By Melinda Williams
“They’re going to stop us, too,” Cindy said.
I didn’t want to believe her. But she had been right. The moment was so long ago… so in the past. Yet, I thought of the statement daily. Her words, the ones that really came true. How could I have expected anything else to happen?
It wasn’t too cold or hot. The temperature outside was like the kind a person can’t feel. Body temperature. And yet, each person felt what else was in the air. Unrest. Drought. No movement. The world had gone still and although the air was nice it held within it a danger that did more damage than cold or hot ever had. It wasn’t carrying coolness that would hint of a rushing river nearby. It held no humidity to stick to the skin and cause musty nights on the porch. When I thought of Cindy, she was glowing with sweat from dancing with me. I hadn’t seen her in three years.
The wind only carried with it bits of dirt and a sound that signaled of nothing.
The blank quality of what my family, the Thomas family, breathed in each day quieted us. There were no words important enough to risk getting riled up and feeling more discomfort. There was no daily routine required in order to make a day play out normally. Nothing was as it once had been.
I got up out of my chair. An old wooden rocking chair with a dirty blue cushion. The seat was round but the cushion was a small square, awkwardly placed to fit on the seat. I had often wanted to replace it, and now, looking at where I’d been sitting I frowned. I wished that were something worth thinking of changing now. I wanted to lift the whole rocking chair and smash it against the wall. Hell, it could even splinter up my hand. At least I’d feel something. But I just walked away and opened the screen door with a loud rusty squeak.
I walked along the path which was now filled with only dry and sharp objects. Twigs, branches, small bones, even. No step could go unheard, for no soft ground existed anymore. Feet hitting a soft Earth was only to be remembered, like the nights I would wait outside for her, Cindy and me eventually running into the woods behind her house, setting up a fire, sitting together for hours. Those nights were so long ago, I wondered if the memory was entirely made up…wishful thinking. Softness once soaked up the sounds of the natural shifting nature, but I couldn’t help but notice that the silence I’d once cherished had entirely disappeared.
Each step taken was now a journey for almost no reason. Marbles dropped on the wooden front porch. Jordan, my youngest brother, was content with the sound. I wondered if he knew that a game actually existed. I would turn to look back at the house, but there was no point. I knew what I would see. The dry trees threatening to turn to dust were not something to look at. The cracked blue paint on the window shingles was not how the house used to show itself. There was no longer a dog lying on the porch. Not something I could ever think about again. All this, and the very different memory of just three years before were engrained in my head and I felt no need to revisit them or ponder them further.
I was almost twenty. The oldest son. And the only reason I’d returned home was to somehow attempt to save my family. But I could not.
I was sixteen when the militia began. My father came into my room and we sat in silence, listening to my mother hum in the next room. I already knew what he was about to tell me.
“There’s men forming, getting their arms together. Bobby from a mile down, his dad. You know Jay? He’ll be there. Lots more. I figure we can add two more and we got five rifles between us. I been saving them bullets for years. Finally been proved right, I s’pose.”
I nodded my head. I’d already made the decision to go along with him. I had to. The version of our country that held any hope only existed in the history book from school. I felt cheated. So young, but so aware of what had been taken, the life I could have lived. The love I could have kept. The family I could have raised up.
My dad nodded, too. We shook hands.
“Get your rest,” he said.
Jordan and Polly ran past my doorway, pretending not to look as they did so. Jordan was six, she was eight. Abigail was eleven and Sarah fifteen. What in the world would my mother do without my father and me? I wondered all night.
“I think Todd can handle it.”
“Really? Really, Theodore? What did Jack say?”
“His son is going, too. And Junior’s a year younger than Todd.”
My mother was silent. She sighed. “I can’t imagine him fighting.”
“I hate to say it, Catherine, but I can.”
I heard my parents talking as I stood in the hallway outside their bedroom. Then I heard Buddy, our family Great Dane, scratching at Jordan’s door. I opened it and he ran outside. The giant black dog ran out and back within two minutes. He didn’t want to be outside any more than we did.
