The light shone through the tattered and dirty curtains in my window directly onto my face. I rubbed my eyes, trying to get into focus so I could look over at my wind up watch to see the time. I rolled over, pulling the flimsy blanket with me up to my chin and sighed.
Mornings were not my thing. Morning meant another day of trying to make it, and by making it, I mean to survive. I reached for the old watch, which is the one possession I have in the world. It was eight-thirty in the morning.
I sat up in bed, and my heart was pounding. No one slept this late. How could anyone in our community? The sounds of gunfire and bombs going off start early in the morning in our neighborhood. I jumped out of bed as I slung the watch over my wrist with years of practice fastening it.
No one leaves their belongings behind, even in your own home. Most people don’t have much these days, and what they do have, they don’t advertise. A smart citizen doesn’t even carry food when they have it. Food attracts too much attention.
Attention means being noticed. If noticed, you’re more than likely going to meet whichever god it is you worship. This is why I didn’t scream out to my parents or sister. You don’t bring attention to yourself.
I sprinted out of my room and rounded the corner of the small two-bedroom apartment that housed all four of us. I ran into the living room, my breath was already ragged. My father was on the edge of the couch, giving me the telltale, “Be quiet, you idiot,” look. I have to love my Dad. Even though I’m sixteen, my dad can still make me feel like I’m twelve.
The TV was on which meant we had power today, nice! The state-sponsored newscast was running. Eliza, my little sister, was sitting on my mom’s lap. Eliza’s possession, a tattered looking doll, was sitting on her lap.
Every time I saw that doll, it renewed a fire in me to replace it. My mother sat with her arms around my little sister as if she was holding onto her doll. Her eyes glued to the television.
“Northern forces cut off the Muslims from the gates of the New Bethlehem project today. Reports that the Muslim forces were mounting for an attack on the already battered small city. Our sources tell us this is the first day in two years that gunshots and bombs have not been heard in the project.”
His voice was arrogant as if he had held back the Muslim Liberation Front, or MLF, himself. My mother just lowered her head and shook it slowly and let out a little sigh.
“This will be a temporary quiet that will lead to no good. I only pray Abaan is ok, father,” she said quietly, looking over to my Dad, who waved his hand for her to be quiet. We didn’t have electricity every day and we only got the news when we did have it.
I say news, but it was more like some cheesy story meant to make us feel better. Instead of commercials, we now had rousing choruses of patriotic songs showing happy “Americans” running across fields and sitting down to eat bountiful dinners.
There was nothing bountiful about where we lived. Dad calls it propaganda. It’s a lot like when parents try to convince you that spinach is good for you and you don’t like the taste.
I still felt twitchy with the quiet. Quiet meant someone was scheming and planning. At least with bombs and bullets, you know what you’re avoiding. Even Eliza seemed to look at the window, afraid as she pulled the ragged doll into her close and bit her small lip.
The only noise was the newscaster and Dad tapping his foot with his hands folded in front of his mouth. Every once in awhile, he would let out a grunt or a snarl. He hated the newscasts and would let everyone in the house know he didn’t like them. Often in whispered or hushed tones. He, like the rest of us, was afraid someone would hear and turn us in as sympathizers. Which, we were.
Abaan is Dad’s best friend and a Muslim.
Abaan lives outside of New Bethlehem in New Mecca. Muslims are not allowed in New Bethlehem or any other Christian project. It’s a thing in New America.
Projects are built on race and religion. Each project is a previous small town with walls built up around it. This way there was housing, shopping, government buildings, well, you get the picture. It’s a whole thing they did after the wars began. That’s right sports fans, wars.
We started out being at war with ourselves, but kept it civil-ish. Then we went to war against the Muslims. Then the Blacks. The Mexicans started leaving in droves after that. The Asians seemed to be the only ones that didn’t seem to piss anyone off. The Asians got their settlements.
It didn’t take long before the Atheists were rounded up and were disappearing. The joke became, “No second for them,” about the second amendment. What they did was kick them out of the city walls. It didn’t take long for them to get picked off by a rogue group, or so the story goes.
