Near five O'clock, Saturday evening, I stall in my work, eyes drawn to a small assembly of armed soldiers marching enigmatically in my direction. My heart pounds against my chest like a hammer, the sound of it thrums in my ears, filling them with a consistency akin to cotton balls. Machines die down sequentially to a throaty rumble and I stand paralyzed in terror. Why are they here? Who is it this time? Surely not me. I don't think I've committed a crime; though, who's to say there should be a reason for an arrest anymore? Cold sweat beads on my brow; this may be anyone's end, possibly my own. As the men draw closer, I feel my forefinger tighten involuntarily around the trigger of my riveting gun. They are tall and trim, their uniforms a combination of tans and greens, faces void of emotion. They hold heavy, foreboding rifles in their hands, the black instruments themselves practically beckoning for someone to make a move. My teeth grind together so hard it hurts; it feels like my lungs have shrunken to the size of peas. However, all worries vanish when I see they tow behind them a pretty young blonde, probably barely a year or so older than myself. Sick with pity, I watch as the girl struggles against her restraints, dragging her feet, attempting to wrench an arm free, all the while trying desperately to convince her captors of her innocence,
"Please! I've done nothing wrong! You've made a mistake! I was set up!" Her voice rises in pitch with each plea, reaching a note almost too physically painful to bare. "Someone help me! Please!" She's shrieking now, her words jumbling together, creating an animalistic wail for mercy.
Tears brim in my eyes as she begs for liberation. I know, as well as she, help will never come. Not from us. Who is willing to sacrifice their independence, to put their families in danger for an imminently doomed soul? We can do nothing; even just questioning her arrest could put someone in cuffs. Cheeks burning with shame, I avert my gaze, unable to make eye contact with anyone- least of all that poor girl. I stare not at the dented metal surface I stand on, but through it, and through the floor beneath it, and through the earth and it's molten core until I am nowhere. At this moment, we are all the same. Witnesses. No, onlookers. It's like watching a large, muscular man grab hold of a child's ponytail and pull her into a van, then continuing the day as if it never happened. As the soldiers drag her past my work station, my body ices over, acutely aware of their nearness. Every hair stands on end; my breathing hitches and blood pools into my hanging hands, so much that it hurts, but I dare not move. Don't invite attention. Don't provide them with a reason to take you. Hours and paychecks have lost all relevance. The desire to stay alive and free is all consuming. My breath returns to me painfully as they uniformly flee this part of the building. Gradually, tools begin to whir back to life. My own gun I clutch protectively to my stomach, as a toddler would a stuffed animal after waking from a nightmare. Bowing my head momentarily, I shut my eyes and pray, offering thanks for my freedom and mourning for her loss.
Tina pipes up, the steel barrier separating us does little to muffle the annoyance in her voice, "Are you going to sit there all day? Or can we finish up so I can go home and feed my kids?" Her guise of dispassion does not escape my attention.
Sighing shakily, I rub my nose with the sleeve of my shirt, and continue the methodical work of riveting. Converting it into a self-prescribed assignment of therapeutic activity, I punch solid bar after solid bar through the nose of the plane, around the window, and along the cockpit. The kick of the gun ricochets back into my palms, vibrating up my limbs, into my shoulders. Combining the noise of my own gun with approximately seventy others, accompanied by countless roaring machines and shouting people, there is barely enough room left in my head to think. It's difficult to come to grasps with the scene that just occurred. It's not like none of us have never seen such injustice before, we've simply refused to acclimate ourselves to it. An exposed bone still has the same unsettling effect on a person even if one has encountered such an injury ten times before. Usually prisoners weren't so outspoken about arrest, hoping in vain that cooperation would result in the return of their sovereignty. When I think the proverbial wound in my heart might be healing, a troupe of soldiers flies in and rips it right back open. Perhaps they only took her to remind us of their power; in a place as large as this factory they need to flush out all thought of retaliation. We have weapons after all. The only guns allowed in the city are the ones we use to rivet planes and various steel structures. Although I would never say anything aloud, I think we could take them in a fight. Our numbers vastly outshine their own…. Fearfully, I shake the assumption from my head. Rebellion is treason. Treason means prison. Once someone goes in, they usually don't come out. Those that do are scarred for life, both literally and figuratively.
A cough bursts from my chest, scorching my throat and causing my eyes to water. Pausing briefly, I allow the fit to pass. Saliva floods my mouth and I spit; my body shaking from the exertion. Taking my ball cap off, I fan my blood filled face. Tina remains blissfully silent, thoroughly aware of what this could possibly mean. It is not a matter to joke about, many have been taken by the flu- like me, unable to afford the vaccine or the antibiotics required to halt progression of the virus. I try to convince myself it's just the thick, dirty air, and that I'm overreacting because it is not flu season; even still dread lingers in my heart. Minutes later my hands have steadied enough to permit me to continue my work. Perspiration seeps out my pores, journeying down my neck and back, matting my dark hair to my forehead and soaking my thin cotton shirt. The heat in here is practically a tangible thing; only a few large fans run during the day, producing just enough of a breeze to keep the dust and sparks stirring. The air carries a smell equivalent to the weightiness of the suffocating temperature; the aroma of oil, although now less than what it was when I began working here, sickening. I can taste it on my tongue and teeth, feel it churning in my gut. In certain ways, I suppose this is a good thing; it means I'm here, breathing, and working to put food on the table unlike some unfortunate people.
