The Second Civil War started on a Friday afternoon in September, in a shopping mall outside Phoenix. We knew the Patriots were organizing in backyards and basements across all 50 states, but we had no idea where they might strike first. Of course, we’d been staying home most nights for months now, since the Wall went up. We weren’t hiding per se, just avoiding busy places like concerts and theaters, restaurants and offices and schools. No one said the word “bunker,” but grocery shelves had fewer and fewer canned goods. We started a garden.
Yesterday while I was watering the tomato plants in the side yard, I looked up to catch my neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, crouched alongside her Volvo tinkering with the safety mechanism on her shotgun. Mrs. Wilson was a former high school history teacher — she knew how to fire a gun.
Instinctively, I froze and scanned the perimeter, looking for enemy troops. I heard a noise near the Petersons’ recycling bin a couple houses down, and then — Pop Pop Pop Pop Pop! A battalion of raccoons screeched and jumped and flew in the air, defenseless as Mrs. Wilson’s fury found its mark.
The tiny terrorists lay lifeless amid pizza boxes and beer cans. The shooter turned to find me staring, slack-jawed. “Target practice,” she announced as she retreated up her driveway.
I looked down at my limp hose and drowning tomatoes, grateful for the cease fire and another day of freedom.
My wife still attends the troop meetings at the high school every Tuesday night. I stopped going a few weeks ago after Bill Peterson accused me of “sucking up all our resources.” I knew what he was referring to but I wanted to hear him say it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Bill.”
“You know damn well what I’m talking about!” He shot out of his seat with his hands on his hips. I think I heard him stomp his foot. “Harboring all those climmigrants in your backyard!” He glanced around for support from the group. His wife quickly nodded her head, without lifting her eyes off their Pomeranian who sat whimpering in her lap.
“First of all, I take offense to that term — they are not immigrants, climate or otherwise. They’re as American as any of us sitting in this gym. Secondly, they’re my wife’s cousins from Ft. Lauderdale — family, for Christ’s sake. I thought we were on the same side here, Bill. Are we not?”
I looked from Bill’s scowling face up toward Stu McGrath, former sports reporter for the Gazette turned Commander of Neighborhood Troop #579. Stu had been leaning over whispering in the ear of his latest girlfriend, Stacie, who was supposed to be recording the minutes.
“Yes, yes,” Stu said clearing his throat, “We’re all on the same team, folks. Let’s not forget the greater mission. We’re here tonight to discuss if we should — like the Patriots have just decided to do — allow our boys 12 and over to join us in the trenches.”
A woman’s voice rang from the back of the gym, “Why just the boys?”
Thankfully, my own son was still too young to be considered. My own quiet, polite boy who is afraid of girls but carries spiders outside telling them to “be happy and live a long and prosperous life” — a line he must have picked up from his grandfather. My son who watches Nat Geo and once spearheaded a Save the Bees campaign. My boy who last night while I was tucking him into bed, told me that one of the older kids called us traitors.
“What did you say?” I asked nervously.
“I said no way no how everyone in our family is true Blue through and through and if he didn’t believe me he could go eat rocks.” Just like we practiced, I thought, give or take the rocks.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m a good liar,” he said with the weary smile of a reluctant soldier, killing me.
Marty and Jane and the twins evacuated their Ft. Lauderdale home ahead of Hurricane Pierre. “I’m not waiting around to get screwed by some French bastard,” Marty told us over the phone when he called asking if we had room to put them up, “for a few weeks, tops.”
The last time I had seen them was a couple years back at a family reunion down in Orlando. I’ll never forget Marty’s unsolicited financial advice: “It’s time to invest in real estate again. Coastal properties are going for a song.”
Over dinner, my wife and I discussed concerns about taking them in. Yes, we had the space (our carriage house above the garage had sat empty for over a year), but we needed to seriously consider our ethical differences. Marty’s Facebook posts since before the election painted a pretty clear picture of where he stood, and it was not where we stood.
My wife countered with the blood-is-thicker-than-water argument and informed me of the twins bouts with PTSD after the last two Cat 5 hurricanes their family weathered. Clearing plates and wine glasses, she started singing that old Depeche Mode song, “People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully…”
Laughter has a way of softening hard edges. I couldn’t help but acquiesce.
After a Christmas season sadly lacking anything remotely festive (the Annual Christmas Carnival was canceled for the first time in the town’s history and most local shops had been boarded up for months), winter settled in like an unwanted guest. Sub-zero nights and back-to-back storms dumped more snow than we’d seen in years.
The only upside was that reports of nearby battles — and Patriot victories — had dramatically decreased. So when we got word that Stu and Stacie were getting married, the neighborhood was abuzz with excitement. We were long overdue for a celebration.
Privately, we joked about the irony of Stu’s third wedding being held at the Veterans Hall, which was transformed into a “pink winter wonderland” for the occasion. “I want it to be perfect,” Stacie pleaded to Stu, “This might be my last chance,” — a sentiment that was becoming frequent justification for all sorts of questionable decisions.
The night of the wedding, Marty and Jane offered to stay home with the kids, I found a long-ago-retired pink tie in the back of my closet, and off we went.
Finishing dessert, we clinked glasses as the bride and groom gave us a big showy kiss. I gazed around at this assembled group of friends, some close and some not-so-close, and felt a wave of gratitude — blame it on the champagne, maybe, but a bubbling sense of aliveness hung in the air like garland.
Just then my wife’s cell phone rang; she fumbled in her handbag to find it. “It’s Jane,” she said as she answered it.
“Wonderful Tonight” was playing as couples trickled onto the dance floor. Mr. & Mrs. Wilson walked by our table hand-in-hand, laughing. Taking a sip of my drink, I turned toward my wife. She was staring through me with a look I had seen only once before, the day her sister lost her life to a drunk driver. She hung up the phone and said nothing. Neither of us moved.
“What is it?” I asked.
“They’re here… they’re coming… they’re outside, probably… they’re out there now… th–they’re all around us… they know we’re here.” She was crying now. “Jesus, we’re all here.”
“Honey, slow down, breathe. What did Jane say exactly?”
But part of me already knew. We had been teetering so close to the edge for so long, and despite everything we knew to be true about existence and the will to change, we stood peering over the brink hoping we would grow wings.
“She said he had no choice… he thinks he’s saving the country. Marty told them. Oh my God… I’m so sorry… I didn’t know. It was Marty. Oh my God, our boy… he has our little boy! Oh forgive me, he has our boy.”
You know the steady hum of all the appliances in your home that’s so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed? Imagine if that hum, that ringing, became louder and louder until that’s all you could hear. You can’t hear music playing. You can’t hear friends talking. You can’t hear your wife breathing beside you in bed. You can’t hear your son laughing. You can’t hear him crying. You can’t hear your own thoughts anymore. You walk around trapped in a silent movie but the noise, Lord, the noise is deafening. It’s so loud that it becomes a presence pushing in on you, it smothers you when you try to sleep. You’d do anything to make it stop. You’d do anything to have your life back. To have your future back. To have your freedom back.
You’d do anything.