Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.

 

 

Trauma and Creativity: Off the Beaten Path

The last couple of months have been a no-writing zone, and the medical issues responsible probably aren’t going away anytime soon. The devil’s brew of meds I’m taking probably has something to do with what I perceive as a cognitive decline. Not anything so serious that I can’t function more or less normally, but certainly getting in the way of sustained work on writing projects. I’ve also come to see this non-productive period as similar to the one I went through after the apartment building fire and having to start my life over. Call it trauma, or even a mild form of PTSD. It’s a psychological shock to the system, and it’s bound to have effects on intellectual function. But what I learned last time is that it doesn’t last forever. Even the destruction of the belief in a healthy old age has to be accepted, and adapted to. Unless I want to take on the role of victim.

In spite of the cognitive decline, which includes a loss of focus for sustained work, creative insights keep coming. Since my novels tend to take at least a couple of years for development and completion, the current slowdown doesn’t seem terribly significant. What is significant is that the bursts of creativity are based, as they always have been, on input from my reading, both fiction and nonfiction, including current news. When I can’t write, I read, as always, and probably more obsessively. And there is no way to anticipate what will trigger sudden insights into an ongoing piece of work.

A Well-Educated Boy isn’t the WIP I’m currently working on (or trying to work on), but it’s the one that’s developing most actively in terms of plot and characterization. One of the interesting things that happens when a novel develops over a long period of time is that it can change significantly from my original concept. In the case of Well-Educated Boy, the emphasis has been shifting from Hart’s discovery of what lies behind the peaceful facade of his hometown, to the psychological changes he goes through over the course of the novel. The strong influence here comes from several novels that portray, to one extent or another, the development of the central character from childhood to maturity.

Both as a fictional theme, and an aspect of real life that puzzles and intrigues me, the maturation process and the possibilities of future potential are an endless source of material for the creation of complex characters capable of surprising readers. Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess was the first book to focus my attention on this theme, and is still central to how I think about my characters. That’s followed in importance by the Phoenix Legacy trilogy by M. K. Wren, and more recently by Lion’s Blood, an alternate history by Steven Barnes. What is important is the many different paths by which a character’s temperament and life might be formed, and how the one chosen or forced on them determines the shape of the fully formed adult.

In the case of Hart Simmons, his developmental arc ignores the usual young adult trope, in which our youngster overcomes a major negative force, such as an oppressive government, and becomes something of a hero. Instead, Hart has to acknowledge a power that is ubiquitous and fully capable of swatting him aside if he attempts to face it down. The question then is how he manages to live with that understanding without succumbing to hopelessness and acquiescence.

Well-Educated Boy is dystopian science fiction as well as young adult fiction, and this is another area where I want to ignore the usual themes in favor of something more complex and realistic. So Hart will experience two kinds of dystopias, the one in which he lives, as a citizen of a corporate-owned town, and the one taking place outside that cocoon, one not very different from our current reality in many ways. Compare and contrast.

A lot of this hasn’t been worked out yet, of course, so I’m prepared to be surprised.

The Keyboard Still Waits

It seems that my post of April 2, Getting Back to the Keyboard, was somewhat over-optimistic. What seemed like a one-time health incident has become the too, too solid foundation of my existence, a fact that isn’t going to change signifcantly. Whether I blame it on the condition itself or the ever-increasing and changeable assortment of meds I’m taking, writing creatively, or writing more than a few lines at a time, has become a distant goal that doesn’t seem to be coming any closer.

But the new kind of nights, boring, frustrating, frightening, in which sleep stays away for hours, at least has one use. I have plenty of time to think about what I still can’t write. The rewrite of Gift of the Ancien got sideswiped, the actual writing of it, but there’s no shortage of new ideas. Nothing is for sure until the actual words can be put down, but some of the ideas address — or seem to address — the ongoing weaknesses in my writing. So maybe this rewrite — if and when it happens — will not just improve the novel but take me a step closer to being the writer I want to be.

Is a two-paragraph blog post a step toward that goal?

Theme and Variations

One of the topics currently under discussion on a writing forum is theme. The post’s author stated that she sometimes feels as if she’s writing the same book over and over again.  I can certainly relate, having recently taken note of the overwhelming presence of various kinds of oppression in my stories. You can probably make a good case for the presence of a dominant theme in the work of many writers. After all, any theme you choose — or that chooses you — can probably be explored endlessly in all its complexity and variability.

My particular concern, when looking over my published work, with an eye to writing projects still in process, is whether I am, unconsciously, telling the same story over and over, merely changing the settings and the names of the characters. I can see that I concentrate on the character suffering oppression, whether as a prisoner, a slave, or someone caught up in the gears of a society suffering the strains of unanticipated and extreme changes.

But what about the people or the social forces responsible for the oppression? They are the source of the novel’s necessary conflict, but I think a closer examination of my published work might show that I sometimes allow them to remain shadowy figures that aren’t fully developed. The source of conflict in a novel can’t be an abstraction; the protagonist must be doing more than punching the air against a mysterious figure that fails to reveal itself.

There are many ways to approach theme, and that includes discovering it after you’ve written the first draft, and then developing it more fully. Chuck Wendig, bless his foul-mouthed heart, offered some valuable views of theme in an old post. Go there. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/09/26/25-things-writers-should-know-about-theme/

Getting Back to the Keyboard

Being too sick to write is a new experience for me, and one that’s been made even more difficult and unpleasant by dragging on for about six weeks. I’m far from well, still, but maybe improvement can be measured by the ability to at least think about writing. As always, when there’s been a hiatus, I have to go through the process of deciding exactly what I’m going to write. Which means which ongoing project am I going to pick up.

Normally, I have some internal reason for choosing one project over another, but now a new factor has come into play — money. As happens to many in this greatest of nations with the worst health care system in the world, one catastrophic illness means that I will spend the rest of my life deep in debt. I will never write the kind of book that could wipe that out, but I do have choices that are somewhat more likely to find readers than a couple I’ve been working on recently.

Gift of the Ancien and A Well-Educated Boy are far from commercial, but both have the potential to be tweaked a little way in that direction. Of the two, Gift is complete and has been through a certain amount of rewriting, so it’s the obvious choice. It would also be nice just to see it finished and published since it’s been in the works for several years.

I probably won’t be able to do a great deal of work each day, but it feels good to anticipate getting started. Onward and upward!

Dipping into Young Adult — Divergent

Divergent has not been on my TBR list. In fact, I fully intended to never read it. Why? Because when I read the description and some reviews, the basic premise seemed just as ludicrous as the premise of Hunger Games. I did read Hunger Games a couple of years ago, out of curiosity, but that curiosity was more than satisfied with the first volume. So when Divergent came along, it was a big unh uh for me.