I brewed the coffee, knowing the smell would wake my family and that my mother would be grateful for the help. I poured myself a small cup and drank it before I went out back. I hiked into the deepest part of our woods, carrying a jug of water with me. I made my way through the scratchy and thick brush. I made noise, but our nosy neighbors weren’t usually around in the morning. I wasn’t worried.
“There you go,” I whispered. A long time ago it felt silly to talk to our crops. Now it felt more real than any other conversation I had. “Soak it up. Be strong. Hey, little guy, you’re coming up nicely.” I poured the water slowly and diligently, making sure every single drop landed where it should. The plants would survive, should something happen to me. I had to believe that. I sat with them for five minutes. Perhaps they felt my presence? I cut lettuce and pulled garlic before crawling out of hiding and heading back inside.
Just as I suspected, my parents were awake, each with a mug in front of them. Polly sat on my mother’s lap and Jordan was on the rug with Buddy. Abigail and Sarah were always the last to appear.
“How’s it lookin’?”
“Great, dad. I think it’s going well this year. Everything looks healthy. Green popping up where it should. The compost is helping, I think.”
We had seven of everything. Seven plates, spoons, knives, forks, bowls and mason jars. I cleaned the lettuce and divided it up between us. There wasn’t much to go around but no one complained. Soon my entire family was sitting at the table, mostly silent, eating what I’d picked. I used the garlic on a loaf of bread. The smell was incredible. My mother was already brewing more coffee. Breakfast usually felt more like how dinner used to feel. Filling up at the start of the day proved a much better idea than lasting the day starving and going to bed full. I thought the hungriest hours were best spent asleep.
“I wish it didn’t always leave me wanting more,” Sarah said.
“It’s plenty,” my mother responded without sounding harsh. As always, she was firm in what she said, but never without a kind smile. This time the smile was directed at me.
“Thanks for making the bread,” I said to her.
“I helped!” Polly looked proud as can be. “I rolled the dough. Didn’t I?”
“You did,” my mother said.
Jordan, for all his usual chatter, was unusually quiet that day.
My father wiped his mouth with his sleeve and said, “Todd, we’ve got some preparations to make today. Let’s get to it.”
I was about to stand up when a knock came to the door. I watched as my family’s eyes grew wide and all movement stopped. Jordan bit his lower lip and it didn’t take long for his tiny body to tremble. Abigail put her arm around him and squeezed gently. The only people who ever knocked on the door were the police. It had been months since their last visit. The rest of us were somewhat accustomed to their presence, but Jordan couldn’t help but cry whenever he saw them.
Without having to see through the door, we all knew it was the Agricultural Police and Protectors of Earth and Land. APPEAL. The law enforcement that people like my parents had voted against. The soft knock was eerie and menacing and came in such succession that announced immediate attention. My father calmly stood up while each of us stared at his easy movements.
“Everyone stay put until I say otherwise,” he said in a quiet voice. It wasn’t a threat, but a kind command my family recognized as loving and protecting. My father was a gentle man. He cared for us, his kin, above all else.
As he walked toward the door I felt the small pistol I kept on me at all times. It wasn’t noticeable. I prayed I wouldn’t need it. I kept an eye on my father’s back as he stepped further away from us. I wondered what they’d come for. Was it the crops? Had they learned about the plans for our militia? Surely, there was no way they could know about our arms?
He reached the door and opened it. We could hear the muffled voice coming from outside. I saw my father nod his head. Watched as he held his hands up in innocence. Listened as he replied in a calm voice, “I assure you, nothing’s happenin’ here. Nothin’ concernin’ ya’ll.”
Watched as he came back to the table and told us all to stand and follow him.
I stood first, then my mother, then the rest. I led the way, then my father led us all outside. We knew the protocol. Stand in a line. Face the police. Say nothing. Deny everything.
The head police officer, APPEAL leader Barkley H. O’Brien, looked at each of us with a smug smile that matched the ten other officers behind him. Their smirks made my heart pound inside my chest. I could feel the adrenaline in my veins. I couldn’t see how they believed in what they were doing. Yet they acted so sure and confident. I wanted to believe that at least one of them agreed with us. If they did, they had never let on.
