into his older brother shell, ready to lecture me, to tell me how right he was and how wrong I was and how I hadn’t ever really done my part.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing.” I crumpled up the piece of paper and shoved it into my back pocket.
“Say it,” he said.
I had nothing to say. He already knew. He tugged on his beard and eyed me, as if sizing me up, then took a deep drink and finished his beer.
“I know you’re scared,” he said. “And I don’t want to fight with you cause you’re my brother and we shouldn’t fight. But you can’t keep pretending that taking pictures and having these little Passive Resistance galas is going to change things. It isn’t.”
“And getting myself killed is?”
“I’m just asking you for copies. We’ve been successful before and if you help—”
“You’re asking me to put myself in a position where I get my name marked down as an enemy. On a purge list even. You know what kind of danger that puts me in? Puts Amy in?”
“No one would know,” Rob said. “You’d be safe. And if, somehow, they did figure out what was going on, we could protect you. Amy too.”
“They purge enemies, Rob. You can’t protect me from that. If they think I’m dangerous, or that you are, they’ll get rid of us. That’s it.”
“And what about Scotty? What kind of danger was he?”
“Oh, fuck you.” I said, and stood.
“You can say whatever you want,” he said, “but at least I’m fighting for him,” And then I almost lost it, could feel the rage swelling up in the sides of my head and I wanted to hit him, even if he was bigger than me, had always been bigger, even if hitting him wouldn’t change a thing. I wanted to hit him for not being there, for not seeing the house and the way there was hardly anything living in it anymore, for talking about Scotty without knowing the first thing about it because he hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen it. I wanted to hit him, and I almost did, but I stopped.
This is a weapon too she said. I clenched my fist and waited for my breath to return. Rob watched me the whole way, and I could see a softness in his eyes that he’d been trying to hide. Maybe he knew he’d overstepped.
“I’m leaving,” I said. “I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Then I turned and left.
The ride home was dark and cool and the stars were all blinking in their places. I wondered if there were any patrollers flying around up there that I couldn’t hear. Wondered if Rob’s name was already on a list somewhere.
He was right. The NWLA had been successful before. In Seattle they’d used pipe bombs and other homemade explosives to destroy a patrol center. Outside San Jose two NWLA members had broken into a black site prison and opened fire on the guards, releasing what inmates they deemed ‘political prisoners.’ There had been these successes and smaller ones; but of course, each one was followed by tougher pushback. More raids and purges. If there hadn’t been a war upon their arrival, the NWLA was certainly trying to make sure there was one now.
I took the long way home to avoid passing the lot where the school used to be. I didn’t need to see that now. Not after Rob. They’d built a new school across town, a bigger one, but the lot and its dead space was still there. They couldn’t take away the emptiness. That was still ours.
The lights were off when I got home; parents long asleep. I went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water, left the lights off while I drank. Something was glowing in the family room and I guessed my mother had left the TV on again.
The table in the center of the room still had five chairs around it. My parents were adamant about not removing the fifth, even now, so it stayed there like some pathetic monument. Not that it mattered anyway; we rarely ate together anymore. I spent my evenings with Amy, Dad did what he could, and Mom stayed on her couch, drowning out both past and present. Maybe there was a way to try harder, to face Scotty’s absence head-on and make it shrink. I knew Amy thought so, even if she was shy about saying it. But each time I tried to force the issue, to shake them and tell them that it was time to put the chair away, to acknowledge that he wasn’t coming home and we couldn’t keep pretending he was, they only pulled away further. Maybe things were better that way. Maybe ignoring it was better than feeling.
Fuck Rob. He didn’t have to come back to this. He had left and stayed gone, and in his absence I’d been the one who had to stay, the one who came home each night hoping that the TV would be off and our parents would be at the table laughing like they used to and that life would have somehow restarted. And now Rob was going to probably get himself killed or just go missing altogether. People disappeared; no word or notice. I finished the water and headed upstairs to my room.
Amy had emailed me some of the shots we’d taken earlier. The picture of the boy on the bike was good. He was looking right at the camera and his eyes weren’t blank but there was something about them, something almost empty, that looked right with the sign and the fence behind them. Not blank, but uncaring. Muted. The same eyes that sat in front of our television every day and counted off the hours. I knew those eyes.
It was a picture. That was all. And tomorrow it’d be blown up onto a huge canvas for people to look at and say “Isn’t this an injustice?” and lament it for the rest of the evening and nothing more. It was just a picture.
Fuck Rob for making me think like this. He knew I would. Even if I hadn’t agreed to anything at the bar, even if I had hit him like I wanted to, he knew he’d sowed enough doubt to keep me up.
I closed the computer and let the darkness take its place. Rob’s voice was still in my head, the letters on his knuckles still visible against my closed eyelids. When they faded, I slept.
“You get in late?”
