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Oct/Nov 2016 Fiction

Already She Was Root

by Alan Bray

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


In the rear-view mirror, her eyes were open, but she wouldn't look at him. That was how it had been since they'd left the house, a quiet and pensive wife, holding back and holding him away. Ben figured she was frightened. The car drifted to the edge of the road, and the tires whiffled across the rough surface. He held the wheel steady, the vibration traveling up his arms, and looked again into the mirror.

The mirror reflected the distance between them, as if she were much further behind, following with great reluctance. He steered back into the lane.

The car hit a pothole, and Ed worked his mouth like he was chewing something sour. Beneath the wide brim of his leather hat, his eye crinkled shut, and he stretched his legs out against the floorboard and sighed. Ed who hadn't spoken for 15 miles, answering the question—are you cold?—with a single word.

No.

Along the interstate, lights glinted in farmhouses. The new day hadn't yet penetrated into those depths where people stirred and stumbled with cups of coffee and yesterday's clothes. The burning around his eyes didn't show in the mirror, but there was a bruise on his jaw where Ed had hit him. He rubbed it, wishing that touch could make it recede. His hand began to reach for the radio but stopped. There'd be nothing but country music and the official news, and he decided it was best to let his father-in-law sleep. To the east, the sunrise lit up a jet's contrail against a pearl-gray sky.

They'd been driving for two hours along the neglected highway, seeing very little besides signs referring to forgotten goods and services no longer available. South of Flint, two black SUVs had come up fast from behind, flashing their lights, and he'd started to pull over, sure it was going to end there by the side of the road. But they'd passed, their taillights disappearing beyond a long curve. At the large military base north of Detroit, they were funneled into a checkpoint lane, but the guards waved them through just as Ed had predicted. The newer stretch of road bypassed the ruined city.

At the next exit, he pulled off to find breakfast. Down the broken blacktop, block letters on a board spelled out Fuel and Food—Quarter Mile on Right. It was an old truck stop covering a lot of ground, and it was open. Behind fire-blackened windows, there was a steady, orangeish glow, and the smell of bacon hung in the air. The tower where the overhead lights had hung was broken in two and lay on its side. He parked Ed's old Subaru hatchback in a spot far from the building and turned off the engine.

Ed stirred. "Why are we stopping?" He studied the restaurant and gas pumps a moment and stretched and yawned like a child. "Okay, looks pretty empty."

The gun in Ben's jacket pocket weighed against the front of his right shoulder. Ed had insisted he carry it. Ben knew the clip was full but checked anyway, taking it out and sliding it back and forth till there was a satisfying catch of the spring. It was an object out of dreams—he no longer had to carry one at work. Ed's gun was in his waistband, and Ben saw him reach behind to touch its handle, wrapped in rubber bands.

The car creaked like a gate when Laurie pulled herself out of the back. She walked a little behind her father, noticing last year's weeds in the cracks along the concrete. Since they'd left at four AM, she'd been dozing; whenever she began to fall asleep in earnest, she'd wake, all her muscles taut and straining. Disaster draped this place. A bomb crater full of rubble filled the spot where one set of pumps used to be. Next to the other set—still intact—a man in a hooded sweatshirt sat in a lawn chair with a shotgun across his knees, watching their approach. She looked back at the Subaru, imagining the return to Saginaw, a trip like many others, north from Detroit, from the airport. The road should have many familiar markers—overpasses, signs—but a lot of them were gone, and home wasn't really there, either. After the end of their journey, they'd all need to find a new one.

Her father stopped 15 feet from the man by the pumps. "Pretty cold out here," he called, his hands hanging away from his sides.

Silence. Ben sensed the man's alertness, his hands tight around the gun. Laurie hung back, wary of armed men.

"You got gas?" Ed said. "Sign says you got gas."

"Bring your car over. Pay inside."

"We should fill up while we can," Ed said, turning back. "Before we eat. They may run out."

Ben knew he was right. Since the latest truce, there'd been more fuel, more everything, but things could change from one moment to the next, the border closed, airstrikes called. He headed after Ed, glancing at Laurie.

She squirmed, her stomach growling. "Can't we eat first, Dad? They won't run out in a half hour. There's hardly anyone here."

Two solitary men clad in camo sat at the counter. A man and woman at a table ignored them when they entered. At the booth, she sat on the same side as Ben, and they stared over Ed's head at the TV turned to Fox. Overnight, there'd been a bombing somewhere on the Red side. Men walked across rubble and pointed; the camera pulled back to show a plume of greasy smoke. One man—a father, according to the caption—carried a limp child away in his arms. The anchors said it was a Blue drone strike in direct violation of the truce, a failed attempt to assassinate an important veteran of the last war. The waitress, a child herself with freckled arms and thick glasses, brought three coffees without asking. "Can you believe it?" she said, glancing at the TV. "I hope we get 'em back good for that."