But when I had the chance to buy it for a measly dime a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well give it a try. It’s still ludicrous, and I still have little sympathy (if that’s the right word) with the trend (if it’s still a trend) of pumping ordinary kids up into unbelievable heroes in order to make teens and young adults feel good. So it’s a girl. Yay! And she soldiers on with a bullet in her shoulder. Yay! But this kind of book isn’t about realism, so that’s just my take.

However… I’m glad I read it. Since the action, at least, is somewhat closer to reality than Hunger Games, and it’s well-written, for the most part, it gave me some insights about the development of A Well-Educated Boy. For one, it reminded me that my writing is still too barebones, and that Boy is likely to suffer from that fault. Almost any book will benefit by a richly described world, and deep diving into the main character’s inner life, but I think young adult science fiction really demands it. Until very recently, I wasn’t even thinking about Boy as young adult, so there’s that transition to get through.

Another insight is about titles. While I love A Well-Educated Boy, and it conveys the theme of the plot, it’s meant to be ironic, which isn’t apparent until you’re well into the novel. Plus, doubt that most younger readers will even catch it. Even worse, it sounds like the title of an essay on education. Not exactly a hook for curious minds. So, from now until the book is actually finished, I’ll be tossing around more catchy titles. At the moment, a better one seems like an impossibility, but maybe that’s because I’ve lived with this one for so long that it’s embedded in my brain.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I had planned to serialize half of Privileged Lives, but from the number of views so far, it seems that no one is interested. I’m not enthusiastic about reading serials, myself, preferring to let the chapters pile up until there’s a good sense of story, rather than read them one by one as they come out. General readership has also dropped like a stone while I’ve been serializing. So I’m going to do two more segments and then get back to the kind of stuff that this blog is usually about. Serializing is boring, anyway.

There was a discussion recently about an article someone had written after trying out Hemingway, one of the editing software programs that’s supposed to make you a better writer. I think the basic concept of Hemingway is a poor one, and the article’s author illustrated that pretty well with some samples. That’s one post coming up soon.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part two, Linden

Linden sat in numb silence between the two soldiers. The statement that they had a plane to catch didn’t make any impression. He hardly took note of the long ride and the way it was taking him farther away from his mother with every minute that passed. That all came later.

But there was finally an end to the trip, at least that part of it. They got out of the car and walked from an almost-empty parking lot to an almost-empty airport waiting room. Linden started to wake out of his stupor and looked around. The place didn’t look anything like the airports in movies. The waiting room was small and he could see the airfield from the big windows. There were no big passenger jets, just one small plane, looking lonely and, somehow, ominous. Sharing the waiting room with him were more soldiers and a few kids his own age. A soldier with a clipboard in his hand, walked over to him.

“This Linden Thomas?” At a nod from one of Linden’s guards, the man made a mark on the clipboard and said, “We’re all here, then. I’ll let the pilot know we’re nearly ready to go.”
Linden became aware that someone was staring at him. When he lifted his eyes to the huddled group of kids, he saw three girls and three boys. One of the girls was crying. One boy’s eyes were suspiciously red and swollen, and he glared at Linden as if he was to blame for their being here. Or maybe he was making them late. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He clenched his fists and glared back, then walked over to a seat near the wall. The soldier with the clipboard stepped in front of him. Instead of the clipboard, he was holding a metal bracelet.

“Hold out your left arm, son.”

“Why?” Linden asked, the spirit of resistance suddenly raising its head. It was much too late, but it made him feel alive for the first time since he’d walked away from his home. “Suppose I don’t?”

The soldier closed his eyes, mumbled something and then gave him the expression that adults gave kids who were being annoying. “It won’t get you anywhere, you know. Just give me your arm.”

Linden didn’t move. He watched the man’s hand reach for his arm. Watched the bracelet being put around his wrist and heard the snap of a catch. It wasn’t his arm, he decided. He would simply refuse to accept that it was his arm, encircled by a bracelet of cold, hard metal.

“It’s a temporary ID, in case you’re wondering. It’ll be removed when you get your permanent ID.”

The hand let go of his arm and he let it drop. It took with it the brief flareup of rebellion and the cold numbness returned. When a door opened a few minutes later, Linden followed the others out onto the tarmac and up the metal steps into the sleek two-engine plane. He’d never flown before, and a little voice in the back of his head kept trying to tell him he should be excited. He let himself be directed to a seat, let the drone of the engines lull him. He ignored the voices of the soldiers in quiet conversation, and the sudden cry from one of the girls: “I want to go home,” and the sobbing that followed.

He dropped into a shallow doze that was broken just for a few seconds, every now and then by a raised voice. The first bump when the plane hit an air pocket jerked him fully awake, panicked. But no one else seemed alarmed, and he allowed himself to drift off again. Vague thoughts floated through his mind and disappeared. He should look out the window and see what the world looked like from up here. He should pay attention to what was going on around him. He should remember all this so he could tell his mother about it, later. The thoughts faded and he slept again. Suddenly, it seemed to him, they had arrived at another airport and were leaving the plane. There was another long ride, in a van this time, with the other children and the soldiers who’d been on the plane with them. The slamming of a heavy metal gate finally brought him out of his daze. He got out of the van with the others and found that they were surrounded by buildings that said ‘college,’ but it didn’t look anything like the pictures in the brochure. We’re here. Wherever here is. The van drove off, and the soldiers who’d come with them headed to another part of the campus.

Eight adults stood in front of the small group. One was a tall man in a uniform that was much fancier than the ones the soldiers had worn, and with shiny decorations on the shoulders. He stepped forward and ran his eyes over the seven children. “You look tired, youngsters. It’s been a long trip and I’m sure you’d like to rest. I’m Major Cornwell, provost of Merriman College. I want to welcome you as the latest members of this year’s class. And the last to arrive.”

Linden stared at him, trying to work out the meaning of the uniform and the rank, and everything suddenly clicked into place. He shuddered. If this was a military academy, he wasn’t going to survive. He’d failed his high school’s compulsory cadet training program quite spectacularly. They’d thought it was just a bit of childish rebellion, that he would give in eventually, but he hadn’t. He refused to wear a uniform. He refused to march. He refused to learn the commands or the stupid pledge that they were supposed to recite. He’d won, as far as that was possible. He had to attend, but he’d been allowed to sit on the sidelines while the other students drilled. He was sure that failure here would be get him more than reprimands and a bad grade on his report.

“I’m aware that not all of our students are pleased to be here when they arrive, but that will change, I assure you.”

