This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 Leah McClellan
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For thinking people. And people who want to think.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—William Butler Yeats
“Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won’t change anything. We cannot fall into despair. As the poet W.H. Auden once wrote on the eve of World War II, we must love one another or die. I choose love.”
—Madonna January 21, 2017
Even when we prefer compassion over hatred, peace over violence, and hope instead of fear, thoughts we’d rather not have sometimes creep in. When someone says “Oh, just shoot me” or “I’ll kill him for that!” they very rarely mean it. The words are perhaps better left unsaid, but they merely represent strong emotion with no actual wish or intention attached. They are metaphor. Analogy. Similitude. And they can be dark. Dark, indeed.
When they raped me, I was strung tight between two choices. One was stay alive. The other was escape. Any attempt to escape would have cancelled out stay alive, but every cell in my body screamed fight, run. And I wanted to live.
After they surrounded me in the back of the restaurant, I swung wildly and threw well-aimed kicks before they grabbed my arms. Someone punched me, and they dragged me over gravel and cement to a car. They shoved me in the back. They slapped me when I screamed. I floated in and out of consciousness, and by the time they pulled me out of the car and kicked me again, I just wanted it over. I’d fought, but there was no point. No. Power. I could only let them have their way. If I wanted to live.
I floated in my mind and detached from my body. Tried not to feel the tear of a thigh muscle or the pummeling between my legs, to not hear the groans of a man twice my size, to not feel the rigid, snake-like tongue in my mouth or smell the hot breath of the man who had long since bathed. To not hear them moan oh nice and you so tight nor the words of the man who whispered in my ear.
“I’m so sorry.”
He, too, mounted me like the others, though he was gentle. His closed mouth barely pressed against my breasts, and he didn’t hit me. He whispered apologies and pulled me toward him, his arms wrapped around my back. He was awkward and unsure, but when his loins began to tremble he groaned, and his pounding thrusts seemed endless. I opened my eyes and searched the dim room over his shoulders.
A silhouette filled the doorway. I stiffened, and with a mad howl the man rose up, his back arched. His position accentuated the pain as he held me tight and collapsed in jerky spasms, his wet face pressed against mine.
But this was the last one, as far as I knew. Six in all. The urge to run nearly overpowered me once again, but I waited. This man would surely let me go. I stared at the ceiling and the red haze that clouded it.
The man finally rose and looked down at me, his face illuminated by a bit of light from a window. I stared back. He dragged the side of his hand over his eyes and turned away, groping for his pants. His hair was wavy and dark blond, his eyes bright blue, his teeth straight and white. He was slender and not much more than a boy, perhaps twenty-two. My age, though the other men were grizzled, old, thick.
“Can I take a shower?” My voice was hoarse, and I coughed. I had noticed a bathroom when they pulled me, stumbling, down the hall of the two-room apartment and threw me on a bed. He reached for my hand and led me there but gave me nothing to wash or dry with. It didn’t matter. I only wanted water. Water to cover me. Water to hide me. Water to take this away. I watched the stream of red swirl in the drain.
The hall and bedroom were empty when I emerged. I found my clothes and dressed quickly while the men joked and laughed. I hobbled about on one shoe and found a rat nibbling the other in a corner; I waved my arms and swung my foot in the air, but it didn’t let go until I kicked it. I grabbed my coat, and the men cheered as I stared straight ahead and walked past them, willing myself to the door. My wet hair streamed down my back.
I burned to attack, to destroy. I wanted to run, but I didn’t dare. I stopped when my eyes were pulled away from the coveted exit. The men raised their beer cans. All but one: the young blond man. His can was frozen a few inches above the table. His eyes were wide, his mouth open. I tore myself away and slipped into the night.
Street signs told me Pennsylvania Avenue and the restaurant where I worked were too far for walking. I shivered and pulled my coat closer around my wet clothing and headed in a different direction. In this northeast Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I was an easy target, especially so late at night. The area had once been fairly nice, or so my mother had told me, but now it was a hub of race wars and gangs and drugs.
I hadn’t brought my purse, of course, when I’d stepped out back to toss a bag of trash in the dumpster. It was just as well. But I couldn’t go back to the restaurant like this to get it, even if I had money for a bus, even if buses were running at this hour. My manager would be enraged by my absence and suspecting, no doubt, that I had walked off the job though she should know better. Nobody quit a good job these days. I couldn’t face her. I needed to be alone. Home.
The streets became more brightly lit as I approached my apartment building in NoMa, not far from Union Station. A few remnants of better days still stood, but after the bombings, even partially destroyed historic buildings and monuments had been razed and concrete residential units built. Some of my memories were dim, but I could still feel my mother’s hand swinging mine as we strolled from store to store, always ending the day at a coffee shop or a pub, she to drink coffee or have cocktails with friends and me to nibble cookies and drink chocolate milk.