“So, the Thomas family. So nice to see you all again.”
“Likewise,” my mother said, because she had to.
“Likewise,” we all muttered after her.
“Anything I should know about now? Before we begin? As you all know, things will go much better if all is on the table before I must go snooping.” He smiled at us again.
“Nothin”s amiss,” I said.
“I told ya Officer O’Brien, nothin’ goin’ on here that concerns police.” My dad took a step toward the officer.
“On behalf of President Grant Hughes I must search. You know what we will allow and what we most certainly will not.”
“Yes, sir,” my dad said, still not taking his step back into line with us.
O’Brien had been around our family enough to know how terrifying he was to Jordan. I knew he noticed the tears that used to fall, and now the little fists that wanted to be strong, but instead shook in his presence. He approached my little brother. Jordan leaned back and set his face into a glare.
“What’s your puppy’s name again? Didn’t you get to name him?”
Jordan breathed out of his nose, his eyes squinting in anger and fear, and said in a small voice, “Buddy.”
“Buddy!” O’Brien called out with a clap of his hands. “Buddy!” When no giant dog appeared O’Brien leaned closer to Jordan and said, “You must be an awful trainer, Jordan. He won’t come to the sound of his name? That’s the easiest thing to train your dog to do.”
“He only comes to voices he knows,” Jordan said. I was hoping he wouldn’t tell O’Brien that fact. I was wishing it with all I had.
“Oh, well, then. That makes this easy. Call him.”
Jordan shook his head. He closed his eyes.
“No!” My mother shouted. Officer O’Brien stood up and calmly place his hand on the pistol at his hip. He feigned a pensive countenance as he unhooked it and held it out toward my little brother. I knew he wouldn’t shoot a child, but all of us watching were ready to save Jordan. Even though any movement from us meant certain death. Tears fell from Jordan’s eyes once he opened them again, only to see a pistol staring him in the face.
“Go on, then,” O’Brien said with that same smile.
Jordan was silent. O’Brien cocked the gun.
“B-Buddy,” Jordan said. I could barely hear him.
Sarah shook beside me. We were all braced for the worst. The moment, the wind, the other officers, all stood still as Jordan was silent for another minute.
“Buddy!” He finally screamed. Buddy ran out from the house and came to sit beside Jordan. I shook my head.
“Such a beautiful dog,” O’Brien said. Bastard.
“Alright,” he said as he stood up in front of us again. “Now that the entire family is present, we shall begin.”
He walked the line of us, looking us each in the eye as he did so. I was confident that just like me, and except for Jordan, no one gave Officer O’Brien the satisfaction of showing emotion.
“Trash,” he said.
I was confused. I thought he was there for other reasons. Our trash hadn’t been an issue before.
“Are you aware of the law? Of the reason we, the APPEAL, might be here?”
“Of course we know that one,” my mother said. “We abide by it.”
I heard Jordan whimper, saw Officer O’Brien’s eyes flash over to him.
“Is that so? Check.” The command was given to the officers standing behind him. Two walked to our trash can. I didn’t know what would happen. We did abide by the law, my mother was entirely correct.
But what happened proved that we did not.
The two officers held up the bin and moved to dump it out onto the ground. Already, I heard the noise. The low thud, the thing that could put my entire family in jail. Before our eyes, the glass jar fell onto the ground and rolled three feet toward us. My mother gasped. My father swore under his breath.
O’Brien took his time in striding over to the glass. He picked it up, tossed it into the air playfully, and caught it. “Throwing out something recyclable? Is that what you call ‘abiding by the law?’”
I broke rank and leaned over to look at each member of my family. I heard Jordan’s sobs before I saw him. Sarah’s eyes were wide while Polly was covering her own and Abigail was frantically looking between my parents and O’Brien. My mother was too stunned to speak.
My father began, “This has gotta be some mistake, now. We know the law. We don’t go throwin’ away the reusable. We know the law!”