Dad started marching around the living room, tapping his chin and grumbling while we had a rousing rendition of “And the truth goes marching on,” while plump faced white children carried American flags smiling and laughing.
I would see Eliza looking at the little girls in their clean clothes and ribbons. I knew she wanted ribbons for her hair, not the string she uses. She never complains, but it’s pretty evident. Mom was petting her hair, knowing better than to interrupt Dad in his thinking. He was thinking about Abaan and his family.
Rayan is his eldest son, my age, and was my best friend- before resettling began. Friends, like belongings, are in short supply in New Bethlehem.
No one knows when someone is going to pick up a red phone and turn you in.
I quietly walked over to the window and looked out, which we didn’t often do. Looking out seemed ok since no one was shooting at us today.
A few people were beginning to venture out into the street. They appeared to be scared, walking around in the quiet.
I could see the red phone box.
The red phone box is a cheery phone booth of wood painted red. Glass covered part of it. In all the gloom of the city, the bright phone box looked out of place.
No matter how much bombing or shooting went on, the red phone box always looked brand new and inviting. Today, it was empty, thank goodness.
A phone call on the red phone meant that the troops were going to show up. Someone would be drug into the back of the death wagon and we’d never see them again.
Well, that’s not true.
We would see them one more time. We’d see them in the middle of the square after they pronounced the accused guilty, which they always were, and loaded into the guillotine. A few moments later.
One less member of the New Bethlehem Project. Enemies of peace were dealt with harshly and swiftly.
Dad had come behind me and put his big hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. He knew I hated the red phone box as much as he did. He squeezed my shoulder and quietly said to me, “It wasn’t always like this.” I remembered what it was like before the wars. It wasn’t paradise, but compared to this reality, it felt close.
“Colton, one day we will know freedom again,” he said and patted my shoulder. “And with our heads still attached,” he whispered into my ear before he stole one last glimpse out the window and stepped away.
I wanted to believe him. My stomach started to twist and pull, thinking about the nightmares of my family beheaded in the square. Losing your family was a reoccurring nightmare that plagued most of us younger people. I couldn’t wait until the day came that there wasn’t a red phone anywhere.
I feel like that day is never going to come. Even if the wars stopped tomorrow, how would we be able to survive in peace? We have lived with the sounds of gunfire and bombs for so long that quiet is worse than a gunshot.
Wars had become the background music of our life in which the movements gave our lives purpose. Hatred was the seasoning that made our food. The thought of peace is a great one until you realize you don’t know how to survive in peace any longer. Because, what are you going to do when you aren’t shooting at anyone?
Movement across the street caught my eye. Katherine came bursting out of her front door like a bomb. Katherine was not subtle.
Katherine is a very unpleasant woman. Most people don’t like her. Mostly because we all suspect they put the red phone box outside her house because she used one so much. We all thought the government made it easier for her to turn in the unsuspecting citizens of New Bethlehem. Our government is all about convenience.
I saw her put her hands on her hips and survey the street with a disapproving eye. She slapped her chest with her right hand over her heart and almost shouted, “God bless America,” so hard that I’m pretty sure she has a callous from hitting it so hard and regularly. Which makes sense; she never seems to use her heart much.
I can’t hear what she’s saying, and it’s hard to tell because her face is stuck with a disapproving glare all the time. Mom says her face always looks that way because she’s so sour like a lemon. The people moved around without making eye contact with her, but put their hand on their chest to utter, “God Bless America,” still not making eye contact.
She looks around the street and looks up and catches me looking at her. Her cold stare glares at me as she moves her hand over her heart in a circular motion, making it clear what I needed to do.
I raised mine to my heart, smile at her, and nod. For now, that will be good enough for her to drop her gaze. She gave her harsh and punishing look around the street one more time, and then disappeared back into her house.
As she disappears inside, I catch one of the passer by’s turn towards her house and give her half a peace sign. I can’t help but laugh a little to myself. Hearing Dad talk turned my attention from outdoors and back to the room.
“I’m worried. If the soldiers have Bethlehem surrounded, then we can’t get in and out of the city. I don’t think we can risk trying to get to Abaan and find out what’s going on over there.”
