“To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox; whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies.” –Philip K. Dick, Valis
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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Mae stood in the yard in front of her ex-husband’s cabin. It was after midnight. Dieter waited in his car in the driveway. “You want me to come inside with you?” he shouted.
It seemed like a good idea to Mae at first, but then it didn’t. She decided she was safer alone. Mae didn’t turn to answer him. “No. You can go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you have a gun?”
“Yes. Several.” She wondered if he believed her.
“All right then. Pleasure doing business with you. I’ll be back this way next month. I’ll stop by and check on you.”
Dieter started his car and backed down the gravel driveway. His headlights and the crackle of his tires on the gravel receded into the trees. Darkness and the wild void closed in around Mae. She approached the door and took out her key, not expecting it to work. The last time she was here was the winter before last. Her last memory of the house was driving away from it in Bob’s truck. Her last memory of Bob was of him tied into a folding chair and gagged, mumbling for her to cut him free. She freed herself, instead.
She turned the key.
Bob’s death was a messy business. After it was discovered that he was a kidnapper, waves of testimonials about the violence and corruption of the deceased undersheriff came forth. The department, already struggling to restore public trust and reeling from attrition, conspired with the DA to bury the case. The sheriff’s department was, in some sense, relieved by his departure, and it was decided that no good would come of the revelations that would come to light if a real investigation pressed on. The Garrity Case would go unsolved.
She turned the knob.
Mae couldn’t believe that she had come back to this place, but where else was she going to go? Home to Omaha and her mother? Impossible. Back to her DC friends? They would have little to do with her now that she was a castaway. Bob’s house, actually her house, as she now owned it, would at least be quiet. It was a decent place to escape and think and devise a means of getting back into the Beltway.
She opened the door.
The lights did not work but she knew the house well enough to navigate her way into the living room. She sat down on the sofa and listened to the nothingness, staring through the picture window at the black silhouettes of pines obscuring the starry sky. A dog barked in the distance which reminded her of Bob’s German Shepherds. She always felt alone, but now it was palpable, with no means of escaping it at the office or at a cocktail lounge.
She checked her phone for a signal. There were two bars. She wondered how the phone companies were able to keep the cell towers powered, but the government couldn’t turn on the traffic lights. How will I charge it? she asked herself. She thought about calling T, but it was after 2 a.m. in DC, if that was in fact where he was. He might be on Air Force One for all she knew. Then she reminded herself that he had sold her out to save himself.
Mae felt for the quilt that usually rested on the loveseat. It was still there. She grabbed it and pulled it over onto herself. Exhausted, she fell asleep almost at once.
She awoke in the predawn light, sensing a presence. There was a man standing over her.
“Who the fuck are you?” she asked.
“Who are you?” he replied.
“This is my house,” Mae answered.
“What are you carrying?”
“As in weapons?”
“I have a can of mace.”
He smiled as he walked towards the kitchen.
Mae noticed her backpack resting on the table. The stranger had been through it. “What do you intend to do to me?” she asked.
He looked at her for a moment as if he was surprised by her question and what she implied by it. He grinned, then turned to the cupboard. “You’re lucky this place wasn’t looted.”
“My husband was a sheriff. The department watches over it. You don’t fuck with the sheriff around here.”
The intruder chuckled. “There’s coffee. Mind if I make some?”
“How are you going to do that? There’s no power.”
“Well, first I’m going fill this teapot up with water from these jugs over here. Then I’m going to start a fire in your woodstove, there. Then I’ll set the pot on the stove and when it comes to a boil, I’m going to—”
“I get it.” Mae sat up on the sofa, still covered with the quilt. “You need to go.”
“I will, soon enough.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
He carried the teapot over and set it on the stove. He packed the firebox with kindling and pine needles and struck a match. “You don’t need to be afraid of me.” He looked at Mae who was wrapped from chin to toe in her blanket. He reached down and took his revolver out of his waistband, prompting Mae to retreat into the sofa cushions. He approached her. She shook her head and raised her hand. Then he handed her the gun.
“Now you have nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
Mae threw off the quilt and stomped into the kitchen with the gun dangling at her side. She fumbled through her backpack and took out her can of mace and a bag of trail mix.
“There’s some tomato soup and tuna in that lower cupboard, there,” he remarked.
“Suit yourself. Mind if I take it with me when I go, then?”
He went back to the kitchen and scooped several spoonfuls of coffee into the filter.When the teapot finally whistled, he took it over to the coffeemaker and slowly dribbled the water into the basket. When finished, he poured a cup and offered it to Mae who was, by then, nibbling on her trail mix. She took the mug, he poured one for himself, and then sat down across from her at the kitchen table.
“My name is James.”
“James,” he answered.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Are you a looter or something?”
“That depends on the day.”
Mae took a sip of coffee, cringing at the bitterness.
“What are you doing here?” Marzan asked. “You don’t look like the typical someone living outside the ZOC. You’re dressed like you’re headed to yoga class.”
“I’m taking a vacation,” Mae explained.
“A vacation from my life.”
Marzan grinned mockingly.
Mae took another sip and winced.
“Look,” Marzan continued, “I don’t know how long you intend to vacation out here, but unless you are trying to vacation from life altogether, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
“I have money.”
“American Express won’t buy much out here.”
“I’m not afraid of a little work,” Mae replied.
“It won’t be a little. You’ll need water. Lots of it. Where are you going to get it? The power’s still out. The well pump is off. The nearest creek is a thousand yards that way.”
“I guess I’ll just have to go fetch it, then.”
“How much water do you think you can you carry?” James looked her over under the table. “You weigh what, 110 pounds? Water’s heavy.”