When the bell sounds, indicating the completion of the day, I unplug my gun from the air compressor and wrap the cord around the thick handle. Tina climbs through the window on the copilots side, sliding carefully down the nose of the plane to land on the platform next to me.
The older woman removes her gloves and wipes her hands on a damp rag; I take a furtive glimpse at them to discover bruises and calluses galore. She catches me looking and cocks a brow, daring me to say something; she's never been one for pity. I learned long ago to simply let her dwell in her own suffering. Gingerly, she lowers herself onto her rump and dangles her legs off the dais. I wearily place myself next to her and we share a bottle of water.
I drink slowly and in small sips to avoid an upset stomach.
"Did you know her?" I ask tentatively, eyes misting over with the memory of today's earlier event. That could have been me, or Tina. That girl probably didn't even do anything to deserve such treatment. There might have been a surprise inspection today; if she was hiding contraband in her locker and they found it the punishment could range from slight to severe depending on the illegal goods. Or, like many, could have let it slip that her family was hoarding food, or medicine. Another possibility? She could have been caught with a weapon and turned in for a reward by someone she trusted just a little too well. Making mountains out of molehills, that's what my dad calls it.
"Didn't know her name." Tina swishes water in her mouth and spits, wiping the back of her hand across her chin, "Knew the face, though."
Grimacing, I commence massaging my temples, "I hope she's okay. It must have been terrifying." Feeling horrible, I close my eyes and bow my head, "I can't believe that happened again." And I can't believe I just stood by and did nothing, I add silently. But, that's how it works every time. Purposefully, I'm only close to a few of my co-workers. This way, the odds of heart break are reduced exponentially and I'm less inclined to do something stupid if a friend is taken into custody.
Tina grunts, "I hadn't expected them to pluck for at least another couple weeks. What with taking Henrietta and all only six days ago. They sure are cracking down. Wonder what has them so riled up?"
Plucking- the universal term for unexpectedly arresting without cause.
Rolling my shoulders, I watch detachedly as women move beneath our station, shutting down their machines and cleaning up around their work areas. As riveters, Tina and I typically conclude our day by locking away the gun and bucking bar and closing up the toolbox, but today we'll hang around for the next half hour or so- waiting to collect our pay. The thought of money puts a smile on my grimy face. Tomorrow I would go grocery shopping with my mom. It's been so long since I've been to the market that I've nearly forgotten the smell of freshly baked bread and roasting meats. Mama says that when I was younger, just a baby, there were large indoor stores where you could buy everything you needed in one trip; claiming it was hassle free and much faster. Regardless, I like the outdoor shopping and the vendors serve my purposes well enough. There's something wholly satisfying about filling empty cabinets. Knowing all my hard work is about to pay off makes me dizzy with anticipation. At home we've been scouring the house for change, digging into every nook and cranny to find enough money to buy a bag of sugar for sweet tea or a package of noodles for dinner. I can't imagine there is a place in that house that hasn't been violated by our prying eyes and groping hands. Next we'll be pulling up the carpet. Our favorites are silver coins. Mama hates using pennies; she says they make us look dirt poor. At a time, I suppose the feeling was mutual between us, but I've grown to accept them. Years of humiliation can humble a person in remarkable ways.
I just pray no unforeseen bills pop up- they seem to have a way of making an appearance when we finally find ourselves in a good spot after traveling a long, bumpy road. Aaron gets paid today also; although, it's not much seeing how young he is. He's fourteen and gets about $100 every two weeks. He's a day janitor at Ben's Well. Really, it's not a 'well' at all, just a simple bar on 61st. And the owner is our uncle, he goes by Nathan. The name of the place never made sense to me.
Tina jabs her elbow into my side, effectively pulling me back into reality, "Did you hear me?"
"What? No." I rub my aching ribs and watch her warily.
"I said, what do you think you would have done if it had been me?"
The question shocks me, and her nonchalance about the subject frightens me further, "I don't know." Didn't she realize where questions like that lead to? "And I don't think you should be asking stuff like that. It's not safe."
Her brows narrow dangerously, "Is that a threat?" I cringe, "Of course not! You know me better than that. It's just, if someone were listening, we'd be in trouble." Hastily, I look away, searching for uninvited attention and itching to turn the conversation in another direction.
She scoffs, "No one's listening. And what if they were? We aren't doing anything illegal. Is talking against the law now?"