Ben looked at Laurie and widened his eyes. He was pretty sure the Reds had bombed their own people. It wouldn't be the first time. But this was no place to express such an opinion. Laurie looked away. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her nostrils scarlet from a cold.

He wanted to talk to her. Once they got back to the car, he knew Ed would put on his wide-brimmed hat and drive, and she'd move from the rear seat to the front, always keeping space between them. Even now, she kept to the edge of the booth, ready to take flight if he moved too fast or too close. Last night, she'd only agreed to come because of Ed. Ben was still surprised they were both here.

She could feel his eyes. She looked away from the screen frowning, her hand going to the back of her head where her hair was sticking up. She didn't want him looking at her, to really see her—not just because of the cold in her head and the hair. He was too good at prying out secrets. "What?" she said in a flat, stuffy voice.

"Nothing."

"Is there Internet service here?" Ed got out his phone. "I'm looking for the map."

"I always figured you for a old-fashioned paper map kind of guy," Ben said. Ed squinted at the screen.

"There is service. Border's open, it says."

They had to head south to the old Interstate 80 and then east past Lake Erie and straight for the border that was—that day at least—located west of Pittsburgh. If they could get across, there'd be gas, food, all the way to Boston where most of their clothes remained, along with old, dried soap in the shower and a kitchen he hadn't cleaned all winter. When they got there. If they got there.

"What's everyone going to have?" Ed said, opening up the sections of big, plastic-coated menu. "I'm starving. How about you, honey? Ben?"

Ed grinned at him with big, yellow teeth, and Ben shook his head in wonder. Ed had assumed an old man's role, a grizzled, caring father like a shepherd guiding his flock. A killer in masquerade.

They ordered and received plates of yellow-eyed eggs and beige potatoes, muffins bulging out of paper skirts, silver-foil tins of jam. The waitress said there were hardly any shortages anymore. Things were "getting back to normal."

"Maybe you're right, young lady," Ed said. He told her about how in Saginaw, the summer had been hot, with a drought full of chirring cicadas, but very little work. Every so often, his eyes passed over Ben as if seeking acknowledgement of his performance. Ed's eyes were pale blue-green, and bright—Laurie's shimmering eyes in a massive, bony skull.

"So, Ben," Ed said. He held the thick coffee cup easy within reddened knuckles. Laurie had gone to the restroom, leaving them alone in the too-small booth. "You really think..." Ed's voice trailed off, and his mouth worked. He was himself again.

Ben pushed his back against the creaking plastic cover of the seat. His father-in-law's habit was to let his sentences trail off, forcing others to guess at what was left unsaid. "Why do you do that—leave your sentences dangling. It's fucking ominous."

Ed shrugged and finished the coffee.

Ben knew what he meant. "Ed," he said, "you might not like it, but I'm not going away. And you and me, we've got years of holidays to celebrate together—hey, isn't your birthday coming up?"

Ed put the cup down, scowling. His jaw moved as if he were talking to himself. "If it was up to me..." he growled, staring straight ahead. After a moment, his eyes returned to Ben, each corner marked with a deep crease. "You are trying hard," he said. "I'll give you that. It's a lot that you've come here. Patience—that's what I see in you. And courage. I didn't know you had it."

Ben was surprised by the praise. "I love her," he said. "Why else would I come to this place?"

"But..." Ed continued.

Ben filled in. "You don't trust me. But you're helping, aren't you? I don't get it."

"Listen, I wasn't even going to talk about that. I was going to say, is it really true about the Blue side, that there's no shortages, and everyone's safe?"

"Yeah, it's true. You get brainwashed over here." Ben looked up at the TV full of people arguing with their hands and faces.

"But not there?"

"No, no—not as much, anyway. Things are better. Maybe here, too, it seems like. We all just need more peace."

Ed nodded. "The thing is—I couldn't let them kill you. You're not exactly family, but you're no stranger, either. You understand?"

Ben took a turn nodding. Whatever his status, he was grateful to be alive. "You want any more coffee?" he said, offering the carafe.

When Laurie came back, she walked slowly toward them, watchful for anger or injury. The television blared; the air smelled of burning electricity, a frayed cord, an overloaded circuit, bitter and sharp. Her father was in her line of sight, and he looked up and nodded. The harsh overhead lights reflected off his cropped head of silver hair. Ben sat hunched over in the booth, his shoulders rounded, his neck long. She felt trapped with the two men.

What am I doing? she thought.

 

Two days ago, she'd washed her hair in the kitchen sink, still not accustomed to mineral-smelling water that left remnants of shampoo. The early spring air outside was warm, the window raised an inch. In the back yard, her father chopped wood in a rhythm occurring over a long period of time, the axe making a thick, smearing sound. She could see his face, his hard eyes, sweat running down his veined temple. Along with a sudden, frigid gust of wind, a gunshot cracked through the trees, and she winced.