The elevator wasn’t working, which was more often the case than not, and I walked up four floors to my apartment. My hands shook so violently I couldn’t hold the key steady. The tears finally came, and I collapsed on the cold floor, shivering, afraid to close my eyes. When a dark figure loomed above me, I tried to scramble away, but my worn shoes slid on the slick floor.
“Kathryn, Kathryn. It’s Maheen.”
Maheen’s apartment was at the end of the long hall, and she must have heard me. Her face was kind, concerned, her plain hijab only loosely draped over her head and neck. She reached down, and I tried to give her the key, but I couldn’t move. She raised an eyebrow and wrested it from me. I didn’t protest as she unlocked my door.
“Up you go.” She reached out her hand again, and I took it. She pulled me up and watched as I steadied myself.
We had spoken only a few times in as many years, and her slight accent always surprised me. She was from Iran, and I no longer knew who was allowed to live here and who wasn’t. Who was banned and who wasn’t. And I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go back to my schooldays when origins and skin color and religions and who you loved didn’t matter, when we were all friends without hesitation or worry. Now even those of us who had never questioned differences had to be careful; guilt by association was common.
But at this moment I had to trust Maheen, and I had no reason not to despite the president’s constant berating of Muslim believers and Middle Eastern immigrants. Now near the end of his second term, his stance that Muslims could not be trusted had been drummed into us for almost eight years on TV, on social media, and in the press. Some believed the bluster. Most didn’t, and I was grateful for Maheen’s help, knowing she’d offer more if she could. When I was safe in my apartment, she pulled the key out and handed it to me. Her deep brown eyes looked me up and down, and she nodded.
“You take care now.” She grasped the doorknob and hesitated. “And if you need me, you know where I am.” She turned and closed the door softly.
My head tingled, as if electricity had shot through it, and my vision became blurry as I held tight to the back of a chair. I staggered to the bathroom for another shower, stunned. Maheen must have the Power too. And I hadn’t been able to summon mine when the men attacked me. My Power could have stopped them, killed them even before they dragged me to their car. I’d tried, but it was so weak it was useless. That had never happened before, though I’d rarely used it for protection. A dog attacking. A drunken man following me. School kids taunting. I went easy on them and shot out only enough Power to confuse them or disorient them long enough to get away. Could it be getting weaker?
I floated in the past as the water washed away the present. Memories of grown-ups turning to me as I stared at them. Politicians my mother disliked forgetting what they were talking about. Creepy men with wandering hands staggering, hands holding their heads. It was a game I played while my mother was busy shopping or socializing. Back then, we ate at the best restaurants around Capitol Hill and Downtown, and since my mother was so well known, I had plenty of time to fill. She was a journalist and usually kept her opinions to herself in public, but at home I was her sounding board. Witness to her long telephone calls and intimate soirées with friends. And her allegiances, her beliefs became mine.
It was purely fun until one day a woman in a grocery store lost her balance and crashed into a display of canned goods. I giggled and followed my mother down the aisle, but I sobered when I saw the woman leaning heavily on her husband and limping out the door. After that, I was more careful.
But when I was twelve, the Power came on so strong I couldn’t control it. I was in my bed, and a hovering shadow woke me. My blanket was at my feet, and gusts of breath enveloped my face. I screamed, and my head, my fingers, and all my skin tingled so much that the form fell back. A groan and a loud thump rang out, and still the Power flowed. I sat up and pulled my nightgown down and the blanket around me, and I stared. My uncle didn’t move as voices became shouts and the light flickered on. Red lights soon flashed and sirens howled. Later, I learned he’d had a brain hemorrhage. He recovered, but he never visited us again. What he was doing in my room was never discussed, but I knew he was going to hurt me. Bad.
Why hadn’t my Power flowed tonight as it had back then? Didn’t I want to hurt them? Protect myself? It should have been automatic. After scrubbing every part of my body, every surface until it stung, I hunkered down before the hot water ran out. I let my knees fall back toward my chest and braced my feet on the tile wall. I blocked out memories and stood when the water became cool. A few small blood clots slipped down my thighs. I rinsed and stepped out.
I dried and ignored the searing pain as I smeared petroleum jelly between my legs. I stared in the cracked mirror. A few cuts and bruises, a swollen lip, and one blackened, blood-tinged eye. A bruise on my ribs, one on a breast, leg bruises where they’d kicked me, and sore, reddened nipples. I didn’t think I had internal injuries. If I did, there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway since I couldn’t afford a doctor. I’d just have to wait for symptoms, if I was going to have any, so I could be admitted to a hospital emergency room.