“I work out.”
“You’re going to need wood for fire.”
“It’s the middle of summer.”
James raised his mug in salute.
“What?” she asked.
“So what are you going to cook with? What are you going to purify that creek water with? Do you have any idea how much dissolved feces is in that stream? Do you have any bleach around here? Did you think about how, in twelve weeks, it’ll be below freezing at night? It snows in September. How much wood is it going to take to heat this place in the winter, to make it warm enough so you can walk around in your yoga pants, comfortably? Do you even know how to guess? Can you even start a fire? There’s about a full cord of wood out back, but I doubt that’s enough to heat this place and boil your water and cook your meals through Thanksgiving.”
“I won’t be here that long,” Mae answered, looking insulted.
That afternoon, James went out into the yard to buck and split a rather substantial pile of logs. He used a handsaw he found in Garrity’s garage to cut them into shorter lengths. Then he took a maul and split them, mostly with a single blow that sent the pieces careening outward on each impact. Mae covertly watched him saw and swing and sweat and stack in secret, concealed in the shadows within the house. She heard his growls with each blow of the axe. She sensed a rage in him that both fascinated and terrified her. By contrast, the murky bankers and pasty bureaucrats who dominated her former life were tightly bound by their inhibitions. Their emotions unfurled only in blunt email copy and conference tirades. In a sense, James was a physical man just as Bob was, but not the same. James wasn’t putting on a show for her. And she sensed that he cared not one whit about her or what she thought of him; his mind was elsewhere. She watched him, feeling like a voyeur. He stopped after a bit, clutching at his side. Mae withdrew from the window as he made his way back into the house.
Feeling inspired, Mae walked down to the creek and filled two plastic milk jugs with silty water. She lugged them back to the cabin, nearly a kilometer. The labor set cramps loose in her forearms, but she was determined to prove herself as no weakling. She finally reached the house only to find James waiting for her on the front porch.
“Are you going to help me?” she asked.
James watched her struggle a few more steps before stepping forward and taking the jugs.
“You could probably carry four jugs with a broom handle across your shoulders,” James suggested. “There’s one in the garage.”
“I’ll give that some consideration.”
That evening, James ate tomato soup and Mae finished off the last of her trail mix. Wanting to further prove her usefulness, she tended the teapot on the wood stove which was purifying the water they were going to use for drinking and washing. The burning stove made the living room unbearably hot for the summer evening and James retreated to a bedroom.
Mae opened the windows and watched as the fire in the stove died after the last of the water was boiled. It got too dark to see in the house by ten p.m. She was hungry again and searched through the cupboards but there was nothing left that she could tolerate. She surrendered to the night and went to bed alone in the master suite with James’s pistol under her pillow.
She was startled awake by a loud noise. She sat up in bed and listened and looked out the window into the darkness. It was gunfire and explosions. She saw flashes of light that backlit the black evergreens in the lot. How close? she wondered. She got up with her pistol and went into the hall. She quietly turned the knob to the next door and slowly pushed the door open. With each distant bomb flash, she could see the outline of James’s sleeping body lying on the bed. It was warm in the room and he had kicked the blanket off and laid there in his shorts.
She stepped closer to him.
Gunfire rattled in the distance. Not so distant, this time.
The window was open and a faint breeze was blowing in, rippling the curtains.
She came to stand next to him by the bed and watched him. She thought about how easy it would be to kill him, but there wasn’t any need for that. Why did he give her his gun? She felt it grow heavy as it hung in her hand. She scanned his silhouette in the faintest of moonlight and bomb flashes. He was built like Forteson, but different, different in the same way he differed from Bob. She couldn’t define it. It just was what it was. Her eyes scrolled over him to his face, discovering his eyes were open and watching her. She suppressed her urge to flee. He didn’t seem concerned about the gun she was holding.
“What do you want?” he whispered.
“That fighting seems close,” she answered. “Should we be worried?”
“No. Go back to sleep.”
“How far away is it?”
“Look out the window.”
Mae turned and went to the widow, pushing the rippling curtains aside. She felt the cool evening breeze blowing over her exposed skin.
“Wait for a really bright flash behind the hills. Then count the seconds.”
A moment later, a flash turned the night sky white for an instant.
“One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. One thousand four. One thousand five. One thousand six. One thousand seven. One thousand eight…”
“Keep counting,” James said.
“One thousand nineteen. One thousand twenty. One thousand twenty one.”
A muffled boom shook the house.
“It’s four and a half, maybe five miles away.”
“I heard gunfire close by.”
“That was morons on the ground, shooting at the helicopters heading to the fight.”
“Isn’t five mile close?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be over in five minutes. Go back to sleep.”
Mae left the window and went back to his bedside. “Mind if I stay in here?”
James didn’t move. Mae went over to the other side of the bed and laid down. She slid her body under the covers and pulled the duvet up over her.
The flashes and thunder of the firefight ended four minutes later, but she couldn’t fall asleep. And she couldn’t tell if James was sleeping either as he was faced the other way, unmoving.
“Are you a soldier?” she asked. She waited for his answer, listening only to his breathing for half a minute or so.
“Yes,” he finally answered.
“I thought so.”
“Because you said the water was a thousand yards away. Only soldiers and cops talk that way. No one else would say, ‘a thousand yards.’ They’d say, ‘a half mile.'”
“Do you know a lot of soldiers and cops?”
“I used to.” She held her covers up over her, up to her neck, lying in a mummy-like pose. She wanted James to talk because when he talked it put her at ease. But he didn’t. “James…” she asked.
“You don’t have to go. You can stay here.”
“No. I have to go. I have to complete my mission.”
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“Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.”