She glanced at the two-handed clock above the stove. It had taken her a week to remember how to tell time that way. By now, Ben must have landed, unless there'd been a problem. She turned on Fox, but there was nothing but a documentary about prison camps for rebel soldiers in Canada's far north—no bulletins about crashes or arrests. If everything is okay, she thought, he'll be here in three hours. An early fly buzzed against the inside of the window.

She'd waited till last night to tell her father.

"No, he's crazy," he said. "There's too many around here would kill him if they knew who he was. Is there a way to stop him? I thought you were getting a divorce."

To him, Ben was a Blue Easterner, arrogant and over educated. An official in their government. When she'd first told him Ben had been in the war, he didn't believe it.

She hadn't heard from Ben all winter. This far north, the Internet didn't work, and it could take months for letters sent from the Blue side to be delivered. But the first week of March, an old man had knocked at the door asking for food, and she'd been surprised when he handed over an envelope.

Ben wrote that she should watch for news of the first "Peace and Reconciliation" flight from the Blue side. He'd be on it and would have a ticket for her to return to Boston. The letter was like the weight on a pendulum, pulling her one way till she pushed back. It would be better to go back East. On this side, her master's degree in education from Tufts wasn't worth much because no one would hire her. She was too "Blue." She looked at the back of her hand and pressed the knuckles together to see if more space had accumulated between the fingers because it felt that way—like she was losing weight, wasting.

She'd spent the winter in her father's house, trying to remember how to be a daughter, and it wasn't working. Her father tried hard, tried to make up for things. He didn't ask questions. But the house was a memorial to her mother and brother. They peered out of framed photos like ghosts.

But Ben wanted her for himself; he wanted her to go back to being a wife.

An old friend lived near Fresno and had work. Come out, she'd written. You can live with me till you find something. Everyone had stories like that, rumors of better places like small islands almost off the map. But it was too dangerous to travel alone—especially through the middle area, Nebraska and what used to be Missouri. Fear kept her stuck, a familiar condition, too.

She wished for nicer clothes. Most of her things had been left in Boston in last fall's crazy rush to escape. She imagined Ben taking them out and smelling them because he missed her. She sneezed and combed her hair.

 

Ben gave the bus driver ten dollars to let him off at the corner. His phone wouldn't work. The plane had banked low over the airport and turned to come in from the east, and the deserted city had appeared through the windows across the aisle. On the other side, the landing strip, pitted and patched, had the skeleton of a burned out plane lying off to one side. A rush of concrete and dirty yellow grass, and the bump and skip of the wheels. Four armed men with blue armbands had pulled up alongside the taxiing plane in a jeep shrouded in salt.

No women were aboard the flight, just hard-faced, serious men in search of people once known, unsure of who they'd find and what would be left. He'd had to sign several waivers saying he understood that the airline couldn't guarantee his safety.

The frost crunched between his feet. At each trash-swept mailbox, the shades of the dead gathered and watched him pass. In the war, he'd been assigned to guard prisoners being sent north. Long, shuffling lines of men in camo jackets and dirty jeans who cast oblique glances to take in his position and level of awareness. The dust stirred by their feet had made it hard to see. He shook his head, struggling to do what the counselor advised when the memories came. Don't fight them, let them flow over you.

Letters sent to the dead—Laurie had told him a lot of volunteers had come from the area, men he'd fought and killed, men who'd been in that column, probably. He imagined a big stack of letters waiting, letters that couldn't be delivered by any means. At the next house, a woman on a porch stared at him without greeting, shading her eyes with one palm despite the weakness of the sun. Bare trees stood out like wires against a gray sky.

Ed's ranch-style house was near the road, the blacktop driveway edged with dirty ice frozen hard like broken glass. Wood smoke seeped out of the brick chimney and hung in a cloud. He headed for the door, a smile forcing demons back. Laurie was there behind the glass storm door; she must have been waiting. Within her father's house, she looked small and young. But she came out and pressed awkward into his arms, and he was surprised. He kissed her hair above one ear. "I missed you," he said. For a moment, everything was much better.

"Ben."

Ed spoke his name the way he always did, with a rising tone at the end, not a question, but an admonishment. A father-in-law, approaching around the side of the house, his gaze taking in their arms around each other—a menace to romance. He was a big man, six three, 220, and kept himself in shape. It was hard to believe Laurie was his daughter because on the outside she was small and pretty. But inside, she was hard like her father—a Fury who might never forgive and didn't forget.

Laurie pulled away, frowning. Her father had promised not to interfere, but she didn't trust him.