I’m not the only one. I bet none of them want to be here. The major confirmed every hateful word of the instructions, every word from Mrs. Kinney’s lips. He’d been tracked, like an animal, and all they had to do was wait for the right time to capture him. He’d never had a chance. Maybe some of the students were proud of having been selected. Maybe they even liked it here, but he would never be one of them.

The major waved his hand at the other adults and stepped back into the line with them. “These are your tutors. They will also be your advisors and, we hope, your friends. They will be sharing your quarters, and their first job will be getting you settled in. Tomorrow, they’ll accompany you to the orientation for the incoming class.”

The tutors were dressed identically in exercise clothes, in shades of gray and black. They each carried a clipboard, and it didn’t take a genius, Linden thought, to figure out that the new students’ photos were right on top. The adults knew exactly who was who. They introduced themselves and led their charges away, all heading for the same building, chatting as they went. Linden’s tutor was a man with a sour face and stiff posture. He certainly wasn’t the one Linden would have chosen if he’d had a choice. He wondered briefly if he’d ever have a choice about anything, ever again.

“I’m Tobias and I’ll be your tutor and advisor for the next few months.”

He didn’t looked pleased, and the introduction was so abrupt that it took Linden a second to register that the man had walked off without offering his hand, obviously expecting him to follow.
Exhausted, hungry, and expected to accept as his tutor and advisor—and friend—a man who clearly wasn’t happy to see him, Linden dawdled, letting himself fall behind. If he got lost in the building, Tobias could just come and find him. He was almost disappointed to find the tutor waiting for him inside, his arms folded, disapproval coming off him like a heat wave.

“You’re going to have to learn to move a lot faster than that, young man.”

“I know how to move faster,” Linden snapped. “I just wasn’t expecting to be treated like a dog on a leash.”

Tobias had started toward a stairway. He stopped and spun around. “Let’s get one thing straight, right now. I’m not going to put up with any insolence. My job is to keep you on track with your studies, and that’s what I’m going to do. You don’t have to like me, but I expect a minimum of courtesy.”

“That would be a lot easier if you showed me some.” Linden put his hand out and leaned against the wall, suddenly dizzy. He shook his head to clear it, and with the last of his energy, he said, “I just want to be treated like I’m a student and not a prisoner.”

Tobias stared at him, then turned around and went toward the stairway, at a slower pace. “It’s only one flight,” he said, without looking back.

The hallway at the top of the stairs was bleak, with a dozen or so doors on either side before it turned a corner. “This floor in this wing is for new students. There’s a print map of the building and the campus, next to the stairway, and it’s also on your computer.” Tobias put his hand to a plate next to the last door on their right. “Put your hand here and let the building register your identity. Your hand print lets you in and out. It also keeps a record of exits and entrances.”

Linden was too tired to ask why, and Tobias didn’t volunteer the information. He already had the feeling that Tobias wasn’t much of a talker and wasn’t going to tell him anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. How was he going to find any good in this situation if he had this antagonistic man hanging over him all the time? He stopped in the now open doorway, appalled. He could see the entire place from where they were standing, in a small bedroom that was the center of the apartment. The bed was just a few feet in front of him. The rooms were small, efficiently arranged, and as cheerless as the hallway. With the exception of the white walls, everything was in shades of gray, even the bed covering. The light from the window above the bed didn’t do a thing to brighten the place up.

“Is this your bed or mine?” he asked Tobias, who seemed to be waiting for his reaction to his new home.

“Yours. My bed is in there.” He pointed to the room on their left.

Linden took a few steps in that direction and looked in. The space was even smaller than his own, and just as dreary. But what gave him an unpleasant feeling in his chest, was that though the beds were separated by a wall, there was no door. Neither of them would have any real privacy. The room to the right of the entrance, a study, also lacked a door. It had a worktable with a computer and two tablets, two chairs, and a few shelves on one wall. It was also the route to the bathroom. That did have a door.

Linden scanned the corners of the rooms, where the walls met the ceiling. “Where are the cameras?”

“There are no cameras.”

Linden’s sarcastic mode, so much a part of him when he was in school, took over. “So my dinky little school in Nowhereville keeps an eye on every twitch, but here I’m in the heart of the machine and there are no cameras?”

“I told you, we don’t need them. And I’m part of the machine, so I suggest you watch how you speak to me.”

“Really? I thought you looked kind of like a stiff. So why no uniform?”

“I don’t wear my uniform when I’m serving in this function. We’re usually short regular tutors because the student body is growing quickly. Support staff has to fill in until . . .”

“Until what?”

“Until none of your business,” he snapped out. Go take a shower and change your clothes,” he added, leaving Linden with one more thing to think about. “You’ll feel better. I’ll take you down to the cafeteria afterwards.”

“I don’t have anything to change to.”

Tobias pulled open a drawer in a low chest that spanned the room from the doorway to the wall of his own bedroom. Linden hadn’t noticed it before, and he wondered what would fill so many drawers.

“My clothes are in the drawers at my end of the room. Yours are in the middle section. The rest are for towels, sheets, etc., and winter wear.” He pulled out a pair of what looked like yoga pants, a pair of boxer briefs, and a long-sleeved henley, all dark green, and tossed them on Linden’s bed.

“Everything’s green.”

“That’s right. Freshman green.”

“I don’t like green.”

“Then go naked,” Tobias said, his voice sharp with annoyance.
Linden decided that from now on he wouldn’t ask Tobias anything that he could figure out for himself. He picked up the clothes and went to find out what the bathroom was like. Like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom was utilitarian and not an inch bigger than necessity demanded.

There was a shower, but no tub. The floor and shower enclosure were tiled in white and shades of gray. “Great color scheme,” he muttered. “Nobody will ever be able to tell if the place needs to be cleaned.”

He avoided looking at Tobias when he came back out. A quick glance had been enough. He wondered whether the anger had anything to do with him, or was just part of the man’s personality. “The clothes fit okay.”

“Of course, what did you expect? Let’s go.”

Linden followed silently, keeping his head down. He didn’t want anyone to see that he’d been crying. He’d sat on the shower floor letting the water pour over him until it started to cool, and he remembered that Tobias was waiting for him. Tobias would expect him to eat. Tobias would expect him to get up in the morning, and he didn’t know if he could do that.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part one, Linden

Chapter one starts here

Linden lay on his bed, not moving, trying not to think. They’d walked home in silence, and as soon as Carrie closed the door behind them, she tried to put her arms around him. He’d managed not to cry before, but her comfort was more than he would have been able to resist. He pushed her away, ran upstairs to his room, and shut the door. Two or three times, as the afternoon passed, he heard her walking quietly up the stairs and coming to his doorway. She waited a few seconds each time, and then went away again. He was making things worse for her, and that made him feel guilty, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

He didn’t think he’d miss school too much, but he couldn’t imagine his life without his mom. When would he see her again, and how would she manage without him? She depended on him for so many things since his dad died. He couldn’t leave her to manage on her own, but he couldn’t think of any way to keep it from happening. He thought about running away and hiding, but they might keep coming back and, eventually, they’d find him. And they might do something terrible to his mom if he disappeared.