I remembered the lessons in school about inappropriate touching, rape, and the lectures my mother had given me. Call police. Go to a hospital. Don’t wash. Don’t change clothes. I always wondered why they didn’t just say don’t tamper with the evidence. But now it didn’t matter. Rape was rarely prosecuted these days, and police couldn’t be bothered. They had more important things to do, and funding for public health had been so drastically cut that rape kits were a thing of the past. I would be laughed out of the station.
I looked in the mirror again and wondered why I hadn’t been able to access my Power. Why? Why? I combed my hair with shaking hands and searched for answers.
I didn’t need a pregnancy test to know I was pregnant. I couldn’t have bought one anyway. Tests were available only from a pharmacist, and national ID cards had to show married for marital status and Christian for religion. And lying was pointless since a card scan would reveal official records anyway.
I had barely missed my period, but somehow I knew. I’d always been thin, and the slight heaviness I felt between my pelvic bones told me something had taken root. And the time for my period came and went.
I tried not to panic. My period was just late. Something in the water had messed up my hormones; I’d heard of that. Constipation. A tumor. Improved muscle tone from weeks of a broken elevator and stair climbing. But I knew. I tried not to let the hatred and horror overcome me as I considered options. I could try to find an abortion doctor, but that was risky. Arrest was always a threat though not as bad as being discovered by anti-abortionists. I had heard stories of women beaten on operating tables in supposedly secret clinics. Women with no follow-up examinations and infections. Women who died. A woman who claimed to be a doula or a mid-wife was also a possibility, but that was even more risky since so many were opportunists and had little experience. And I could try to abort it myself, but I might as well commit suicide. And the only other choice was to carry the child.
As the weeks went by, I hoped and prayed for my period. I pressed down on my abdomen, slapped it, pummeled it, punched it, tried to dislodge what was growing there, but it was useless. I tried to break it up with my Power, but I only became confused and couldn’t continue. That was when I understood that this growth, this thing inside me planted there by violence and hatred was also a part of me. And that I couldn’t kill it, not by my own Power even though I desperately wanted to. My Power couldn’t be used against myself, and this growing child was half me, entwined with me. I could risk my own life to get rid of it, but I had a better chance of surviving pregnancy and childbirth than abortion. I had survived the rape, and I wasn’t willing to let them kill me now. Or my child.
I worked additional hours, and I was careful with money. The day after the rape, my manager believed me when I told her I’d been attacked. My purse left behind was proof of no wrongdoing, she said, and if I hadn’t reported to work, she would have alerted police. She examined my face closely, and I knew the swollen, cracked lip and the dark bruise that makeup couldn’t completely hide was further evidence. She offered little in the way of comfort, but at least I had my job.
It was a good job at a fine restaurant, and I earned plenty from the tips the politicians and others left. But I paid a price: I had to look good and endure unwelcome attention from men. Some only leered, but others made comments or made me bend over so they could tuck a tip in my bra. Or turn around and let them slip a tip in the back of my short skirt. Only twice in four years had someone grabbed me, though other women weren’t so lucky. And when they complained, we were reminded to be alert and step aside with a smile to avoid drunken, groping fingers. No fuss, no accusations.
My expanding waist was a more pressing problem. I ate extra, beyond what I needed, to gain weight all around and disguise it; overweight was less of an offense than being pregnant without the benefit of marriage. I searched the second-hand shops and bought a few loose, low-cut blouses and bras that emphasized my swelling breasts to take attention away from my waist. My tips increased along with compliments, and I bought loose-fitting dresses that barely grazed the tops of my thighs. Heels higher than I normally wore. Light vests above that balanced the weight below. As long as we wore black and white, as long as we were attractive and alluring, our options were almost unlimited. I wore bright-red lipstick and painted arched eyebrows, but as my sixth month approached, it was no use. On a break during a long Friday night, a coworker mumbled as she took a bite from her sandwich.
“You can’t hide it anymore.”
I had to replay her words in my head to understand. The morning sickness was long past, but my stomach heaved. I spun around on my chair, ready to run, and I stared straight ahead. The breakroom with its overhead fluorescent lights was worn and dirty, a stark comparison to the glitter on the other side of the door. I watched a cockroach scurry along the wall and wondered whether I should quit or wait until I got fired. I chose to wait and save every penny I could. Three weeks later, my manager asked to see me shortly after I arrived.
“We have to let you go, Kathryn. You’re getting … I want to say fat, but I know that’s not it. Customers are complaining, and a few said you’re pregnant. Are you?”
Before I could decide how to answer her question, she continued.