"Ed, how's it going." Ben offered his hand, still feeling her form and softness.

Ed kept his hand at his side. "I can't say I'm happy to see you. You're taking a big risk."

"Place looks pretty good," Ben said.

The first time Laurie had brought him there, Ed had called him Ken—a former boyfriend's name. Ed had protested his hearing was bad, had no money to fix the hearing aid. But he'd said it with a sly grin that Ben understood. The old man couldn't control his daughter any more, and it angered him. Behind his back, he and Laurie laughed at him, made love on the front sofa when he was gone. That was during the long truce time; there'd been a lot of talk about unification. They'd gotten away before it had all fallen apart.

Now Ed seemed to have regained some of his power. Maybe because she'd returned to his house. Maybe because the hearing aid was fixed. Ben was smart enough to know Ed needed to be watched carefully.

That night, after a dinner of beans and rice that kept dwindling into silence and space, Ben had led her out on the front porch to talk. It was cold, but he'd wanted to get away from a father-in-law who did little but chew and glare. "Sweetheart," Ben said to her, "politics never mattered much to us. I've got work. We could be happy again."

He talked about last summer, how much he'd missed her, how sorry he was.

"I'm a lot better now. I haven't been drinking, and the counseling helps a lot. I wish... I wish I'd done it a long time ago." There was a space inside him that was deep and troubled. He used to blame her for causing it but knew that wasn't true.

He almost had her. He could tell from the way her misty eyes moved back and forth, and he was sure that inside, she was listening to him and letting herself feel the way she used to. But she stepped back, and he grabbed her arm above the elbow. It startled her; she cried out and kept going backward, pulling him forward off balance. Ed must have been listening from inside the door, because Ben heard it slam. He looked up, and then it was like he'd run into something with his jaw, and he was on his back. "Don't you," Ed said, swollen like an ogre, "touch my daughter." His voice came from somewhere above where Ben was, and an ungentle boot-toe snapped into his ribs. For a moment, he couldn't breathe.

"Daddy," Laurie said. "Stop."

She'd given him several aspirin, saying she wasn't sure of their strength, and he'd slept on the couch.

He dreamt he was climbing the stairs to the apartment in Boston, panicked that the door had locked behind him when he'd gone out. He patted his pockets, knowing he'd left the keys in his pants, and they were there and they weren't there.

Down a long corridor he ran hard, dragging Laurie by the hand, and something horrible was right behind them. A large animal, a dog or wolf—every time he turned around to see where it was, Laurie would fade out. He could still feel the pressure of her hand in his, still hear her footsteps, but couldn't see her, and the hand was limp and cold. The place she occupied was gone, and there was the sound of the animal growling and snapping its jaws, of darkness sucking away light. Laurie was gone. The beast had grabbed her, consuming every part but the hand and the feet that kept running in terror. Far ahead a column of light shone.

A beam of the morning sun touched the floor in the kitchen hallway. He sat up, rubbing his face and squeezing his eyes open and shut.

Two nights ago in West Virginia, he'd slept with a stranger. He'd never done anything like that before. Her name was Helen, and she was on the Red negotiating team. Right away, he was drawn to her, something about the way she watched him while he gave the presentation and her reddish, curled hair. She'd said they were just being conscientious about bringing the two sides together. No strings, only memories. They'd never see each other again, he was sure.

He bought her dinner, and she ate it with unselfconscious gusto and then the rest of his. In the morning, he gave her money, and she didn't seem embarrassed. Her ribs stood out below her thin breasts.

She wanted him to understand some things, she'd said in a fascinating drawl. About being hungry. Her two brothers had joined the state militia. The younger was killed in an airstrike near New Orleans. The older was in a prison camp somewhere in Oregon. Her father had died in last year's flu epidemic, and her mother was starving. It was a typical family situation. It was why they were surrendering.

Since the last war ended two years ago, the Federals—the Blues—had gradually taken back Red territory to the east and the west, sometimes just a farm field or a city block. They rarely used force; the promise of food and clean water was usually enough. That was Ben's job—a negotiator in the Bureau of Peace and Unification. The border was a fluid entity, a fact everyone knew but wouldn't say officially. In some places, the Reds still drew a hard line—south of the old capitol in Washington, the Florida panhandle. They would never give up any part of Texas. But they were running out of money, and except for the real fanatics, the people who lived on the Red side were worn out with poverty and crime. The negotiation sessions—so carefully planned and arranged—often ended in an abrupt acceptance of terms and the handing over of weapons. Respect—that was all people wanted.

But pride kept them going sometimes. Pride was always there—that's what the trainers kept saying. If you treat these people with respect, they'll give you whatever you want. Never talk about the past, never talk about yourself and what you did. They already know. The past is like a running sore on this country.