I shake my head from side to side, "But, what you're thinking is."
She puts a fist on her hip, "And just what am I thinking, Miss Vera?"
A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth, "With that brain of yours, can't be anything short of dangerous."
She shoves me lightly, chuckling. Her mirth slips away as stares off into a space neither here nor there, "You know what I would have done if it were you, Vera?" She takes on a motherly tone, "I would have…." The sentence drops off and she hangs her head, "I would have done nothing."
Somehow, this confession disappoints me. Gulping, I blink my eyes uncomfortably, "It's okay. You have a family to take care of. Henry and Paul, and Becca."
Tina's fists clench, "Don't you see? That's the problem. We're all to selfish too sacrifice ourselves; too afraid. It's because of people like me- nothing will ever change."
My heart sinks, "Please, don't say that." I pat her hand awkwardly, "Things'll get better, you'll see."
She jerks away from my touch and pulls herself to her feet, towering above me, bracing her lean frame on the railing, contemplating. Finally she asks, "So, what would you have done, Vera? If it had been me?"
I breath through my mouth, and try to search, deep in my soul for a truthful answer. What I find is uncertainty. "I don't know, Tina. I hope the right thing."
She looks down at me, red hair falling around her face in dampened waves, "You've got your head on straight, girl, I'll give you that."
My brows shoot up in surprise, "Was that a compliment?"
"Don't push your luck!" She offers me a hand, and I take it, climbing to my feet, head swimming with dizziness. "Let's get this crap put away and get out money."
After scouring the area for any discarded solid bars, we lock the gun and bucking bar in the tool box and shut down the air compressor. Then, we make our way down to the ground floor and start towards the front of the building. Dust swirls in the air and sunlight shifts through the dirty windows. There is a contagious sense of excitement about the place; women and men shuffle past us, eager to collect their dues. There is shouting and laughter, and I'm struck with sadness when I realize how blatantly uncaring people are about the fact that one of our own was plucked. Where's the sense of unity and self-respect?
"Hey girls!" A long legged, raven haired boy comes running, or perhaps frolicking up to us, nearly choking the life out of me as his strong arms wrap around my middle. Derrick D. Nolan pulls Tina in too and she all but bites his ear off,
"Let go of me moron!"
He laughs, but releases us simultaneously, keeping heavy hands on our shoulders, "I heard about what happened today. Someone said it was a girl, about 20 or so. I thought, 'Well, that could be either of you'. I was so unfocused, I almost crushed one of my digits in the lapping room." He holds up, and quite proudly I might add, a very bruised and swollen pinky.
"To bad it wasn't your mouth that got hurt." Tina snaps viciously, "Maybe it wouldn't be running so hard."
He laughs at her ruefully, his dimples deepening as he shakes a finger in her face, "Don't lie to yourself. Who else would have the cojones toshower you with compliments?"
She leans backward, "Get that out of my face before I break it off and make you eat it."
Laughing he puts an arm around either of us and steers our trio toward the exit, cutting through throngs of people and machinery in our path "So, did you know her?" The question is quipped and short, probably in hopes of inflicting as little pain as possible.
I shake my head, "No. She was very pretty though. Blonde hair, kind of a heart shaped face, tall. Sound familiar?"
He squints his eyes in concentration, "Yes. Yes- I- I think I knew her!"
Sadness blooms in my chest, "Really?"
"Yeah," He smiles, "Sounds about like fifty girls I know!"
Angrily, Tina smacks him hard over the head, "It's not funny you Neanderthal," instantly chilling the atmosphere.
His features tighten and he cradles the back of his skull, "I know. Sorry."
Frowning, I kick a bent nail at the toe of my boot, watching with disinterest as it rolls away, disappearing beneath dozens of feet.
"So, I'm taking bets!" Derrick claps his hands together, already recovered from his daily whooping, "How much do you guys think we going to get docked today?"
"Docked?" Tina snorts, "Call it what it is- stealing."
"Tina!" My voice comes out a bit shrill, "Don't be so loud!"
"You're the one yelling idiot!"
Narrowing my brows, I cast a glance over my shoulder and catch two girls about my age staring. Absently, I scratch my collar bone and nearly trip over myself in my apprehensive state. We come to the doors and squeeze into the crowd of workers, spilling out onto the stained pavement. I can feel the heat of the day rising off the road and picture the rubber soles of my boots melting beneath my feet. I take in a deep breath; the scent of oil and dirt lingers, but it does not have such a strong bite out here. The sunlight is scarce, obscured by ominous cumulus clouds tinged a threatening gray. Across the street there are six tables set up beneath large canopies, each occupied by someone in a stark white shirt with a black cap atop their head. Armed guards stand watch, two to a table, their large assault rifles resting dangerously in their arms. Swallowing, I lag at the rear and step in line behind Tina and Derrick; while eager to collect my pay, I am equally frightened by the possibility of mass execution. About ten years ago, when the economy was still struggling, this very factory experienced a tragedy unlike any other in the entire county. It's rumored that a man flipped one of the tables over after being informed he was to receive less than a quarter of his promised total pay after weeks worth of back breaking manual labor. He was then arrested, the first domino. A riot ensued. Over three hundred people were shot and killed- I'm not exactly thrilled to take part in a replay.
