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.

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