Helen. There was no way to contact her. Hello My Name Is Helen—that's all he could recall from the nametag stuck to her jacket. Because it was warm and clean, she'd planned to stay in the motel as long as possible, and he'd pulled the door shut on the silent room.

What if a slight pale shape in that bed had become a shade between he and Laurie? A letter shape inserted like a dagger.

 

South of Detroit, all the rust and steel disappeared. Lake breeze and flights of geese freshened the air; reed stalks filled fields, and silvered pools reflected cloud and sun. His eyes were dry. He needed sleep but wanted to keep father and daughter in sight, at least in the periphery. If he did sleep, he was afraid they'd both disappear, and he'd be left alone in the driverless car, plunging spent through air.

He closed his eyes and listened for their voices. "You frighten me, too, Dad," she said. "Both of you do. I need more time alone. I just want to go somewhere new and be by myself. Get a job... no, something where I don't have to think."

Ed rumbled for a while.

"He said that? I know he thinks he loves me. What? Well, it was different with you and Mom. You had Jason and me for one thing. People change faster now than when you and Mom were together. Everything's faster."

"Marriage is sacred." Ed's voice was suddenly clear.

"No, don't start talking like that. I won't listen."

When Ben looked again, they were still there.

A field full of cattails. A farmhouse painted yellow with laundry on a line. Her mother used to do that, dry clothes outside in the wind and sun. Laurie could feel the stiffness of the sheets, the imprint of clothespins on her brother's teeshirts. All around, water filled the fields. The farmhouse appeared to be floating on a baking pan that changed shape in the wind. Her father was talking, but a father's talk was easy to tune-out. It was like water to a swimmer, always all around, familiar, predictable. Ben, she knew, wanted to talk, and his talk would make her head swim. In her stomach there was an uproar of juice and air. She blew her nose.

Seats and headrests broke up the space inside the car—her father's old car he'd kept running with paper clips. She turned to the left and touched his forearm, pressing it a moment for attention. To the side of her vision, Ben watched her, alert like a hound. "Dad, listen," she said, raising her voice. "Dad, I want to say something to Ben, and I just want you to listen, okay? I can't live in Michigan anymore, and I don't want to put my stuff in storage and just drift. But I'm afraid of being with you, afraid it will hurt again. You have to give me time, be patient. I'm closed up for protection. You understand?"

Her voice was a bandage pulled across a wound. Ben let out his breath and nodded. Ed put on the defroster.

 

When he'd woken that morning and sat up, his side ached and his jaw was red and yellow in the bathroom mirror. Laurie had left early because she had work—a temporary job canning fruit. A note said she'd be back by four. She'd taken the money he gave her to buy groceries. Ben got a cup of what passed for coffee and followed banging sounds outside. Ed was at the side of the house working on his car. He squinted at Ben's face and turned away, twisting his mouth.

"Why'd you kick me?" Ben said. "I was already down."

"You could have had a weapon."

"Jesus, Ed. I wouldn't carry a gun around at your house. And I wouldn't shoot you if I did. I don't carry a gun." He glanced at Ed's waistband, knowing there'd be a pistol tucked beneath the shirt. They stared at each other. "Everyone's gotten so used to violence," Ben said to the wind. "It didn't used to be like that."

Ed snorted. "You're too young to remember what it used to be like. Before everything started up."

"Our troubles. I didn't mean to push her."

"I know how it goes. A push turns into a slap."

"It wasn't like that. She's my wife. I want her back."

"She's a grown woman. What does she want?"

"I think she wants to go, but she won't unless you say it's okay."

Ed reached into the engine with a wrench.

"It's safer there," Ben continued. "Safer for her. Ed, you know it's not good here, everybody with guns, the militias. I'm not saying who's right or wrong, just that it's no good for her to be here. She needs to know you'll be okay."

"Me? This is her home," Ed said, straightening up.

"That doesn't change what's going on."

"Maybe that's so. But listen, you're the one who's got to leave. People are going to start noticing you, wondering who you are. It's not safe for you, either."

That night, they'd just started getting dinner ready—Laurie had made real coffee, she'd bought a pound of it, along with pork chops and potatoes—when the old telephone rang.

Ed answered. Laurie was quiet and tense. Ed had turned away, but grunted in response to whomever was on the other end. Then he spoke. "It's nobody's business." He listened for a longer time and finally said, "Okay, I know you're trying to help. I thank you."

"What is it?" Laurie said before he'd hung up. Ed came back to the table with a sour look. "People have noticed you're here," he said to Ben. "Just like I warned you."

"Daddy, what?"

"It was an old friend who's working for the Sherriff now. They were going to come for you tonight Ben, but he's slowed things down. To give us a chance to get away."

"Us?"

"You know how it goes. They'd blame me and Laurie for you being here."