Chin down, I scoot forward a few inches every couple minutes or so. Already, the line is about fifty people long. I feel breath on the back of my neck; someone standing too close. I hunch my shoulders and pull up the collar of my shirt to hinder the nasty sensation it builds on my skin. Derrick stands in front of me, rocking on his heels, filling his red cheeks with air and letting it out with greatly exaggerated exhales. Tina glares at him over her shoulder, her expression grave, "Quit."
He crosses his arms over his chest and tries to appear cool; nonetheless, he has ceased his annoying coping method. I lean forward and stand on my tip toes, putting my mouth next to his ear, "10 bucks says we get exactly what we're supposed to."
He swings his head around and I jerk away to avoid a collision, "You're on. I say we're docked between 100 and 130."
I decide his guess is wrong, but fair. More money for me.
"Watcha gonna spend your dough on, honey?"
I smile delightedly, "Groceries, bunny."
Derrick grins, his dark eyes dancing with mischief, "Look at us. Rhyming each others sentences. Is this a sign? Something from God? Should we go out?" He sighs and moves his hand in an arch in front of him, appearing rather whimsical, "I can see our wedding now."
I laugh, "Oh, yes. In the factory. The women's locker room, because it's so much cleaner than the men's."
He raises a brow, "How would you know that? Oh, yeah, I forgot. Our first kiss. You couldn't keep your hands off of me, you could barely control yourself."
My teeth click together, "Is that so?"
He nods, "Don't you remember? You were like a wild animal. Tried to rip my clothes off. I still have the scratch marks on my back."
I wrinkle my nose in distaste, "Sounds like you've thought this through."
He shrugs, "Gotta happen somewhere, right?" He taps his temple with a slender index finger, "You don't want to know what happens next."
Laughing, I shake my head, "I think you're right abut that."
It's been three years since I first met Derrick, when he was appointed my mentor during training. I swear I taught myself everything he was supposed to. He was too busy flirting his fat head off to actually teach. But, he's like that with everyone. A lot of butt smacking and smooching lips and meaning none of it. While he's handsome, I'd be afraid to be his girlfriend. He'd more than likely send me into a jealous rage he's so flirtatious with anything on two legs.
"How's your dad?" Tina's voice adopts a disapproving tone, "He still working with that leg of his?"
"No, they let him go about three weeks ago." I squint my eyes at her, "Didn't I tell you that?"
She shrugs, "Might have. Sometimes I can't hear myself think for all the damn noise in that place."
Dad was wounded during a tour of duty in Afghanistan, way before I was born. Mama said he was blown clear out of some type of military vehicle. He suffered major burns along the lower half of his body and his left leg was torn to shreds. He was assured he'd be given an artificial leg but was later denied his benefits; a friend of ours who's a metal worker made him a decent synthetic one, even still it looks painful to wear, putting pressure on all the wrong places. Dad doesn't tell us any war stories or talk about it his past, mom is the only person he's confided in and what he shared with her was only a snippet of what he experienced. I don't imagine it's because it hurts, he just doesn't appreciate the look of pity people get in their eyes. He declares he's done nothing to deserve such a handling. Sometimes, I think he wishes he'd just died right then in that truck, with all of his buddies.
Derrick runs a hand through his messy hair, "My brother saw him the other day, said he's still acting like he's sore. Isn't he taking the meds?"
I shake my head and promptly recall the day mama brought the pain killers home. I don't remember the medical term for them, all I recollect is that they took my mom's entire paycheck and half of my own. Dad was livid. He stormed back to the bathroom and flushed the pills down the toilet while mama clawed at his arm, begging him to stop. My parents screamed at each other all night; him claiming that he didn't need them, that we couldn't afford drugs, that he wasn't that weak, and her insisting they would have made him feel good enough to work again. Aaron and I just sat on the porch in the backyard, talking about dad's ridiculous behavior and how ignorant mama was for purchasing the medication in the first place. She knew better. No one tried to make that man feel helpless or like a burden.
By now, there are hundreds of people outside, everyone practically drooling for their money. There are a few tussles over line cutting, but that's it. Mostly people are standing around conversing, using their best manners- anything else could mean death. I try to get a glimpse of the individuals up front, attempt to decipher their expressions and body language. I can't tell whether it's good or bad. Tina twists around,
"I'm saying fifty bucks. What's the pot?"
Derrick smiles, "Weiner gets twenty."
She rolls her eyes as he laughs at his own juvenile humor and I try to hide my grin from her. Pulling my bottom lip in between my teeth, I watch, alert, as soldiers direct people out of the surrounding fence. No one is allowed to turn back after they receive their money, it's a process that keeps us from inciting negativity in our peers.