It was almost dark when the spicy smell of sausage came floating up the stairs. Reluctantly, he let his nose lead him down to the kitchen.

“Mom! What are you doing? You said we can’t afford that sausage anymore. We’re going to be eating beans and rice the rest of the month to make up—. Oh!” The pain went through him again and his knees went so weak he was afraid he’d fall down. The words came bursting out, an agonizing flood that he couldn’t hold back any longer.

“I can’t leave you, Mom. You’ll be all alone. Who’s going to help you if your asthma gets worse, or you get sick? Who’s going to fix the sink if it leaks again? Those people… they don’t understand that I can’t go, no matter how important they think it is. I’ll talk to them when they come. I’ll explain everything and they’ll go away and leave us alone.”

“Hush now.” Carrie’s arms were around him, and he clung to her as if it was the last time. “They probably know everything about us, not just your schooling. They’re not going to listen. They’ve been watching you for years, without us even knowing, and now they want you. You heard what Mrs. Kinney said. The government needs good minds, and you have a marvelous mind. They’ll educate you and then you’ll find work that can help make this world better. That isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”
Linden shook his head frantically. “I don’t care about that, Mom. I just want to stay home with you. And I want to finish high school, even if most of my classes are boring and my teachers are idiots.”

“Baby, I want that too, but things change and we have to learn to accept them and make the best of it.”

Linden usually hated it when his mother called him Baby, but this time it sank into him with such warmth and sweetness that he nearly cried. It reminded him how she always tried to find some good in whatever happened, no matter how bad it was. The only time he’d known her to fail was when his dad was killed at work. For a little while, he thought she’d accepted it, but when she finally broke down, he’d realized she just hadn’t absorbed the truth, that his dad wasn’t ever coming home, that they would never see him again. She’d clung to him for a long time after that, hardly letting him out of her sight whenever he was home. When he left for school each day, he’d look back from way down the block and see her standing on the stoop, watching him walk away from her.

He couldn’t go, and that was that. He was afraid of what she might do if he left her alone. They’d never talked about it, but he’d known that she wanted to die back then, during that awful time. This wouldn’t be the same, but he would be older and different when he came home for a visit. And she would be different too. Even if she was okay and managed without him, it would change her.
But she’d already changed, hadn’t she? He’d never have his mother back again, just the way she’d been before they were left alone to take care of each other. The silly things she loved to say were mostly gone. She avoided talking about things that really mattered. Right now she was more like her old self, telling him it would be okay, that they’d find a way to make it okay. This wouldn’t be okay though, not ever. How could he let their little family be torn apart and make something good out of it?

“I’m still going to try to talk them out of it when they come,” he insisted. “It may not do any good, but I have to try.”

“Linden, please don’t. You know you’ll get upset, and that will make me upset, and then, when you have to go, that’s how we’ll both remember it. It’s breaking my heart, but I’m trying to look at it the way Mrs. Kinney said, that it’s an honor. You were chosen because you’re so brilliant. You’re special. I’ve always known it. Now someone else does.”

Her pleas were weakening Linden’s resolve, but he shook his head. “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be an honor. They can let someone else have it.”

Carrie let him go, took a step back, and sighed. “Let’s not talk about it now. I fixed everything you like, and you need to eat instead of working yourself into a tizzy. Please.”
He watched her scoop a huge portion of the stir-fried rice and sausage onto his plate. He wasn’t hungry, but she clearly expected some reaction, and the smell that came wafting up to his nose was irresistible.

He took a bite and tried to smile. “It’s delicious, Mom, just like it always is, but you shouldn’t have spent the money.”

“It wasn’t that much.” She looked almost happy now. “I bought plain ground pork and added the spices. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s almost like real sausage, isn’t it? I wanted to surprise you. Is it really good?”

“It’s great. I don’t know how you do that—make ordinary stuff into something that tastes so expensive. Now we can have it more often.”

He dropped his fork as his words came back at him like a physical blow. When he looked up, he saw the misery in his mother’s face. There wouldn’t be any more meals like this. He stood up, kicked his chair back and ran up to his room. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. The words rolled around in his head until he fell asleep, his pillow soaking up the last of his tears.

It was still there when he woke up the next morning: this can’t be happening. Only two days remained before his life was over. Misery swamped him and he pulled the covers over his head. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. But it is. He threw the covers back and sat up. He was still determined to fight when the time came, but if he spent the last two days making them both miserable, he’d always regret it. Even if he had to put on an act, he’d try to make his mom feel better about the honor. He didn’t want her last memories of him, for however long before they saw each other again, to be a sour face and complaints.

When he padded into the kitchen, still barefoot and in his pajamas, and saw her face, he knew he’d made the right decision. The dark circles under her eyes and the tight lines around her mouth reminded him of that day. The cup of coffee she was holding reminded him of his first and only taste of real coffee. His dad had splurged and bought her a quarter pound of the real stuff for her birthday. Linden had been allowed a sip and had reacted with disgust. How could something that smelled so wonderful taste so awful? His mom and dad had both laughed at him.

What was in her cup now wasn’t the real stuff. It didn’t even smell like it. He wished he could buy her some before he left. But even if he had the money, where would he buy it? Months ago, there had been a news story about how almost all the coffee trees in the world were dead now, of some disease they didn’t know how to stop. Two big corporations had bought up every bean that had been produced for the last few years. Now only rich people could afford real coffee. There were other things you couldn’t get in grocery stores anymore, but that was the only one he really cared about. And chocolate.

“Morning, Mom. What do you want to do today?” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. “Let’s do something we’ll both enjoy. I promise, no more moaning and complaining. If I have to go, I’ll do my best to make you proud of me.” He wanted to turn his face away, afraid she’d see right through the lie, but he let her look her fill, and was finally rewarded with a small smile.

“Okay. I’m sure we can find something that will be fun. But first, how about some scrambled eggs for breakfast?”

“You know I can’t stand that fake stuff. Just toast is fine, and milk, if we still have any.”
“Well, then, how about real eggs?” A smile spread over her face. “Mrs. Compton’s chickens are laying well right now, and she sold me a half dozen.”