My father was on the back porch, a book in his hand and an empty coffee cup on the table next to him. He didn’t look to be reading; instead he was staring out at some undefined point in the desert that stretched out behind the house to the hills in the distance. The book was only for cover.
I took a seat next to him, told him Amy and I were out late prepping some photos. He nodded.
Only lately had I realized he looked old. Not older, the way most people do, but old, as if a complete transformation had happened all at once. His hair was full gray and his eyebrows were somehow thick and thin at the same time, like little clouds over his eyes. There were wrinkles ingrained in the skin of his forehead and neck; the hand holding his book looked as if it was made of old leather. Maybe it had happened after Scotty. Maybe it’d happened before and I just hadn’t noticed.
“Big show’s tonight, right?” he said.
“It’s not big,” I laughed, surprised that he’d remembered. “But yeah. It’s tonight.”
He kept his eyes on that unseen point. “You know I would like to go, but your mother—”
“Dad, it’s fine. I know.”
He nodded again. “You’ll show me the pictures maybe? Some other time?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I reached across the table and patted him on the shoulder. “Some other time.”
“I’d like that,” he said.
I thought about telling him about Rob, but decided not to. It wasn’t worth worrying him, or my mother. Instead I looked out and tried to see what he was looking at but found nothing but bright, blinding morning. It was enough to sit with him. Maybe that was enough.
But I didn’t lie to Amy; couldn’t. We spent the afternoon at her apartment, and after keeping ourselves busy for some time in the unconditioned heat of her bedroom we just lay there, her head on my chest, hair sticking to my skin.
With Rob mostly gone and my parents in their black hole of grief, she had become my family. She was the one who listened, who cared. She was still something of a believer, didn’t mind the changes they enforced, only the enforcing. When the first reports of purges started spreading she got involved in the resistance, distributing photographs and her own newsletters, always careful not to overstep the line that divided acceptable dissent from what they labeled as dangerous. I’d always supported her efforts, but after Scotty she’d helped me get involved. Taught me how to fight without violence. So when I told her about Rob, I told her everything.
“What’d you tell him?” she asked.
“I told him no. What’d you think I said?” She only shook her head. “It’s just stupid,” I said. “Thinking he’s going to actually change anything that way. Especially after what we’ve all been through, my parents and us, it’s just selfish and it’s stupid.”
She traced a finger along my stomach. “But that’s not all, is it?”
I looked up at her ceiling. The paint, not quite white but not different enough to call it anything else, was cracked here and there. I could hear the footsteps of the tenants above us creaking around, see the shadow of the security camera outside her window monitoring the street in front of her building.
“I think what gets me is that Rob really believes in it. So if he does end up on a purge list, or gets himself killed, at least he’ll have believed he was doing the right thing. He can sleep easy knowing that. I’m taking pictures. And yeah we’ll hang them up on display or show them around town and people will say it’s awful, but they won’t change the fences or the patrollers or those fucking prisons in the middle of the country. So maybe it doesn’t even matter what I think cause I’m not really in it like he is.”
She rolled onto my chest and looked at me. I could feel what she was going to say, felt it pulsing through her skin and into mine. “You are in it,” she said. “We both are. Don’t let Rob or anyone else tell you otherwise.”
“Look at me,” she said. “You make a difference. And you’re smart enough to do it without a gun or a pipe bomb.”
Her eyes refused to leave mine, and I thought of Scotty, the way he would look at you when you were playing a game with him and he saw that the score was out of hand, or worse, that you were letting him win. He’d give you a look that felt like he was shooting tacks at you. Amy had that look now.
“I never told you about the time I tried to buy a gun, did I?”
She said nothing. I bit the inside of my lip, felt it soft and splitting between my teeth. She’d heard part of the story before but never all of it. Nobody had heard all of it. And so I told her. I told her about the teachers, how no one knew exactly what they were planning, or if they were with the NWLA or acting independently, but it didn’t matter because they’d done enough to get themselves on a purge list. Told her how the four of them met after class at the school where Scotty went, how he stayed late most days that spring for math tutoring and how Rob usually picked him up, only that day Rob was busy so I went to get him. I couldn’t even remember what was Rob was busy with anymore. I told her how I was almost there when I heard the buzz of the patroller and the snap of the missile, the roar and crack of the building coming apart. How I tried to dig through the rubble when I got there, my hands cut and bleeding by the time the police, our police, finally pulled me off, and even then I just sat and waited for them to pull him out, but they couldn’t find anything. There was no body, nothing left. It was like he’d been wiped clean off the face of the earth. Obliterated. Vanquished.
Amy was nodding; she’d heard all this before.