Finally, Tina reaches the table. I can't make out what's being said, but judging from the way her shoulders sag, it's not good. My heart begins to skip beats as I move one step closer to my paycheck. Biting my thumbnail, I scrutinize Tina's back as she's ushered through the tall chain link gate topped with barbed wire. I try to judge the actual strength of the enclosure and come to the conclusion that it would work better if it had a electric barrier. I drop my gaze and accidentally lock eyes with a soldier. Mid twenties by the look of him. My breath becomes a little shallow and my muscles coil beneath my skin, but he merely offers a small, seemingly kind smile. His eyes crinkle at the outer corners. Such a harmless face. Then my observation drops again, to his rifle, and I remember the power he holds over me. The man could probably shoot me for no reason and only get a slap on the wrist for it. Without risking another eye lock, I shuffle forward as Derrick moves away from the table. We're all required to stay behind a line about five feet away from the employee receiving pay, so as not to overwhelm the clerks. A bit unsteadily, I walk towards the table to come face to face with a very fat, sweaty man. Cigarette smoke curls in the air as he takes a wad of fifties from a large metal box, moving his sticky lips while he wordlessly counts the bills. I inattentively follow the decent of a large bead of sweat down his face which eventually falls into his shirt,
"There, four forty five." Food. It's the first word that comes to my mind. We can finally have a decent meal tomorrow. The second realization is the fact that I got $55 less than the promised amount. However, it's been worse.
"Thank you." Carefully, I pull the bills away from his greasy, baby carrot-like fingers.
Pocketing the money I step hastily away from the fat man, and catch Derrick and Tina waiting for me outside the fence. I almost smile when I see him pass her a ten dollar bill. She'll have to wait until I get change.
Suddenly, there is a pressure on my elbow, and I look down to see fingers resting lightly on my rolled up sleeve. I follow the length of the arm up to the man's face. My stomach does a back flip. The guard smiles sadly, his soft brown eyes crinkling again, "Be safe going home."
I jerk my arm away from his touch, abruptly burned by the contact, and defensively wrap my other hand around my bicep. My heart clenches when his previously charming countenance twists into one of hurt, but my guilt trip lasts only a moment.
I mumble a 'Thanks' and stride forward none too steadily, trying to catch my breath and rub away the scorching fire in my limb. Doesn't he realize he almost gave me a heart attack? Soldiers hardly ever touch citizens unless it's to make an arrest. What was wrong with him? Wasn't physical contact with civilians against their rules anyway? What was he trying to prove?
Shakily, I shamble up to Derrick whose features are distorted with actual concern, "What did he want?"
I loop my arms through his and Tina's and pull us away from the place, "Nothing, just told me to be safe going home."
They're both quiet for a minute, then Derrick puffs up his chest and gets this mean look on his face, "I can't believe another man hit on my woman!" He looks down at me, stating matter-of-factly, 'I'd go back there and beat his butt if I weren't such a pussy.'
Disgust knots my intestine, "Please, don't say that. Besides, he was only being polite." If he thinks saying one of them has the hots for me is flattering- it's not. It's nearly as scary as if a sexual predator had a crush on me. A shudder grips my body and a cough sputters to life in my chest. I hack for a couple minutes, bent at the waist and clutching a hand over my mouth. Tina pats my back, "It's all that dirt. Got some in your lungs." I'm left breathless by the time I'm done. Derrick provides me with a bottle of water; after a few large swigs I try to give it back but he refuses my offer,
"Nah, you can keep it." Tina shoots him a dirty look, but I tuck the bottle under my arm and let his suspicion go over my head. I'm so shaken up by the incident with the guard that it hardly sours my mood further. I'm too anxious to look back, but a part of me knows he is watching.
The road is cracked, the painted lines faded from two decades of neglect; an occasional minivan or rundown truck sinks into the pavement like a lonely grave marker, though most automobiles were salvaged for metal and fabric material. Climbing vines have sprouted through the crumbling concrete and caged skeletal structures in a tangled embrace. While our world virtually ended twenty years ago, mother nature seemed to flourish. I can't say that I really blame her for taking advantage of the situation.
We walk fifteen blocks before Tina is the first to depart, dreading that she has to cook dinner. She salutes us a goodbye and asks me to tell my dad to go easy for her, which is a task I agree but can not commit to. It would only rile him up; he feels humiliated enough about everyone in our family working except for him. As we travel farther into the outskirts of the city the houses become less densely packed and more sparse. The lawns develop into bright and colorful gardens, providing the air a light purity. The sky is darkening an inky purple, and when I let a complaint slip about my feet aching Derrick demands I take a piggyback ride. I agree on the condition that I buy him a coffee.