“Really real?” Linden threw his arms around her again, and the hug she returned made him want to never let go. “The good sausage last night and real eggs today—it’s going to be harder than ever to leave.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“I want you to have good memories to take with you, hon, things we can both remember.”

She was working so hard to keep the smile going, and Linden promised himself he’d do everything he could, to keep it there for their last two days together. “And I’ll tell you all the good stuff that happens at college.”

“Right,” Carrie said. “Promise you’ll let me know as soon as you get there. Or as soon as you can. I guess that’s one of the things you’ll have to find out about—keeping in touch. And vacations.”

They did their best to make the short time memorable, but sometimes the masks slipped. More than once, Carrie tried to keep her back turned to him, but he saw how red and swollen her eyes were.
She suggested that he say goodbye to his friends. “They must be wondering what happened to you.”

“What friends, Mom? I’m one of the outies. Besides, if anybody even noticed I wasn’t in classes, they’d just think I had a cold or something.”

“What about that girl… Cyndy? The one you’ve been helping with her essays? I thought she was a friend.”

Linden laughed at the idea. “She isn’t a friend. She doesn’t even like me. I think she hates that I can write A papers and she can’t do better than a C-. Mr. Shaw assigned us to work together, otherwise, she probably wouldn’t come near me.”

“Oh, Linden, I didn’t know it was that bad. Why haven’t you ever talked to me about it?”

He shrugged. He wished she hadn’t brought it up. It was too late for it to matter, and it was the kind of thing that just made her sad. “There wasn’t anything to talk about. You couldn’t have done anything about it. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s just me. I’m not super friendly, and I don’t like the things they like, so they think I’m a snob.”

Carrie sighed and took his hand. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Maybe going away to this college will be a good thing. If everybody’s picked for their brains, maybe you’ll find some friends there.” She patted his hand absent-mindedly. “It doesn’t make up for you being dragged away like this, but if some good can come out of it…” She sighed again. “I just feel so helpless?”

“I know, Mom. But it will be okay once I get used to it.” It was one more lie, but if it made her feel better, he’d lie from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed.

The last evening was the hardest. They watched a movie that they’d seen more times than they could count, but that always made them laugh. Linden lay with his head in his mother’s lap, and was horrified when his laughter turned to hysterical tears.

Carrie brushed her fingers through his hair, over and over, making soft shushing noises and murmuring, “It’s okay love, it’s okay. Just cry it out. We’ll be together again, maybe soon. The holidays are only a few months away.”

When he could finally find the breath for speech, he tried to apologize. “I wanted it to be nice this evening. And I’m too old to be crying, anyway.”

“You’re not too old, love, and if there was ever a good time to cry, this is it.”

“I am too old. I’m almost 16,” Linden protested, and felt a movement against his head that, if he’d looked, would have been Carrie trying not to laugh. But he would also have seen tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.

They were still at the breakfast table when the knock at the door came. Linden had been picking at his food, hating to waste it, but too tied up in knots to tolerate either the smell or the taste. His heart began to pound heavily and he felt like he might vomit. Carrie put her fork down and got up from the table, very slowly, as if she was in a daze. Another knock and Linden jumped up, trying to put himself between his mother and the door.

Carrie took him by the shoulders and gently moved him aside. “You promised, Linden. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, please.”

The words had no life behind them, just like the last time she’d sounded like this—after his father’s death. “I’ll let them in, Mom. Stay here.” He wanted to tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t get this last lie out of his mouth.

There were two of them, in uniforms that looked military and sent a vague sense of alarm through him. He stood there, gaping, until one of the men said, “Linden Thomas?”
He nodded and backed away from the door, right into his mother. He leaned into her as she put her hands firmly on his shoulders. “You’re here to take my son away from me?” Linden was surprised to hear anger in her voice, rather than sorrow or pleading.

The man closest to Linden flushed slightly. “I’m sorry, m’am. Those are our orders.” Then, to Linden, “It’s time to go, son.”

Linden’s arguments, the protests he’d intended, died. These men had no power to change anything, he realized. He was just a job they’d been given. He turned and buried his face in Carrie’s shoulder. Wrapping her arms around him, she held him tight. “Mom,” he murmured, his voice shaking. “Mom.” He couldn’t find any more words.

“Go on, Sweetheart. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Make me proud. I know your dad would be so proud of you if he could be here.”

A large hand on his shoulder pulled him gently but steadily away from her. “Let’s go, young man. We have a plane to catch.”

He didn’t really know how it happened, but they were suddenly halfway to a black car parked by the curb before he turned around for a last look. Carrie was standing on the stoop, her face blank, her hands gripping her upper arms as if she was holding herself together. When she saw Linden look back, she lifted one hand and waved to him. Then he was being pushed into the back seat of the car. With a soldier on each side of him, the car glided quietly away from everything he had ever known.

March 5 Weekend Odds

Just a reminder (I did mention it before, didn’t I?) that the version of Privileged Lives I’m posting isn’t quite the final one. Very close, but not finished. And an invitation, in case I didn’t mention that, comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.

I meant to post another section yesterday, but forgot about until late in the evening. Does anyone see a pattern here? Maybe I’ll put up two today. After all, there’s nothing like swamping readers.

Anyway… the final  revision is going well and I’m over halfway through. It’s going to be a much more solid novel than the first published version.

I’m currently engrossed in reading The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. It’s a long book and is turning out to be possibly critical to another book that I might possibly write some day. As a confirmation of my belief that humans are a basically flawed species that is failing Mother Nature’s grand experiment it’s extremely depressing. I’m about halfway through and looking forward to the hopeful conclusions he says are coming at the end of the book. Frankly though, I believe whatever hope he has is as delusional as the many delusions about ourselves that his Stanford Prison Study reveals.

Between The Lucifer Effect, research into criminal justice, and keeping tabs on the political and other craziness that fills the news every day, a coherent overall view of humanity is trying to assemble itself in my overloaded brain. Thank goodness, I will probably never find the time to write it, because it would undoubtedly look just like the rantings of all the poor souls who’ve tried to give us a true big-picture view and are remembered, if they’re remembered at all, as kooks and cranks.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part two, Bennett

Chapter one starts here

More banging, louder this time. “I’m coming, damn it! Hold your horses.”
He opened the door and almost got a fist in the face. “What were you going to do next, break it down?” he yelled at the soldier who’d been about to knock again.

The man stepped back and was brushed aside by another soldier. “Bennett Sanders?” Bennett nodded and his protest was cut off before it began. “From now on, you’ll do as you’re told and speak when you’re given permission. Is that clear?”