Officer O’Brien’s face turned red as he spat, “The more you lie to us, the worse it will be for your family, Theodore.” He threw the glass bottle against a pile of rocks and it shattered. “That’s as good as that bottle would be if it had gone where you sent it.”
“Musta been some mistake…”
I couldn’t stand to hear my father plea with such a man as O’Brien.
“Goddamn hypocrite. Now we can’t use it at all.” O’Brien turned to me. “Stop harassing my family. It was me, okay? I forgot. I slipped back into the old habits. I’ll take my punishment.”
“You heard him,” he said to the other officers. I knew I’d pay for what I called him. As long as the attention was on me and no one else, I could handle it. I’d rather it be that way. Before I knew exactly what was happening three officers were on me. One held onto my hair in his fist, the other was cuffing my wrists while the third held a knife to my neck. As if I would move.
“Now that we’ve taken care of that, let me warn you to never, ever disobey the law again. I’ve heard rumors. Your neighbors so graciously let us know about your latest error. I trust a family like your own isn’t in on any of the other illegal mischief, Theodore.”
“We’re not,” he said.
“And as for you, Todd,” O’Brien said, smiling again, “it’s to jail for nine months for you. But let’s not forget, that like dogs, the sooner a punishment is dealt, the quicker it is to set it.” He nodded and I knew what was coming.
One officer punched me right in the nose. It bled immediately. My mother called out, but I couldn’t register her words as another blow left me on the ground, with what I was sure was a broken rib. I tried to remain silent.
“You think we have enough resources to simply throw away something as precious as glass?”
Another kick to my chest.
“You broke it,” I said through clenched teeth.
“I didn’t purchase that bottle. It wasn’t my responsibility.” He dealt the next blow personally, the back of his gun leaving my cheek with a gash.
“No!!!” Everyone stopped as the voice rang out. I blinked through the blood and saw it was Jordan. He was sobbing, and again yelled. “No!”
“What’s this about, boy?” O’Brien asked him.
“It was me! It was me! I’m sorry! I threw it away! It was me!” His voice sounded smaller than ever. His shrieks were frantic.
“No, don’t!” My mother screamed as O’Brien approached my brother.
“Leave him,” my father warned.
O’Brien laughed. “Is this true, Jordan?” He knelt in front of him.
“Yes,” he sniffed.
O’Brien nodded and stood up. He completely ignored me. I couldn’t get up, but the other officers left me alone.
“As you all know, we hardly punish children. That wouldn’t be kind, now would it? But we do teach lessons. As for Todd’s beating, well, it was completely justified. He lied. And now, I think little Jordan deserves something that may prove to be much, much worse.”
Within an instant, the gun was pointed toward Buddy and a shot rang out, leaving the dog motionless on the ground.
“No!!!” Jordan screamed again, jumping onto his dog, his best friend. The entire family broke out of line and surrounded Buddy and Jordan.
“Let that be a reminder!” O’Brien shouted, leaving us.
A week later, once I could walk comfortably again, I crept away in the night to see Cindy. She lived two miles away. I knew the path, I could have walked it blindfolded. Her room was located on the first floor, therefore no rock was necessary. I simply tapped a specific pattern on her window. I waited a moment and the window opened. Cindy, her hair messy and her body warm from the heat in the air and a few hours of sleep, smiled at me. Then she gasped and covered her mouth. She crept out of the window and stood in front of me.
“So it’s true, then? They beat you up.” She touched my cheek, just above the gash.
“Yeah, but it’s also true they killed Buddy.” Cindy shook her head. She loved Buddy. Her arms wrapped around herself and she bent her head down.
“That’s so… wrong.”
“Jordan is a mess,” I told her.
“You know what’ll happen next, right?” I shook my head. “Oh, come off it, Todd. My own dad was taken away for a month because they found some herbs growing out back. He came back in worse shape than you are in right now.”
“But we can fight back.”
“That’s a joke, too.” I hated the cynical words coming from her. I didn’t want to believe that she was right. “My brother is fired up. It’s all I hear about it. I am just trying to spend time with him, because I know he’ll be dead soon, if he keeps it up.”