We go out of our way to meet Aaron sitting on the curb just outside of Ben's Well. The wooden building sags tiredly, and seems to hint at toppling down. It squats beneath a very old set of railroad tracks set up on a rusted steel bridge; far enough away from the city that it isn't crowded, but close enough to some neighborhoods that it's never empty. My brother's blonde hair shimmers in the glow escaping the saloon windows, reflecting light sharply if he moves his head even the slightest bit. When we were younger we deduced that because it was the color of gold, it was worth something; needless to say, Aaron felt obligated to chop it all off and take it to our parents so we could pay the electric bill. I miss being children, the world was a simpler place then.
"Hey!" Derrick waves crazily as I untwine my arms from around his neck and slide off his back.
Aaron pushes himself up off the sidewalk, shoving a deteriorating book into his backpack and threading his arms through the straps., "Hey guys." Dark circles stain the honey toned skin beneath his blue eyes. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and yawns.
I greet him warmly, winding my arms around his middle in a crushing hug. He smells faintly of disinfectant products and lemon soap.
"How much did you end up with?" He sounds like he's been gargling rocks.
"Four hundred forty five." I lean back to get a look at his face, "Are you alright?"
He lifts his shoulders dismally, "Uncle Nate gave me 125."
I grin, "That's good. Why do you look so down?" We start into the dark, Derrick on the left side of Aaron and me on the right.
He rubs the back of his neck, "Nothing, just tired."
Derrick laughs, "Hitting the books again?"
Aaron is an avid reader, he'll lock himself away in a book for hours; preferably biographies and the boy is unreasonably snappy if interrupted.
He smiles a little sheepishly, "Yeah."
I feel my mouth quirk with disbelief, something tells me he's lying. Not about reading last night, but about why he's so… beat. In any case, I decide not to pester him over the issue.
I study my brother from the corner of my eye, "We're going to get coffee, and maybe some cinnamon rolls. Wanna join us?"
Aaron smirks and regards me with a bemused expression, "You hate coffee."
"Yeah, but I love cinnamon rolls and Derrick likes coffee, so it works."
His brows knit together, "I don't know, I'd feel kinda bad. Dad and mama probably want us home."
Derrick groans exasperatedly, "Bro! All either of you do is work and stay at home! Don't feel bad about spending five bucks of your money on yourself!" I toss him a look of warning over Aaron's head, and he holds up his hands in defense, "I'm just saying!"
I cock a brow at him and return my attention to my brother, "Come on. Please? Just this once?" I lay my head on his shoulder, pouting, "I won't go if you wont."
"And I'll look like a pathetic loser with no friends if I'm alone," Derrick adds.
Aaron contemplates the matter only seconds before he agrees, "I could use the caffeine anyway."
We go down 61st two blocks, hiking across abandoned parking lots and under large overpasses, Derrick chasing off an occasional flock of roosting pigeons. The sky becomes dusted with stars and a red quarter moon hides partially behind thick, scattered clouds. A chill percolates through my clothes, coaxing goose bumps to rise along my skin; a fine example of Midwestern United States weather. One minute you're drenched in sweat, the next your teeth are chattering. At last, a well managed diner comes into sight. The flashing neon sign atop the roof reads, The Two Sisters, effectively summoning customers. A door bell rings out in warning when we step into the foyer, the place is half full of people who just got off work or who are getting ready to start nightshifts. The scent of cooking grease wafts through the air, strangely appealing to me. The walls are painted canary yellow and garnished with ugly pop art, the polished floor is tiled a black and white checkered pattern. I never did like this place very much. The service was, to put it politely, unpleasant and the food could be better, but I was too worn out to walk any farther, and I don't think I was alone in that respect. An apron clad guy a few years older than Derrick, but a full head shorter and with pimpled skin, greets us dully, "Table for three?"
I confirm his assumption with a friendly nod and he leads us to a booth at the front of the restaurant, tossing a stack of crumpled menus on the black tabletop. Aaron scoots in first, close to the window, and I sit beside him, across from Derrick, the leather seat whining beneath my weight. Chewing on my lip, I study the menu. The options are sorely limited: various thin soups, fish, wild goose, rolls of tasteless bread. Any decent meal costs a fortune, and the portions are absurdly diminutive. At the bottom of the list is a small section for desserts; it's there I find my cinnamon roll, between homemade ice cream and zucchini bread.
"Name is Jeffrey, and I'll be serving you this evening. Know what you want to drink?" He balances a yellowed writing pad on his fingers and clicks a pen in his hand, his blue eyes lackluster.
"I'll take a coffee, black." Derrick stretches backward and yawns loudly, as if to justify his need for caffeine.
A mental debate takes place in my head as I try to decide between a vanilla cappuccino and a hot chocolate, "I'll just have a sweet iced tea." Not at all what I came for, but pressure has a negative effect on me- I tend to settle rather than take risks.
He jots that down and looks expectantly at a mentally distant Aaron. Derrick reaches across the table and waves a hand in front of my sibling's face, "Earth to Aaron." He nearly jumps out of his skin he's so lost in thought. His pale eyes flicker to me, and then to the waiter,
"I'll have what ever they said."
