I struggled as quietly as possible so the cool November air wouldn’t carry the noise to the guards around front. Not being young anymore, it was really hard to lift myself through the side window. In my haste, I had ended up stuck in place–one leg hanging on either side of the extra-wide sill–as my torso contorted like a goddam mummenschanz.
After several convulsions, I eventually squirted through and landed with a grunt inside the dimly-lit school hallway. I pushed myself up from a kneel with one hand to reach my feet. At least no one saw that.
“Stop there!” barked Jimmy. I rolled my eyes as his voice echoed off the trophy cases and down the hall. Of course, it would be Jimmy.
His doughy form was covered in tight-fitting para-military camo. Plates of black plastic and plexiglass with big-button pouches were held together with various straps that hung off his form like a low-rent cosplayer.
“Jimmy. Let me through.”
“I will not!” His grip on the rifle didn’t waver, but there was more fear in his voice than in mine. My fear had long since been lost, right along with everything else. But his fear was his life.
He projected his voice for the audience of video-cameras and drones within and without the building. Chances were always good someone was listening. “Under general orders, no one is allowed inside. I will detain any traitors–”
“Jimmy. Listen to me…”
He had never listened to me. Years earlier, when we were playing varsity basketball in the very gym on the other side of this hallway wall, he was always show-boating and taking bad shots instead of sticking with the game plan. For some people, it is more important to be the center of attention than it is to win.
Well, that was long ago. These days, he did what he was told. I would’ve looked into his eyes to see if there was any trace of compassion left there, but his shaded goggles prevented that.
When we met, it was in Junior High. He was the new kid in town and I’d befriended him during recess. We’d hung out a bit at my house. Later that week he’d turned in a drawing in art class that he’d made by tracing a picture from a comic he’d stolen from me.
I went to his house and pounded on his door—angry as hell. He had a reputation as a badass, but I didn’t care. He never opened up; but through the door, I dramatically announced that I knew what he’d done, that he could keep the book, but that we weren’t going to be friends.
Later that night, he brought my comic back and apologized. We became best friends.
Neither of us was popular. He was one of the ‘thugs’. And I was, well, invisible—without a clique. Unseen and unheard. In our sheltered independent school district, I was one of the very few Latino kids, so I wasn’t welcome with the cool WASP kids. But my parents were a wealthier, mixed family and I didn’t speak Spanish. So, my voice didn’t matter to the other Latinos either.
At the time I didn’t mind being silent. I was still too shy to be assertive with girls. And, when I had to speak—like when our social studies teachers awkwardly wanted my input on a Hispanic topic—the other kids made sure to shame me for daring to say my piece.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. Jimmy and I, we played a lot of D&D and video-games and hung together throughout high school. He learned some Spanish from me. I learned to overcome my shyness with girls from him. Even after high school, we partied for a while. At least until he went into the service.
That’s where he changed. Oh, he was still a tough guy with quiet, steely confidence. I mean, sure, they had trained him to kill more effectively; but, other than that, they didn’t add anything.
But after he got back, something was missing.
The adult version of Jimmy was a military specialist. I knew from letters to me that he had been trained to kill babies and to withstand torture.
Later I discovered he’d also been desensitized to injustice, as long as it was perpetrated against the other. After he returned to civilian life, he suffered through failed jobs and failed marriages. Violence outbursts played prominent roles in both. I remember one conversation:
Me: How are things going at your new job at the supermarket?
Him: Well, I had to break up another fight in the produce section the other day.That’s, like, three just this past month.
Me: Um, Jimmy, look–I’ve shopped at IGA for a long time, man. And, you know, Idon’t think I’ve ever actually seen an altercation. I mean– Don’tcha’ think it might be you doin’ that, man?
After graduation from college, I became an engineer and left town and moved into the city. Eventually, I traveled the world, even up north.
Meanwhile, he worked odd jobs and joined a militia that based itself out of our home town; now he was a “sergeant” in some redneck alt-right group. We had frequent long-distance political arguments as his views got more and more extreme over time.