Dad and Abaan have been trying for months to build up a coalition of Muslims and Christians to work together to bring peace to our two projects. Of course, they can’t just march around town saying that we should all hold hands and sing songs together, that would get them both killed. They’ve been able to sneak out and meet because the projects haven’t been on lockdown.
I walk into the kitchen and pull out a protein bar and begin to unwrap it. Breakfast. I take a big bite because I’m hungry. No one eats around here because they like the taste of the bars, but it beats starving.
I remember when we used to eat for fun and when food had taste. Since the wars, we don’t get a lot of food, and we can’t trust the ground to grow things. Protein bars keep us going and remind us how thankful we should be. Even as we watch those chubby American kids on TV, eat real food.
Eliza didn’t grow up with real food, but you can see her mouth water when those girls are eating apples and eating ice cream. When I asked Dad why they show those images, he told me, “Because they are cruel, Colt. And, because it makes people angry, they can’t have that because of the wars. It keeps Americans angry at the others, so we keep fighting. It’s propaganda by a cruel, corrupt government that uses its citizens, and religion, to keep fighting.”
Protein bars taste like chewy cardboard. When we first started getting them, people tried to melt them and put seasoning on them. I remember when mom tried, and all she got was a foul smelly gloppy soup that none of us could eat. You know it’s foul when you’re hungry and can’t eat anything. Since that day, we just eat the bars as they are.
When I enter back into the living room, Eliza got up from mom’s lap and walked into my parent’s bedroom, where she sleeps. I smile at her and tickle her behind the ear, and she makes her kitty noise that sounds like purring. I suspect Eliza was going to lay down. She’s always tired and listless. Mom says it’s a lack of happiness and vitamins. I think it’s because her dreams are better than the world she lives in.
Eliza sleeps with mom and dad in the big room. I get my own, which is very rare. Most kids all share, however, my room faces the street and is far too dangerous for Eliza. Dad contemplated not using the room at all for fear of firebombs and shootings.
Eventually, he gave in to me when I told him that if someone were trying to break in, how would we know if no one was in there. It could also be that teenage boys need their privacy, and Dad remembered that fact. Of course, things like privacy, cell phones, and the internet were a thing of the past in New America.
There was a genuine panic when cell phones stopped working, and the internet disappeared. The population either walked around looking like extra’s in a zombie film, or they were going through some type of withdrawal. We had all taken the technology for granted, and when stripped from us, we felt empty and lost.
Mom snuck past me, standing in the doorway to the kitchen and planted a kiss on my cheek. I leaned into it because she’s so short. I smiled with a mouthful of protein bar, and she wrinkled her nose up at me. I closed my mouth and went back to the living room to find my Dad sitting on the couch with a map out on the table.
“What you looking at, Dad?” I asked, looking at the map that we all had memorized. It was a map of the projects in New America. He rubbed his chin again and took his finger and traced out his route from New Bethlehem to Broken Mecca, where Abaan lived.
“The normal path is blocked by troops. We only have two exits out of Bethlehem here and here,” he pointed at the beat-up piece of paper. “Of course, they shouldn’t know about the other exit underneath the basement of the old high school.”
By now, I was used to hearing Dad talk about things like routes out of New Bethlehem. There was one way to get out of New Bethlehem that we all wanted to take, but hardly anyone could afford it, the piers.
Once the projects were outlined and we were all separated, the captains would offer, very quietly, to take people out of New America to England. No one was allowed to leave the closed borders anymore. The government had told us that it was for our national security that people couldn’t move; that way, no one could sneak in.
The drawback to being snuck out of New America was that it was expensive, no one had cash, and if discovered, you were considered a traitor and enemy of peace. Enemies of peace were dealt with swiftly, and there was no defense. Those that did have money would sneak their kids in containers to England to be smuggled out, hoping that they wouldn’t be caught. It was easy enough to hide their escape saying the MLF killed them. No one knew if they made it to England or not. We never heard from those kids.
One time a captain of a ship was caught with a couple of kids and he made national news. His severed head made the most headlines, though. Enemies of peace don’t last long. It wasn’t only the Captain of the ship that was was executed, but the parents of the children and the children that were over thirteen.