The waiter's jawbone jerks in impatience, "They asked for two different things."
"Oh, well, I'll have a coffee, three sugars."
He writes down Aaron's order while retorting that we can help ourselves to the condiments on the table. I want to stick my leg out and trip the jerk as he passes me. No tip for you, I think bitterly. We're all in a sore situation, but not everyone uses it as an excuse to take it out on those around them. I detest whiners; you did the best with what you had, and didn't complain about the results- a lesson my dad taught me.
I turn to Derrick who's smiling like a hyena, "What?"
He chuckles, "You should see your face. You look like a mad Squaw Indian or something."
I hardly acknowledge his observation. When I confront Aaron about his detachment from the real world he just rubs at his brow and lays his head on the table, burying his nose in the crook of his elbow. When was the last time he had deliberately ignored me? And in the company of a friend at that. Tonight I'm asking him what has him acting so out of character, I don't care if it ruffles his feathers.
"So, anything fascinating happen at work today?" Aaron's voice is muffled by his arm; I have to ask him to repeat the question twice.
"Oh, well… a girl got plucked," The memory comes crashing down on me like a tidal wave, making my gut clench with sadness. I peek at Derrick beneath my lashes and feel an invisible connection spark between us.
This seizes his interest; he rests his chin in his hand and considers the subject, "What did she do?"
I leave it up to Derrick to do the recap; simply thinking about it shames me to my wits end. Talking about it would make me want crawl into a hole.
"No one knows. One guy told me she was a revolutionary. Said there was an inspection today and that she had some letters in her locker pertaining information to, well, you know- rebel stuff. Said that he heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend."
Aaron's lips pucker thoughtfully, "Do you believe it?"
Derrick lifts a broad shoulder and lets in fall in one motion, "I don't know. People said she was hollering that she was innocent. I don't see why they would take her if she hadn't done something to provoke them."
I suddenly become irritated with my best friend, "I was there, Derrick. You didn't hear her screaming. It was so… raw," My eyes bore holes into his, "You could hear it in the way she begged." I let my body relax into the seat, a 100 year old weariness gripping me unexpectedly as the scene plays like a movie in my head. My voice drops to a shaky whisper, "She'd done nothing. I'd swear to it." I almost don't realize the gravity of my statement.
He leans away, palms facing me, "Okay! I get it, she was innocent. I just don't understand how they, you know, pick. It seems logical that they would have cause."
"They shouldn't be picking at all." Aaron says the words lowly, his voice a deep murmur, "We've done everything they've asked of us. They've taken our farm equipment, vehicles, and firearms; raided our medicine cabinets and food pantries. Not to mention they search our houses on whims. They regulate all areas of production, imports and exports, and taxes. Anyone under the age of 16 has a ten O' clock curfew, everyone else has a twelve O' clock- unless you have a night shift somewhere, and even then your supposed to have an evening pass on you at all times under threat of arrest. They don't offer charges or let anyone attend trials. It's crushing to think that's not even half of what they've done. What more do they want?"
We quiet when Jeffrey brings us our drinks on a plastic tray, setting the beverages before us according to order. He glares at us with thinly disguised contempt, "Do you want something to eat?"
I resolve to be the bigger person and maintain a pleasant demeanor. "Three cinnamon rolls, icing included, please."
His shoulders slump in defeat and he drags himself away, obviously aggravated that we're making his job that much more strenuous.
I'm suddenly struck by my thirst and nearly down half my tea before Derrick begins to speak again, the sweet drink cooling my throat and resting satisfyingly in my belly.
"You know what really scares me?" Aaron shakes his head, biding him to continue, "It's not what they've done, but what they can do."
I suppress an eye roll, knowing exactly what he means "They're not going to turn us into slaves, Der. That's propaganda. Dangerous propaganda. We may be under Martial Law, but we're still Americans." I push around the ice in my cup with a straw, already fatigued by the subject.
Aaron snorts, "It wouldn't surprise me if they issued the order. Where do you think prisoners go? They take so many," He nudges me, "and even if it was just from your workplace, they'd be drowning in 'criminals'. The population of the inmates would be overwhelming; they've got to go somewhere."
One of the more popular topics of discussion these days is the treatment and discarding of prisoners. No one knows where they're sent, and I don't know of anyone willing to try and find answers.
"How many times have we had this conversation?" I want to laugh I'm so frustrated, "Nothing we say can change anything. I don't know why people bother talking about it. No use in crying over spilled milk, right?"
Aaron chokes on his coffee, sputtering with anger, his eye afire, "Did you seriously just say that? You think our situation can be realistically compared to spilling a glass of milk?"
I flinch inwardly at his accusing manner, "You know what I mean Aaron. Look at us!" I throw my hands out, indicating our party, "We're like a few old men complaining about nowadays. Be honest with yourself, talking like that will only bring trouble to your door, and by the way- you share that same door with three other people."