Once the President, his guy, was elected, I eventually had to block him on social media altogether. This was after he posted about how he randomly wanted to kill Muslims and Mexicans that dared to be out in public in his town.
That was right about the time I moved back here. My kids were grown and I wanted to semi-retire in peace. Funny how life is.
The year was 2019. Nine years ago.
Then came the pandemic. And Depression. Martial Law. Chicago Nuke. Suspension of the Constitution. The Cleansing.
The Cleansing. The darkness swallows my mind if I even allow myself to think of it: The Nuke took my kids and that pain never leaves. But the Cleansing? The Cleansing was different. They tricked my wife into killing herself.
And I will always hate her for that.
During their interrogations, she refused to swear allegiance to the New Order. To God. So they killed her.
We had been separated (as all couples were during the Cleansing). And she had naturally assumed that I’d done the same. But I hadn’t. Hell, I said whatever they told me to say. I would’ve said anything.
Even now, I’d say anything for just one more day with her.
But me voicing my faux loyalty didn’t stop them from taking all my assets. I was declared an enemy of the state for a few “likes” on social media; and then I lived and worked for the next four years in an Amazon camp. Y’know, until my body broke down.
Since then I’ve walked with a cane; but that’s not why I’m bent over.
But still, I put on the face paint and the black garb. And I had snuck into this building, which meant climbing over a gate and into this window. All to be here on this most sacred night in November.
Third time’s the charm.
“–It’s almost closed, anyway.” he nattered.
“I’ve got time.” I said.
I stood absolutely still as he used the barrel of his rifle to lift the stocking cap I was wearing. This revealed the forehead tattoo, the numbers that marked me as an enemy of the state. “You were a traitor.” he eulogized.
“You’re not wrong, Jimmy. But I’m also not the one pointing a gun at a fellow citizen.”
I struggled to find the words. I hated him so much. I hated what he’d become. But maybe I could try one last time?
“Remember the heroes in our DnD campaigns, Jim? Or the superheroes in our books, is this what they did? Is this what you pictured yourself doing?”
He didn’t seem moved. But he did lower his weapon for the first time. I saw him take two short breaths through his mouth, like a paramilitary Lamaze coach. My bad back and bad knee ached their disagreement with me continuing to stand there. But I waited until he said, “Follow me outside, traitor!”
We clicked on his mounted flashlight and we followed it down the hallway and…not outside…but rather on into the locker room.
Everything looked smaller now. But the memories of the times spent there were still vivid. And I was comforted the smell hadn’t changed.
We went past the lockers and started in towards the showers, then he stood off to one side and he waved me to go ahead.
I couldn’t see around the corner. As I approached, I saw him glance inside the shower area and nod to whoever was in there.
They’re going to kill me. He wasn’t wearing a mask. It can’t be gas. What?
But maybe it was. He hurried away back past me before I got there. I watched him leave and then, after a brief hesitation, I finally decided to go around the wall.
Inside, along the far wall of the shower room was a desk where two old people patiently waited. Off to one side, was a small podium with a little curtain around the top of it.
I smiled as the situation dawned on me.
Jimmy had eventually come ’round, after all. No one is allowed inside. I will detain any traitors. Just so.
I walked up to the table and I saw the blank ballot. The kindly faces of the two women smiled at me. They were older than I was, by decades. Their age cowed me and I had trouble meeting their eyes. But when I did, the peaceful expressions on their faces were unmistakable. They seemed content. Happy.
“Who counts them?” I asked.
“We do.” The one on the left said.
“Will it make a difference?”
And then the one on the right side slid a ballot towards me, firmly and with authority, like a blackjack dealer.
I studied it. One of the names was that of the President. It already had a check next to it. Most of the names I didn’t recognize at all.
But there was one name I did know. For a local office: “City Manager”.
So then, late in my life of silent screaming, I went ahead and tried to make my voice heard.