The government feels that at the age of thirteen, you know what’s right and wrong. If a child doesn’t show the proper training, respect, and love of the country, they are killed.
The government made a holiday out of the executions. Politicians took to podiums to give long speeches of our freedom and the love of our country. Some choirs sang outside the White House, and then we had the lotteries.
The Lottery has changed from giving away money to giving away food. No one from New Bethlehem has ever won a lottery.
The whole time, the condemned were kept in pillories on the stage and gagged. The younger kids had stopped struggling, and the tear-stained faces were easy to see. The TV coverage kept the condemned in the bottom corner of the screen at all times. Dad said that this was about a warning to all of us and what happens if we disobey the government.
Finally, the President came to speak. The crowd went wild with cheers and chants of “God Bless America!” going up while everyone had a bible in their hand. There were no Muslims or Blacks in the crowd, only white children.
As the President took to the podium, the condemned in pillories a few steps below the podium, he raised his hands, and a hush descended. The President always wore a Dark Suit, and his hair looked the same. It was thin and combed over.
The President had not been a career politician when he ran. He was known for his business skills. The people were so tired of what they called political insiders running Washington. He was seen as a possibility of a new start and regaining the country.
“My fellow New Americans, when I won the election of this office four years ago, I promised a new vision for our once great country. Our glorious country flooded by the enemy. We had let go of our call to the Lord God Almighty. I promised that we would return to our greatness. It has been a hard journey. We have seen so much fighting from inside our own country and then fighting brought to our country. But yet I ask you, are we still here?”
The crowd erupted into chants of “God Bless America.” The President brought his hands up to quiet the crowd.
“The rest of the world watches New America; I can promise you that! They watch as we come together to support our solidarity. Because you know, as I do, we do not lose anymore. We do not lose on our soil. Yes, we’ve had to make sacrifices. Yes, we’ve had to dig in deep to secure our own home, and we still have fighting. But I promise you this, once we have eradicated the root of this evil, our New America will rise out of the ashes and be great again!”
The applause was deafening to hear on the TV and could only imagine how loud it was at the actual event. The crowds seemed to be working up to a frenzy outside the White House. The energy was feeding on itself. As always, Dad sat next to me, mumbling comments under his breath about living in a fascist state and that democracy was dead. Mom kept silent. The pictures shown on the TV showed people who were technically smiling, but it appeared to be a deranged kind of smile. The smile of the possessed.
“This is not what Jesus had in mind,” mom would say quietly. Later I would ask her what she meant, and she believed that Jesus was love and not hate, our world had hijacked the word of God to justify killing and to justify discrimination. I didn’t understand at the time as I was too young.
The President concluded his speech to the crowd and pronounced it was time to move to the Ceremony of Peace.
The Ceremony of Peace was anything but peaceful to me. It was the absolute opposite. The TV showed the condemned dragged off the steps, still having to wear a yolk and chained. They were marched down the street through the crowds. The camera’s caught them pelted with small stones as they walked and chants of “burn in hell.” Mom wanted me to leave the room, but Dad thought it was vital for me to see what was going on. I knew what was coming ahead of time. Dad had sat me down and explained what was going on. The Ceremony of Peace was required viewing for all residents of New America, and I was no exception.
The walk from the White House to the Platform of Peace took thirty minutes of pained walking for the condemned. The younger ones had taken to crying again, and the parents of the children begging for the lives of their children. One girl in particular who appeared to be right at thirteen kept falling with her yolk.
The military leading the procession kept flogging her every time she fell. Mom had tears in her eyes and got up from the TV and left the room. I looked to Dad, and he just shook his head as if to say, “Let her go.” Once the condemned ascended the steps, their yolks were removed one at a time and loaded onto the guillotine.
Dad had said this was part of the sickest and twisted part of the ceremony. The guillotine was not designed for one person at a time. This set up was designed to deliver death up to ten people at a time. The guillotine itself must have been at least thirty feet tall, with two large blades hung up at the top. The condemned were laid on their backs and loaded into the guillotine so that their heads were looking up. Their arms and legs strapped down to the sliding tables then pushed into place, and then a bar secured their heads down, locked into place.