His features fall, "I know. You're right," In a final fit of rebellion he tacks on, "I guess we should just accept that we're dogs."
Derrick laughs and bobs his head, "Hell yeah bro! Bein' drug to the vet by our owners to get our nuts chopped off." I grin at him, appreciating his humor. "And by vet I mean the government, and by owners I mean any grunt with a gun."
I smell the cinnamon rolls before they arrive at our table. When Jeff hands us our plates, we dive into the delicacies wholeheartedly. I peel off an outer, fluffy golden layer and steam rises, the heady aroma bordering on intoxicating. Though I scarcely pay attention, it's clear to me Derrick has wolfed his down in seconds, shortly followed by Aaron. I want to eat the entire thing in one bite, but a responsibility to the demands of etiquette forces me to consume the treat in small quantities. So, I relish in the sugary goodness of the roll, chewing methodically, half listening to Aaron's and Derrick's continuation on the prognosis of our country. The sticky icing drips down my fingers; I try to scrape it up with the edge of my teeth before it descends too far down my arm.
"What would you suggest Aaron? Obviously the way things were running before didn't work out too well. I'm not saying I agree with everything going on now, but look on the brighter side- most of us have jobs."
"That's because there's no such thing as workers rights. We cost our employers nothing; their businesses are 100 percent profitable. We don't get benefits and we're pathetically underpaid. If we suffer injuries working with faulty equipment it's our own problem. I may sound demanding, but I want a career, not one of these so called jobs."
"But you still can't deny the fact that the majority of the population is employed. And what about criminal activity? All forms of crime have virtually disappeared. I mean, when was the last time you heard about a murder? Or a robbery? Isn't that a good thing?"
My brother slumps back, "Petty theft happens all the time in the western part of the city. As do milder crimes such as drug dealing and prostitution."
"Yeah, point being 'petty theft' and 'mild crimes'."
That doesn't make up for anything. I want to say that there are no crimes because nobody is allowed the chance attempt one in the first place, none of us have freewill; instead I screw my lips shut and pick at the last piece of my snack. Constitutional rights were revoked when the now deceased vice president Clifford declared Martial Law in the U.S. after The Week of Insurrection, a series of organized offences involving nationwide violent riots, hundreds of terrorist attacks, and the assassinations of important government officials including the president himself. Of course, the current state of affairs could have been avoided if not for the 600 trillion dollar debt our country was in, a factor from which all social unrest stemmed.
I'm so lost in thought that when Derrick's mentally identical twin brother throws himself against the window outside, I actually shriek a cuss word. He has his left cheek smashed against the glass and he's pursing his lips like a fish, I see a figure pinning him from behind.
Horrified, I spring to my feet, my waist knocking painfully against the hard edge of the table, "Brandon?!"
The teenager's gaping mouth breaks into a large grin and he sticks his tongue out at us, "Haha! Gotcha suckers!"
He takes off his shirt and twirls in circles, whooping like an idiot. I look up at the ceiling, silently questioning why God made such a stupid sack of testosterone, and then watch as the moron leads his companion to the entrance of the diner. They tear into the restaurant and fly to our table, panting like animals. Brandon leaps into Derrick's lap, making kissing sounds and laughing hysterically as his much larger sibling pushes him away. He regards me with a sly expression, his black eyes shining with a familiar merriment, "Sorry for scaring you." He rubs his hands down his chest, "I hadn't realized you cared so much about me, but I shouldn't be surprised. I have that affect on a lot of people."
A flush tickles my neck, subsequently my embarrassment quickly morphs into fury, "It's not funny you oaf. I've seen one too many arrests today; watching you fain something so extreme about scared the piss out of me. Making a prank out of plucking is the same as making a joke about the Holocaust, no matter how you do it, you're not getting a laugh out of me."
Brandon frowns, "I didn't know," referring to the plucking and completely disregarding the latter part of my chastising. He situates himself, putting his arm along the top of the seat, his sharp features hardening some, "Actually, Derrick told me you guys might be here, and we've got some big news." He thrusts a thumb at his blonde friend, "This is Hunter, he works the postal root."
Hunter is tall and lean, not broad like the Nolan boys, and looks to be about sixteen, with green eyes contrasting harshly against tanned skin. He shakes hands with us, his fingers long and cool in my own grasp. "Nice to meet you guys."
I slide in closer to my brother to make room for the visitor, but he declines the space, "Don't worry about it. I've got to get out of here soon anyway."
"Are you sure?" The teen nods and tosses his head, throwing messy bangs out of his eyes. I maneuver back into my original seat and fold my arms on the table, eyeing Brandon inhospitably, "So, what's this about?"
His mouth quirks, "Tell them Hunter."
The young man places both hands on the table and leans in, obviously ready to spill a precious morsel of news, "The state capitol has been overrun by rebels."