"No, that's not right. You didn't know. I just showed up. I'll tell them. I'll explain."

"They'll murder you. You'll disappear. Like the others on that flight. Everyone's been arrested. You're the only one who got away."

"What?" Ben's mouth hung open. "No—it was supposed to be all approved. There was an agreement."

"Well, it was broken. Agreements get broken. You're a wanted man."

 

Past noon, and Ed was driving. Ben wanted to find some music on the radio, but Laurie slept in the back seat. Ed was talking to himself—at least it looked like he was. His mouth worked, he changed his posture from right to left, and the angle of his hat brim shifted.

Ben saw the odometer click over another mile. He looked away out the right side window where the world was a horizontal blur. "You know you can't carry guns over there," he said. "Not without a permit."

"Well, that's what it's all about, isn't it? Guns, freedom."

"They're going to take them at the border. You have to declare them and hand them over. I think you can get them back if you file the right paperwork."

Ed laughed.

"So when we get there, will you stay?" Ben didn't think Ed would be allowed across the border, that he'd be arrested right away.

"I haven't decided yet. If I could get work..."

"You'd have to do a loyalty oath and swear you weren't in the militias. And they check fingerprints and retina scans."

Ed shook his head. "There's no records. The only way would be if someone recognized me. Or..." He looked at Ben.

"I won't inform on you Ed. I promise. You're Laurie's Dad. I'm surprised though—that you'd leave everything behind."

"The house, you mean? It's not worth much. No, all I have is that girl back there."

Ben twisted around, but Laurie was still asleep. When he twisted back, Ed cleared his throat. "What did you do in the war?"

Ben decided that was fair. In the five years he and Laurie had been together, he'd spent a handful of days with Ed. They knew of each other through her. "I figured Laurie told you. I was regular army, fighting on the Texas front."

"You kill people?"

"Yes."

"And it made you crazy."

"I guess." The air behind the windshield crackled with caffeine and time spent not sleeping.

"That's what she said."

Ben looked away out the right side window again. She was the one who woke up twisting and crying. She'd told him things—about growing up during the first war, the Second Civil War, and then the border war with the Canadians. About her father. "What about you?"

In the periphery, he saw Ed's profile, the big bones of his face, the long straight nose and thin lips as solid as the hat brim. A chill appeared like breath on a mirror. "Didn't make me crazy," he finally said.

Ben watched the odometer click over another mile.

"She's got to be happy," Ed said.

"Okay."

"Whatever happens, if you can't make her happy, let her go."

"Okay."

Another period of silence like motes of dust settling.

"Look," Ben said. "At the border, if you can't get through..."

"Then you take her and keep going."

"I won't let her down. I won't let you down."

Another few miles, and Ed shifted in the driver's seat, keeping his eyes on the road. "I don't think I was a very good father when I was young. Or husband. I didn't know how to do it. Everything was crazy then. When the wars first started. I left them to go and fight. I didn't care about politics—still don't. Having a family was hard for me. I felt trapped. I ran away."

It was the most Ed had ever said to him. Ben realized all along he'd been talking about himself. He knew all about letting women down; he was a space filled with guilt and shame. The things he'd done—the pauses in his speech were because he was trying to forget.

"My son was killed. You knew that, right?"

"Laurie told me. I'm sorry."

"My wife never got over it. It's the one thing I wish I could change. Out of everything."

 

South of Toledo, they merged onto a lane headed east. A mile further, and a state militia checkpoint came up fast on the far side of an overpass. There was no warning, no hand-painted sign, no tail of backed-up traffic. "I'll do the talking," Ed said. "Ben, you be quiet."

Ben looked over his papers. A safe-conduct pass with the Governor's facsimile signature, an affidavit of political neutrality, and his I.D. card from Massachusetts. Along with the date 1620, an image of a Pilgrim was in the background, a reminder of patriotism and heritage—the design had been controversial. Ben's photo was on the right side, address, I.D. number, date of birth, DNA microchip in the upper left side corner, covered by an eagle. Everything was done right, up-to-date. Except for the affidavit, it was all legitimate.

Battered orange traffic cones funneled the two lanes into one, a dump truck blocking the way. A sign indicated papers should be ready, weapons placed in plain sight. They pulled up two car lengths behind a rusted Ford Explorer with Ohio plates. A militiaman wearing a faded blue uniform with a large grease spot on the left pant leg stood at the right rear bumper, his automatic rifle pointed skyward. He raised a palm. "No need to waste gas," Ed said, turning off the engine. "Could be a while."

Ben looked at his papers again, thinking he looked younger in the photo. Executions or detentions were rare now at these checkpoints, but you could never be sure with the militias. Sweat ran inside his clothes, and he touched the gun in his pocket with his fingertips.