“Looks like I woke up in the wrong damn country this morning.” Bennett was almost too angry to care what the response was, but when the soldier grabbed his shirt and pushed him roughly backward away from the door, violence from these people was, in an instant, within the realm of possibility.

“Okay, men. Spread out.”

“What the hell’s going on? What are they doing?”

The soldier whipped around and glared at him. “They’re searching. You might be hiding someone. Didn’t you read the info?”

“Yeah, I did. But you could have just asked me.”

“And if you’re hiding someone?”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Bennett gave up, frustrated. Arguing wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “Hey! What are you doing with my stuff?”

His duffle had been dumped out on the couch and a soldier was pawing through his belongings.

“Tell him to take his hands off my stuff. It’s none of his damned business what I take with me.”

“Clothes and personal items only. The computer isn’t personal. It stays here.”

“It is personal. My whole life is on it. My writing. Everything. I can’t just leave it here. Someone might steal it while I’m gone.”

The soldier who seemed to be in charge grinned. “You aren’t going to have any time for writing, believe me. And I wouldn’t count on coming back.”
The bald statement hit Bennett like a fist. It was the difference between speculating about something that might never happen, and being faced with the reality. But he couldn’t lose his computer. “If I’m not coming back, then I have to take it.”

When he reached out for it, his hand was knocked away. The soldier snatched the computer from the couch and dropped it on the floor. While Bennett watched, horrified, he slammed his boot heel into it. “Okay, take it with you.”
Bennett backed away. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. It felt like one of those videos where soldiers broke into houses in far off countries and destroyed stuff randomly—just because they could.

“I thought you were so hot to have it.”

What could he say? Half his life had just been destroyed, right in front of his eyes. Bennett stared blankly at the soldier, his mind numbed by everything that had happened in the last half hour.

“No? Okay, let’s stop playing around. Keep your mouth shut and put everything back in. Let’s go, let’s go!”

* * *

Do they seriously think I’m going to try to escape? Walking to the truck, his duffle slung over his shoulder, a soldier walked on each side of him with another one following. He climbed in and found he wasn’t the first one to be collected. The truck was half full already. Bennett sat on one of the benches and dropped his bag between his feet. The three soldiers who’d brought him out were already gone, undoubtedly on their way to another capture. I’ve been captured. By the enemy. With the loss of his computer, everything of importance to him had been abruptly stripped away. He felt himself slipping into a new mindset: a prisoner. Maybe if the asshole hadn’t crushed it underfoot, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that one act, so deliberate in its arrogance and power, made him wonder if it was the model for what he had to expect from now on.

He couldn’t even summon up any more indignation. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, aware, but not really paying attention as more men climbed into the truck. For a little while, at least, it had nothing to do with him.

“Okay, that’s it for this batch. Let’s go.”

The voice was almost simultaneous with the truck’s back gate being slammed shut. The sudden noise jerked Bennet back into the present. Two soldiers with rifles occupied the seats next to the tailgate, their weapons held to block anyone trying to approach it. Bennett thought it was unlikely that anyone would try. It wasn’t just the rifles. He’d be surprised if there was anyone not in a state of shock. He let his glance slide over the faces of the men opposite him. Shock and fear. That’s really all it took. Had he tripped the one soldier’s temper, or was intimidation a standard part of the operation?

He looked out the back just in time to catch a last glimpse of his house, already looking abandoned. They hadn’t even given him time to lock the door behind him. Did it matter? If anyone wanted to get in and the door was locked, all they’d have to do was smash it in. What he’d seen in old newsreels of foreign occupations, and bad movies had given him only a glimpse of the possibilities. He looked down at his duffle and let his eyes roam over the collection of backpacks, suitcases, and even a plastic garbage bag, that the other men had brought with them. It was possible that this was now all any of them owned. His mind refused to go any further with such speculations. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, and leaned back against the wall of the truck.

He hadn’t given any thought about where they might be going, and when the truck stopped in the high school parking lot and they were ordered out, he found himself only mildly curious. It was an unexpected destination, but at least it wasn’t an open field surrounded by barbed wire, and he was grateful that his memory had waited to bring up that particular image. They were herded through the front door, accompanied by a contingent of armed soldiers that had been stationed by the front entrance. There were no rifles in sight now, but the soldiers all wore sidearms, and Bennett had the vague thought that he should be worried about it.

As they trudged up the stairs to the second floor, the familiarity of his surroundings warred with the strangeness of the circumstances. He’d taught in some of the classrooms that they passed as they were escorted along the hallway. He straightened up from the slouch he’d fallen into and looked around. Most of the doors were open. In In every room, cots, each one with a pillow and a folded blanket at the foot, took the place of desks. They stopped at room 206, and all Bennett could think about was that he’d never taught a class in this room.

“Okay, men,” someone said, as they filed in. “Pick a cot and put your belongings under it. The rules are on the blackboard. You’re free to walk around on this floor. The stairwells are guarded, so don’t even think about trying to leave. You’re here to work, and the daily assignments will be posted on the blackboard last thing every evening. You’ll be taken down to the cafeteria for meals. Lunch is in a couple of hours, so I hope you have good appetites.” The soldier grinned at them. “We’ll be taking attendance every morning when you get up, when you come back from work, and before lights out. It’s gonna be just like school, kiddies.”

And then the soldiers were gone. Most of the men, Bennett included, stood like abandoned objects, the decision of which cot to choose momentarily too difficult. Bennett shook himself, scrunched his shoulders up and down, and headed for the row at the back of the room. He dropped his duffle, shoved it under the cot closest to the windows, and sat down. So this is it. We’re workers. The questions started popping up. What kind of workers do they need? All I know how to do is teach. Will they care, or do we just get assigned randomly? He shut it off. Too many questions and no way to get any answers. Yet. He’d be patient. There really wasn’t any choice. Be patient or go crazy.

Lunch was a typical school food. Had the cooks also been absorbed into the R & C world? If so, meals weren’t going to be anything to look forward to. But he didn’t hear any complaints. It occurred to him that they’d all been pretty quiet. But that couldn’t last. Once everyone had gotten over the shock and absorbed the current reality, they’d probably start complaining and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After lunch, they went back upstairs to room 206, 14 very subdued men, accompanied, just as they had been going down, by two armed soldiers. Bennett came to the conclusion, not a difficult exercise, that the only time they wouldn’t be under guard was when they were in this room.

Crappy food or not, the meal seemed to have brought a few of the men back from wherever they’d gone into hiding in their heads, and a couple of conversations started up as soon as they were left to themselves. There was no way not to listen in, and Bennett tried to pick up any information he could. But the talk was mostly questions and complaints, just as he’d figured., They were all desperate to know what was going to happen to them, but nobody had anything to offer except guesses. As a conversation near him came to a limping halt, one of the men lay down on his cot, his arm over his eyes. The other one wandered over to Bennett and stuck out his hand.