“We’ll all be dead if we don’t do anything. They want us powerless. They want us to depend on them for everything. They want us to live on that poison. Then come to them for medical attention that will only prolong the poisoning process.”
“You think I don’t already know that? I’m practically starving myself, thinking it might actually be what saves me. I don’t know. I’m really scared, though.” She covered her face with her hands and I wrapped my arms around her.
“Please don’t go away,” she asked me. “I need you.”
“I need you, too. But Cindy? What good will we be for each other if this doesn’t change? The world was blindly promised change, and it’s only changed for the worse.”
She started to cry.
“We’re leaving in the morning. I wanted to tell you. I’m so sorry. We’re going to camp out, but we’re not allowed to say where.”
“How does one fight against an actual police forced armed with every weapon imaginable? Tell me!” Cindy pushed my chest and stopped crying.
“I don’t know! I don’t. Maybe God’s on our side? Maybe we can be sly enough? Quick enough?”
She shook her head and pointed her finger at me. “You can’t. It won’t work. I might as well say goodbye now.”
Cindy moved to crawl back into her window. I held onto her arm. She let me pull her back.
“Say goodbye to me right,” I whispered. I held her chin and kissed her. Our bodies melted together. We were both frail. She shook.
She touched my neck, my shoulder, and squeezed. “Goodbye, Todd.”
I let her crawl into her window. I walked away.
Three years later, and what I’d seen gave me zero hope. Hope and change, right? I came face to face with Officer O’Brien in what wound up being our most successful militia battle with the APPEAL. He ran away, drove off really, before I could get my hands on him. Ever since, President Hughes has kept him safe. Most of my friends have been killed. My father was taken.
Jordan now plays marbles, trying to forget the past. Polly, the most sensitive of us all, at least physically, spends her days in bed, unable to keep any food in her system. Our hidden crops were never discovered, but there’s hardly enough water for us to drink. My mother couldn’t keep them alive when I was away. None of us spoke much because we were always inside. We would have driven each other crazy if we didn’t at least pretend to be alone. I sometimes wondered if I should have returned home at all.
“The food arrived this morning,” my mother let me know. Our food arrived in plastic packages. It was distributed, cost too much, and was our only option. The plastic could be recycled. The food was unrecognizable. Yes, we had tomatoes. But they all looked exactly the same. Yes, we had pasta. But stomach aches were inevitable after eating it. Unrecognizable. Uneatable, yet we ate it.
I’d been home for a month when I went to see Cindy again. I tapped on her window in the same way. I waited for five minutes before turning around. My adrenaline rushed and my heard sped up when I heard her.
“You’re back.” She was standing out in the yard.
“How was it? Fighting the impossible?”
“It was hell.”
“I’m glad you’ve survived.”
“Me, too. I think.”
“Here, let me show you something.”
She’d been out in the night, which is why she saw me in the yard. She hadn’t been in her room at all. We walked and walked. She held my hand in the darkness. On the way she told me of her older sister who lived in Virginia. She’d had three miscarriages in the last two years. Her brother never came home.
“Here,” Cindy said. She gave my hand a squeeze. We’d hiked farther into the woods than I’d ever been. Most of the walk was done in silence. What I saw before me now made me weep. Tears streamed down and became uncontrollable. I knelt down and held dirt in both hands.
Cindy had rows of crops growing. Heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, garlic, cucumbers and more. She told me that the garden was surrounded by baby apple and pear trees. She’d discovered the place and spent most of her time there. Our militia had done one good thing. It had taken the focus off the houses and the people who had stayed at home. We were a distraction.
“I feel like we’re getting them back,” she said and actually smiled. She knelt down beside me. “They passed those laws under our noses. They distracted people with other ‘worthy’ causes. Well, you and your father, my brother, everyone who went to fight formed the best distraction yet. I’ve been able to live off of this. You couldn’t see it in the darkness, but this area is surrounded by thick trees. It looks like nothing could grow here. It’s perfect.”
“I’ll help you.” I said. And I did.
Cindy, a small, quiet and determined citizen, provided the most hope and change I’d seen in my life.