Ed was watching him in the mirror. "Lay it on the seat, and keep your hands away from it."

The militiaman opened the passenger's door of the Explorer, and a woman climbed out, scowling, stiff on her legs. The driver's door opened, too, and a white-faced man emerged, waving papers. Another militiaman stepped up, his gun leveled, and the man's hands went up, his head shaking in response to a question. Ben glanced at the pistol on the seat.

"Why'd we have to leave in the middle of the night anyway?" Ed said. He yawned. "You want to drive when we get through this?" he asked Laurie. "I'll stretch out in back." He looked at Ben again. "These boys will want some cash—how much you got?"

"A hundred and ten of Blue, some Red."

"Keep the Blue out of sight because they'll take it all for sure. Give me a hundred of the Red."

The man and woman got back in the Explorer, and the brake lights came on. The dump truck moved aside to let them pass. Then Ed was motioned forward.

The militiaman's uniform was torn, and a spot of tarnish marked the barrel of his AK-47. A Kevlar vest fastened tight below his thick neck and wrap-around sunglasses. Beneath a blue fatigue cap, he smiled. "Morning," he said, his grin pausing on the guns and then on Laurie. "Where you folks going?"

"East," Ed said. "My daughter and her husband live in Boston."

"Boston." A sneer was in the man's voice.

"That's right. I'm driving them back there from Michigan."

"Why you live in Boston?"

"Here," Ed said, offering their papers. "There's something for you."

The militiaman frowned and let the strap take the weight of the gun. He leafed through the documents till the sheaf of money was uncovered. "I'll be back," he said. "Wait here."

"Where does he think we'd go?" Ben said when the man had stepped away. "I can't believe this shit is still going on. These guys are bandits."

"Yeah, that's the way it is," Ed said. "Just say as little as possible."

The militiaman had climbed into the passenger's side of a black pickup with tinted windows. Another militiaman came around Ed's car from the back, the muzzle of his gun pointed down, his hand around the trigger guard. He stopped when he saw Laurie. "Roll down the window," he called.

Ben strained forward, and the gun came up. "Relax," Ed said quietly and then raised his voice. "That window's broken, my friend. It won't go down. Sorry. That's my daughter."

The militiaman opened the passenger door and leaned in, looking all around. "Where you from, girl?"

"Michigan," Laurie said.

"These guys don't look like any fun. You like to have fun? C'mon out."

Ben was shaking. The militiaman touched Laurie's hair; he put his foot on the floorboard, and the car tipped to one side. The air smelled of cigarettes and gasoline. He's not paying attention, Ben thought. I could shoot, probably kill more than one of them. But there's too many; they'd kill me and then Ed, and take Laurie anyway. But I can't just let it happen.

The first militiaman returned and called out something. The man by Laurie straightened and slammed the door shut.

"Okay, we're going to let you go," the first one said, handing back their papers. "I'm telling you though, they're not going to let you in the other side. They'll let you in," he said to Ben. "You're one of them. But you two, no."

"Is that so," Ed said. "I thought..."

The militiaman shook his head. "You need a visa now. Didn't you know that? It's a new rule. If they can prove they're married, they might let her in, but not you."

 

Two miles further and Ed pulled over, saying he had to rest.

"I'll drive," Laurie said, hoping activity might ease the numbness she felt. At the checkpoint, she'd swum free of the Subaru and watched herself ready for rape. Ben and her father were dead on the stained concrete. Giving up and closing off were skills she had.

Ben switched places with Ed. "There's no service here, but keep checking," Ed said, handing over his phone. "See if you can get any information about the border."

"I should have brought our marriage certificate," Ben said after they'd driven a few minutes. "Have you got it? I didn't know—"

"No. It's all right. You didn't know."

"We'll figure out a way across." Ben worked with the phone. "Okay, I'm looking at the government site. It says Federal States citizens are allowed to cross the border with regular ID, as long as there's no record of them being militia members. Nothing about visas. The highway crosses the official border at the Allegheny River. I think we can get there by tonight."

They talked about friends in Boston, and the numbness retreated. She asked him about his job, but he only told her things she knew. What wasn't talked about was a third presence in the car, not the father or father-in-law in the back seat, but the marriage that contained their past together. "Ben—"

"What?"

She snuffled and cleared her throat. "I still need space. I can't go back to how it was before."

"Maybe it would help if you'd forgive me, Laurie. Think of all the good times we had."

She looked in the mirror to see if her father was awake—she couldn't see him, but heard a gentle snoring sound, and reached across to touch Ben's hand.

 

A sign with digital letters mounted on a trailer announced the border was close, another said to have identification ready. Then by a line of trucks, they began to pass small groups of soldiers at the side of the road, staring, curious about their car. The soldiers were unshaven and gaunt, their uniforms dirty, but they had clean rifles.