“Hi, George Grodin. I guess we’re stuck in the same boat.”

“Yeah, I guess we are. Bennett Sanders.” Bennett gave the hand a brief shake.

“Any idea what the hell’s going on here?” Grodin shifted back and forth and Bennett noticed that his hands were clenching and unclenching. He hoped the guy was just nervous and not looking for a fight. He probably outweighed Bennett by about 80 pounds and looked like he worked out regularly.
Bennett shook his head. “If you read that paper they dropped off, you know as much as I do. All I can do is guess, just like everyone else. We’ll be working. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. At least we won’t be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

“Yeah. I get antsy if I’m not moving. You know? D’you think there’s any chance of getting out of here? I mean out of town. My ex is expecting me to visit my daughter this weekend. She’s gonna be pissed when I don’t show up.”

“Are you talking about escaping? Not a good idea. Remember that stuff about necessary force? I wouldn’t be surprised if that means a bullet in the head.”
Grodin squinted as if he was in pain. “Do you think they have real bullets in those guns?”

Bennett couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. Grodin was lacking something upstairs, for sure. “They’re military. I’d guess that if they’re carrying guns, they’re loaded. With live ammunition.”

Grodin nodded, looking sad. “Not much point in trying to see my daughter if it’s just gonna get me shot.” He wandered off to a cot on the other side of the room, and Bennett gave a sigh of relief. He lay down with his back to the room, hoping that would be enough to discourage any more attempts at conversation. He drifted in and out of a light doze, coming alert at the sound of a large number of feet. Turning over, he saw two newcomers, and two soldiers on their way out the door. The new men stood there for a minute, looking just as lost as he and the rest of the first batch had been, before claiming the remaining cots. He hadn’t bothered to count the cots, but now he saw that there were 16 of them. He tried to remember how many rooms there were on this floor. Was every unattached man in the town going to be housed here? Sooner or later, he hoped, he’d run into someone he knew and would actually be willing to spend some time with. But right now, he just wanted to be left alone. He rolled back onto his side and shut his eyes.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part one, Bennett

Starts here — Chapter one, Part one, Linden

“What the…?” Bennett struggled out of a dream in which someone outside was yelling, into a day in which someone was yelling, even louder. “It’s Saturday. Can’t a guy be allowed to sleep?” He groaned, and his feet hit the floor as his hand reached for the clock. “Seven o’clock? Can’t be. Why’s it so dark?”

He pulled his robe on, staggered to the window, and opened the blind. No wonder it looked almost like the middle of the night. He still hadn’t managed to accustom himself to autumn’s shorter days; and now this. It was drizzling and the solid gray overcast said this wasn’t going to be a beautiful day. Another not-beautiful day. And the idiot who’d woke him up was still at at it. Probably a drunk just getting home from a beer brawl.

He stumbled into the living room, his body not yet really awake. The curtain over the front window defied him for a moment, but with a bit of fumbling, he managed to get it open. The view from the front of the house wasn’t any more cheerful. And the noise was even louder now, tearing apart what should have been a peaceful Saturday morning. He was beginning to pick out some words when he saw where the noise was coming from—a jeep parked halfway down the block. Right in the middle of the street, too.

“Who the hell do they think they are?” His ears and eyes seemed to come into focus at the same time, and a little thrill of alarm hit him. Big red letters on the back end of the jeep said ‘R & C’. The noise was coming through a megaphone held by a uniformed man in the jeep.

“. . . and stay in your homes. Keep calm, please.”

Before Bennett could start processing the fragments of information, a sharp knock at the door forced a startled groan out of him. “Right! I can see this is going to be a great day. At least they could have waited until I’d had my first cup of coffee. Hold on a sec, will you?” he yelled.

He opened the door just in time to see a man—another uniformed man, cut across his lawn and head for the next house. What the hell is with those uniforms? And he couldn’t wait for someone to answer the door? He started to close the door, shaking his head in irritation, and happened to look down. On the mat was a sheet of paper, already damp and starting to wrinkle. He picked it up and looked around the neighborhood. He noticed now that the man—a soldier?—had a stack of the things and was going from house to house, dropping them off. Ken Hanson, his next-door neighbor, was standing on his porch, holding one, looking puzzled. Up and down the block, people were watching from their front room windows, or standing in their doorways, looking puzzled or angry. Ken noticed him and frowned, waving the sheet of paper. Bennett raised his shoulders in a ‘don’t know’ shrug and went back inside.
Saturday mornings had been blessedly peaceful lately, thanks to the grass that had stopped growing, or had up and died in the summer heat and drought. There was no longer any reason for obnoxious neighbors to bounce out of bed at the crack of dawn and crank up their lawnmowers. It was too good to last.

Bennett tossed the paper in the general direction of the coffee table, and went to put the coffee on. He would have killed for a cup of real coffee, but he couldn’t afford it anymore, except as an occasional treat. He measured out the coffee substitute and the water and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for the pot to do its thing. He put his head in his hands, wishing he was still asleep, then jumped up, remembering the mysterious paper waiting to be read.

He went back to the living room, almost fully awake now, but feeling the full impact of having been jerked out his sleep. The crumpled paper was face down on the floor. Bennett Picked it up, turned it over, read the big, bold letters at the top, and flopped down on the couch in shock.

“Reclamation & Conservation Corps. The municipality of Cypressville is now under martial law. Read and comply.”

“Martial law? What the hell happened?” Bennett muttered. “I knew I should have watched the news last night. Don’t tell me the conspiracy nutsos finally got it right and we’ve been attacked. Nah. This has to be some kind of joke. Those guys should be out fighting the real enemy, not dicking around in the suburbs.” He went to look out the window again. The men in the jeep were armed, rifles at the ready. They were certainly prepared for something, whatever it was.

It wasn’t an invasion, he realized, with a sick feeling, as memories clicked in. Reclamation & Conservation was the newest branch of the military. He’d always had the feeling, watching the clips and listening to interviews with R & C officers, that it was all propaganda, covering up something that would turn out to be unpleasant if the truth ever got out. Like just about everything that passed for news these days.

He started to read the rest of the sheet, just as the coffee maker beeped. He took the paper with him to the kitchen and laid it on the table, face down again. He didn’t really want to know what it said. As long as he didn’t read it, everything would stay just like it was. The words at the top didn’t really mean anything.

“Yeah,” he growled. “And the soldier with the horn didn’t wake you up this morning, and the jeep in the middle of the street is just a hallucination.”