They started at the bottom with the adults, and they stacked bodies on top of each other with about two feet between the person above them. Dad said this way the severed heads would hit the ones at the bottom. This was why they loaded up the adults first Dad said. The last thing they would see would be the severed head of their children falling to the ground. I wished I could leave with my Mom.
Once all the condemned were loaded, the Minister of Religious Tolerance came out and started to speak. You guessed it; this was not going to be a quick process. The Minister talked about the greatness of God and the truth that New America was following. All the enemies of God were to treated as traitors and that their death was to offer up a sacrifice to God. Dad’s hands were clutched tightly and he told me that we needed to say a prayer for these poor souls that were about to be murdered. We said a quiet prayer for them as the Minister offered up his readings from the Bible.
There were a few songs of praise that were sung by the choir behind the Minister, and the cameras kept panning to the audience that were holding their bibles close to them. No one was crying, and they all looked like they were at some kind of deranged church service. Finally, the moment came, and the crowd became hushed as the Minister of Peace walked to the box next to the guillotine that housed the master switch that released the two twin gleaming blades. The condemned were crying, and I could hear one of the parents tell their child to close their eyes.
The beheadings were one of the most scarring events of my young life. I watched as the blade fell, and the screaming silenced. As all the heads collected in the bin, the cheering erupted, and then the chanting, “God Bless America,” started.
The camera panned around the crowds, and then to my horror, it showed the severed heads in the bin. The Ceremony of Peace continued with more speeches while the bodies laid on the guillotine, and the blood flowed. The scene was grim with a party atmosphere afterward. I shook the memory from me as I heard my father speak.
“If I can get out through the high school, I can try to cross over the ditch to Broken Mecca and try to reach, Abaan.” I looked at the map and winced. Crossing the ditch was not preferable under good circumstances.
“Dad,” I spoke quietly so Mom couldn’t hear me, “the ditch. Are you sure you want to cross that? I mean,” I trembled, thinking about it and looked over to my Dad with pleading eyes. I didn’t want him to cross the ditch.
“I know, Colt. But, Abaan is over there in Broken Mecca. And he could need our help.” He looked out the window and said, “Do you hear that?” My senses went into overdrive; what did he hear? I heard nothing and shook my head, no. “That’s what concerns me, son.” I knew the quiet was unsettling, but what could be so bad about the quiet. No one was dying, right? Sensing my question he looked back at me solemnly. “If we aren’t firing and being fired upon, that means Broken Mecca isn’t shooting.” He looked at me, hoping I would figure it out.
“You mean, if they aren’t firing, someone is stopping them?” I asked quietly, and Dad looked at me and nodded his head.
“Go on. Follow it to the conclusion, son.” He put his hands over his mouth while I thought for a moment. Then I looked at him with my eyes wide in terror.
“Or. It’s gone.” The horror of it shook me. Dad closed his eyes for a moment and hung his head. “But it can’t be gone. The only thing that would have done that is a flash bomb and Dad, we have electricity.” As if I had been tempting fate, the power went out, and Dad started to scream. “Get to the hallway now! Grab Eliza!”
The only thing missing was, “This is not a drill.” The tone in his voice told me it wasn’t a drill. I didn’t need to hear it.
I ran into Mom and Dad’s room and scooped up my very frail little eight-year-old sister and flew out the door, slamming it behind me. “Miss Bees!” she screamed, her arms stretched out towards the door. I looked at the door for a moment.
Dad was rounding the corner with Mom, and he was dragging a bookcase behind him. Eliza was freaking out. She had so little in life. Her only possession was that ratty doll.
Without thinking, I ran past Dad, who started screaming at me to get back. I barged in the room and scanned the bed for the tattered doll and began to run out of the room and slammed the door as a bomb exploded and debris started raining down on our building as the explosion blew out the windows in my parent’s room.
The explosion threw me past my Dad as he pulled the bookcase to cover the small hallway where Eliza and my mom were crying, huddled in the corner behind the mattress that we kept there for bombings. I crawled forward, my ears ringing and the room swaying. Another concussive blast rocked the building, and I could feel the floor sway as the room began to dim around me.