"Those are regular troops," Ben said. "Not militia."

"I heard they were controlling the borders sometimes," Ed said. "It's good; if the officers are there, we won't get shaken down again."

The road led to a steel bridge across the river. Tanks and cannon were dug in, with all the guns pointed the way they were going. They parked and went to a building surrounded by coils of barbed wire. Inside, men wearing dark blue coveralls with stenciled letters spelling "Sheriff's Department" directed them to a waiting area. Many of the seats had no cushions, but they found three that did.

Ben sat next to Laurie, holding her hand. Her father didn't seem to notice. While he'd slumbered, Ben had talked a lot about things they could do in the city, places Laurie could work. Maybe buy a house—houses were cheap now. Maybe have a baby. She hadn't said much in reply, and he'd gotten mad.

After waiting 85 minutes, the guard called Ben, checked his papers again, and pointed toward a doorway. Inside, a fat man in a uniform with a red armband sat behind a desk in a small, windowless room. He pushed his double chin at a single folding chair and held out his hand for Ben's papers.

"Where you headed?" the guard said.

"Boston," Ben said. He shrugged, not sure how much he was supposed to tell. "That's my home. I came to Michigan to get my wife and my father-in-law and bring them back." He felt defiant. "There's jobs there. And food. People can get their lives back."

The guard stared at him. "As long as you're not Canadian, we don't care." He pushed back the papers and crossed his arms over his stomach. "The others, I don't know. I don't know about them."

When he returned, Laurie and Ed were sitting closer to the door, huddled together and whispering. "It's okay," Laurie said. "It was no big deal. They said we could go." Ed looked at him without expression.

Her father was up to something; she knew him so well. He wouldn't say what had happened with the sheriff's deputies, or what he'd told them. But she was worried he'd be arrested on the other side. They'd find out who he was, the things he'd done. She could hardly believe half of it, but still—if he were taken away, she'd be alone.

Halfway across the bridge, Ben felt the beginnings of relief. He was even glad Ed was there. A family. It was better Ed was coming, no reason for Laurie to want to return. He looked at her in the passenger's seat, her serious profile, straight nose. She'd tied back her hair, and it made her face look bigger. "Okay, remember we'll have to turn in these guns," he called over his shoulder. "I'll tell them right away we have them. They're going to search us."

"Okay, Ben," Ed said.

"I just want you to be prepared."

On the other side, concrete barriers and barbed wire were arrayed around several buildings. A sign proclaimed they were entering the Federal States of America. "Have all identification ready. Firearms unloaded and in view."

He slowed down and withdrew the clip from the gun. In the mirror, he could see Ed doing the same. At the checkpoint, the sun glinted off something bright—lens and scanners were on them. He ejected the shell in the gun and threaded the car through the maze of concrete. "Okay," he said, looking at Laurie.

The guard took their guns and studied their papers, looking up and down to compare their faces with the photographs. He told them where to park and the building they should go to.

In the neat and tidy waiting room, a carafe of hot coffee was available. Music played—an electronic burble of saxophone and keyboard with drumbeat.

Ben was called first. At the inner door, he turned around and smiled at Laurie. "I won't be long," he said. Ed twisted the brim of his hat between fingers and thumbs and didn't look up.

Laurie was called next, and when she returned she found her father sitting where she'd left him. "You haven't been called yet? They said I could go, only I have to report to the local police in Boston. What is it?" A hardness she'd seen before had set on his face.

He looked up at the surveillance camera and told her to sit down. "I'm not going," he said in a low voice. "They'll just arrest me. I told them I was waiting for you."

She was accustomed to abruptness too. And mystery. "But—"

"I had to get Ben back. He wouldn't have left without you."

"What will you do?"

"I'm not going back to Michigan. Florida maybe. They gave me my gun back."

She imagined Ben packing her clothes away. She imagined him moving ahead into a different life. "This was your plan all along, wasn't it? You never were going to stay."

He shrugged. "Honey, I know you're not sure what to do. If you love him, go. He's not so bad. But if not, then..."

Her whole life she'd heard him say things by not speaking. "I can't go with him. It's too late for that. And love—I don't know. Will you help me get to California? We could both start over."

 

The officer wished him good luck, and he returned to the waiting area. Someone had put on a fresh pot of coffee, and the machine wheezed and sucked. But no one was there. He figured Laurie and Ed were being questioned in one of the other rooms. Twenty minutes passed. Thirty. He looked up at the security camera, tried to read a magazine, a National Geographic that only had articles about the Blue States. What was going on? They might have arrested Ed, but where was Laurie? After an hour had gone by, he got up and knocked on the door he'd come out of after his interview. There was no response, and he pounded and called for help, looking up at the camera and raising outstretched hands. He ran outside. Ed's car was gone.

 

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