He could still hear the voice, but more faintly now. They must have moved on down the street. Were there jeeps on other streets, and soldiers dropping those papers off in other neighborhoods? He wasn’t going to think about it without at least one cup of coffee under his belt.

But two cups later, he still wasn’t ready. He got dressed, went back to the living room, and looked out the window to see if there was any activity. Everything looked just as it normally would on a rainy morning. Except—every car was still parked in the driveways. Earl Baker usually took off for the bakery first thing every Saturday morning. The guy claimed that he couldn’t start his weekend without fresh bagels. But his car was still there. Bennett hadn’t heard the old rattletrap starting up, and there was no way to sleep through that, so Earl hadn’t already gone and come back. A couple of the neighbors usually worked on Saturdays, and their cars were still sitting there.

A sick feeling gathered in his gut. He turned around and looked at the paper still lying on the kitchen table. He had to read it sometime. “Martial law,” he said out loud. The words still hadn’t lost their shock value. He made himself go back to the kitchen and pick the damn thing up. He skimmed rapidly over what was beginning to look like the end of his life, of everything he knew.

The news programs had concentrated on the reclamation and restoration part, but there was more that they’d tried to pretend wasn’t that interesting or important. Sure, its mission was reclaiming land for reforestation and farming, like they said. But once in a while, a nosey newsperson asked enough uncomfortable questions that a few more unimportant details came out. To carry out its mission, R & C had the authority to move people out of far-flung suburbs and small towns and resettle them in more heavily populated areas. That’s what reclamation really meant. After all, you couldn’t reclaim land that somebody was sitting on. R & C could also draft anyone it needed to work in the achievement of its goals. And who knew what the hell that meant? Reporters’ attempts to find out were simply brushed aside.

Is that what’s happening? It can’t be. Not here. Not in Cypressville! ‘All roads in and out of Cypressville are now closed. No one will be allowed to come in to the town, or leave. Attempts to leave will be met with all necessary force. Stay in your homes until you are given further instructions.’ It’s an occupying force, Bennett realized. We’ve been occupied! It had been so easy to turn off the TV and forget about it. But this isn’t TV and I can’t turn it off.

On and on, the horror went, in small print. Including the part that told him he was going to be a participant, whether he wanted to be or not. ‘All single men are to pack one bag with clothes and personal necessities, and wait to be picked up.’ Bennett shuddered. Picked up for what purpose? He suddenly understood the terror of people whose countries were occupied by foreign forces. But these were his own countrymen! It couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t be happening at all, some part of him screamed.

He thought about just refusing to pack, refusing to cooperate. Then he remembered the rifles. Martial law meant that anyone who refused to cooperate could be arrested. Would they even bother with court martials? For non-military citizens? Did necessary force mean they’d just take you out and shoot you? It would be stupid to take that chance, he decided. Better to wait and see what was really happening, and deal with things as they come up.

But sweet reason was having a hard time coping with such an outrageous impossibility. “This can’t be happening!” Bennett moaned. He was a citizen of the United States. He shouldn’t have to think about things like whether to resist and whether that could get him shot. Is this what’s been happening in all those places they’ve shown, where R & C is planting trees and ploughing fields? He could understand claiming any open spaces where trees and food could be grown, but why boot people out of their homes and move them somewhere else? That just didn’t make sense.

It made sense to put able-bodied people to work. They needed people to help them get the job done. But it would just be temporary, wouldn’t it? The more Bennett thought about it, the stronger his sense of relief became. Sure, after the work was done, he’d come back home. And then it hit him. Relocation. What if they weren’t here just to collect workers? What if Cypressville was going to be reclaimed? There would be nothing for him to come back to. Everybody would be gone, their houses empty.

He jumped up from the couch and rushed to the bathroom. He made it, just in time to spew out the two cups of coffee and whatever was left in his stomach from last night’s supper. Shaking and as cold as if the temperature around him had dropped twenty degrees, he knelt by the toilet, trying to find something to make all this not be true.

A little later, he sat at the kitchen table, listening to the coffee maker’s familiar sounds as it pumped out fresh brew. He thought about the price of real coffee, about all the foods he’d had to stop buying because they were too expensive for him to afford any more, luxury items for the rich. He thought about all the things he knew and had tried to ignore, and all the things that the government was probably hiding. There was no room for denial any more. Things had to be a lot worse than anybody had let on if the army could come into a town and declare martial law.

He’d imagined his future as an unexciting but familiar continuation of the path he’d followed for the last few years. Instead, it was now a dark hole full of uncertainties. Mentally, he walked through his little house, cataloging his possessions, none of which would be worth much to anyone else. What would happen to his home and his belongings while he was gone? Would he be coming back, and if not, where would he go after it was all over? He’d never tried to imagine himself as a displaced person, but it now seemed possible that might be part of the unknowable future.

People were displaced by war, by drought, by the coastal flooding that came with the rising oceans. But they weren’t displaced by their own government. Not in America. Wasn’t it one of the sacred maxims of this country that people were safe from arbitrary disruptions of their lives? That they were safe in their homes? As he sat there, Bennett started remembering news stories about doors smashed down and people dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night. That had been going on for years. People would get indignant, but it was always explained as an unfortunate mistake, an innocent person with the same name as someone wanted by the police, a wrong address. Sometime there was apologies, but not always. After a while, it hardly even made the news.

He scrambled two eggs and poured a cup of coffee. But when he sat down at the table, his stomach threatened to revolt again. He scraped the eggs into the garbage, poured the coffee into the sink, and went into the living room, too numb to make any decisions. He didn’t know how long he’d sat there, his head in his hands, when the rumble of a vehicle brought him to his feet. A truck, its back roofed over with canvas, came to a stop in almost exactly the same spot where the jeep had been. Half a dozen soldiers got out and spread out along the sidewalks, while two soldiers with rifles at the ready stood by the back.

“Oh God, it’s really happening!” Bennett ran to the bedroom and pulled his old duffle out of the closet. “One bag? What can I squeeze in besides clothes? Damn it! Why are they doing this?” He grabbed a random assortment of clothes out of the closet and drawers, toiletries from the bathroom, and found that, thank goodness, there was enough room for his laptop. His half-finished novel was on there, and on a memory stick that he grabbed and stuck in his pocket. He could still squeeze in some books, but there wasn’t much time to make up his mind what to take.

Suddenly, there was no time at all. He heard a knock at the front door and a shouted “Open up, Sanders.” His heart skipped a beat, then started to race. They knew his name. They must know everybody’s name, then. And where they’d be. He grabbed the duffle and dropped it by the couch on his way to the door.