And then I told her what she didn’t know. How I managed to find a dealer downtown and set up a deal for a handgun, $600 for the whole deal, $300 before and $300 after. How I put down the first payment without even knowing what I’d do with the thing, or how I would get to them. I only knew that if I did find a way to get to them, I could hurt them. The NWLA had already proved that. So maybe if I could just get one of them, one of them for all of us that they’d taken, maybe it would be okay. But I got ripped off; the dealer pocketed my money and never showed up. For a while I was angry, but then I figured maybe I was lucky. Because if I’d gotten the gun I would’ve fired it. I knew that.
“Seeing them do that to the school,” I said, “it changed how I looked at it. At the whole situation. Maybe I changed back, but I can’t hold it against Rob that he never did. Maybe I shouldn’t have either.”
She kissed my chest.
“But you did do the right thing,” she said. “You didn’t get yourself killed or abandon your family. No matter what you wanted to do, you did the right thing.”
“Maybe,” I said. “It’s just tough to believe when I go home and see how broken they are and know that I can’t fix them. I’ve tried and I just can’t.”
“But you don’t have to fix them,” she said. “You just have to be there with them. The fixing will come in time. Just show them that you’re there. Make them sit and eat a meal or watch TV or anything. You don’t have to talk about it if they’re not ready, but you need to be there with them so that when they are ready you can help.”
She sat up, pulled a sheet around her chest. She tugged on my arm and pulled me up, too. I leaned my head against her shoulder, tasted her skin. There was still beauty here. They couldn’t take that away and neither could Rob.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said.
“I know I am,” she said, and laughed. I laughed with her. “I’m always right, you know that by now.”
“Right,” I said. “I’ll see you at the show then?”
“Yeah,” she said, and kissed me. “I’ll see you there.”
I went home to my parents and we ate. Dad came away from his books and my mother muted the television, which was at least a start, and we all sat down and looked each other in the eyes and talked and even laughed. And after some time we looked at Scotty’s chair, empty at the end of the table, and remembered him, remembered how he used to douse his food in ketchup, no matter what he was eating. How he’d sometimes sit so far on the edge of his seat that he’d slip off and hit the floor and even though he might cry with embarrassment we’d never be able to stop laughing. How bright his cheeks used to get when his voice started cracking.
Fuck Rob for leaving this. There was still time for us to get things back together. When dinner was over I helped my mother load the dishwasher, then showered and got ready; threw a dress shirt on over yesterday’s clothes. I was already running late by the time I left; the show would’ve started by now.
Amy was right. The hole wasn’t going to be filled by anger or hate. It couldn’t be. It was only going to be filled by the rest of us, the survivors. The air was cool outside and the sky was turning that gorgeous shade of blue that it does when the sun finally gives in and cedes control to the moon. I biked, helmetless, and let that cool wash over me.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I checked it at the next stop sign. A message from Rob. I opened it and saw a set of eyes looking back at me. But they weren’t Rob’s eyes; these were different, darker. Then I took in the rest of the face, the small features, tanned skin, and I realized it was the boy I’d photographed yesterday. It was my picture; Rob had re-sent it to me from the show. The message at the bottom read: “This was a good one. See you soon. Stuff to talk about—R.”
I put the phone back in my pocket, checked the intersection, and started pedaling again. I realized I was smiling.
I didn’t hear the drone of the patroller until it was already over. Maybe it was too far ahead of me or maybe it was flying silently. Maybe I was just lost in the sound of my wheels and the wind. But I heard the crack it made when it fired, and I felt the push of the heat and the roar of the flames, saw the column of smoke drift up from across the block. I heard people scream, saw other cyclists pull up and stop, people on the street running for cover or taking out their phones to take pictures. I don’t remember falling but I must have because I hit the ground, elbow cut and bleeding, and just watched, saw the world come apart sideways. The fire loomed large up ahead and flashing lights began to pass me and head towards the place where the exhibition hall had been standing only a moment ago. There weren’t thoughts; weren’t sounds. Everything in the scene drifted into a silent spectacle except for one noise, the slow, steady buzz of the ship as it flew back to wherever it came from.
I didn’t dig through the rubble this time. I didn’t look for Rob or Amy, couldn’t stand the thought of what they might look like if I found them. Or what it would feel like if I couldn’t. I didn’t wait on the sidewalk while the police cleared the scene; didn’t stay through the night while they identified the bodies. I didn’t call my parents because I couldn’t be the one to tell them. I didn’t wait to hear the news, to hear the story of how an NWLA member was targeted and purged at a resistance rally downtown.
I didn’t do any of that because I was already riding. I was heading out towards the South Side, to the house where Rob would now never meet his fellow rebels. But maybe I still could. I had the number and address in my pocket and I was riding fast, away from the heat and smoke of the explosion. Away from the smell of death. If I rode fast enough, and if they were still there, maybe I could meet them. Maybe there was still time. Maybe there was.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Braga was raised in Northern Virginia. He attended Boston University to earn his undergraduate degree in Film Studies, and is currently pursuing his Masters as Emerson College. He lives in Boston.