“You know what will happen as well as I do.” She gazed at my left hand in case I needed a reminder. “I let this go as long as I could, and we can’t risk losing business. Customers are already talking. I wish you the best.” She held out a slip of paper, and I took it. She wasn’t a mean woman. She had, in fact, been kind during my training and after I’d returned to work after the rape. I knew she was as afraid as anyone else, and she was just doing her job.
“Thank you,” I whispered, as I took the slip. I let my face communicate what I couldn’t say. Thank you for letting me work for so long. Thanks for everything. I placed my pens and billfold on her desk and left.
The day was stifling though it was only June, but I walked home since fuel shortages and scarcity of replacement parts meant buses were rarely air conditioned anymore, if they even ran. And I had to think. With a normal pregnancy, in ten or eleven weeks I would deliver. I had saved enough money over four years to pay my bills for a few months, but living in a somewhat safe neighborhood meant high rent, and it wouldn’t last much longer than that. Unemployment benefits crossed my mind, but they no longer existed and besides, I’d been fired. I’d have to find another job, a job where the rules and attitudes of the newly established Right Way Regime hadn’t fully permeated, where they didn’t care that I was young, unmarried, pregnant. And I had to talk to Maheen.
I knocked on her door, and she let me in as if she’d expected me. We spoke in hushed tones. She knew how to deliver a baby. I hadn’t known she’d been an obstetric nurse at the now-defunct Family Planning Association, and she had assisted in childbirth at a hospital before everything changed. But the change had worked in her favor: her ethnic background and minority status meant she didn’t dare leak information — she could easily be imprisoned, deported, or worse. And her new position at a gynecology clinic frequented by wealthy politicians’ wives and mistresses required the strictest confidence. Those women would never be arrested as others would be, and they would never endure the harassment or the hate groups. And Maheen’s job gave her access to the equipment she would need. I didn’t dwell on what my choice might have been had I known her better.
She led me to her bedroom and opened the closet. “Let’s get you dressed so you don’t show so much.”
She looked me up and down. Made me sit in front of her mirror. Pulled my hair up, wrapped it in a loose bun, and secured it with hairpins. Untangled a few wisps, spit on her fingers, and created long curls. “There. You’re very pretty, and you know that helps, like it or not. So you get a job at some cheap joint. A pizza place. Who cares, Kathryn? Money is money. We do what we have to do these days.” She turned to her closet.
Maheen was taller than I was and naturally wider in the hips and bust, and we cobbled together a few outfits for interviews. And within a few days, I had a job at a twenty-four-hour diner in a neighborhood where nobody worried about written or unwritten laws. My tips amounted to barely half of what they had been, but at least I could pay my bills if I scrimped.
Ten weeks later, while taking an order from a group of rowdy teenagers, wetness spread in my underwear and trickled down my leg. I hurried back to the kitchen and shoved the ticket at an unsuspecting waiter. “I have to go,” I gasped. A contraction made me double over. He grabbed the ticket and elbowed the waiter next to him.
“I’ll be all right,” I said when the contraction subsided. “I just have to leave. Please tell the manager I’m sorry. And thanks.” I untied my apron and handed it to him after I scooped out my tips. Hunched over once again, I asked him to get my purse. He hurried to the front of the restaurant.
“Will you be all right?” He handed it to me.
“Fine. I’ll be fine.” I stuffed the coins and bills in my purse and slung it over my shoulder. The pain was excruciating, far worse than I’d ever imagined. Like a knife. I hobbled into the restroom, pressed a large pad to my underwear — Maheen had warned me I might need one — and splashed my face with cool water before stepping out.
The waiter walked me to the back door, and I hesitated as he patted my shoulder. I met his worried eyes, and I wished for different days. He wanted to help, but there was no way he could leave the restaurant.
I ran as a bus slowed down a half block away, and another wave of pain gripped me even before I sat. This wasn’t supposed to happen so fast. Twenty minutes later, I pounded on Maheen’s door, but there was no answer. I grabbed a piece of mail from my purse and shoved it under her door. I had no time for a note, and she’d understand. I hurried to my apartment and got in bed before the next contraction came. I held a pillow to my belly and cried. I still wasn’t sure I wanted this child, but it was far too late for that. As the pain ebbed away, I made a cup of tea but hardly had time for a few sips when the cramps started again. I couldn’t think. Couldn’t remember what to do. Prop up the pillows? Have a blanket and towels ready? I hobbled to the bathroom and grabbed all the towels. What else? Water. I filled a glass and set it on my side table just as a contraction gripped me in pain so intense I couldn’t stand.
I clung to my bed and let the terror take over. I wasn’t supposed to be alone. My mother should be here. Friends, too, but I’d lost them all in the bombings. Why had I survived? To endure this hell? This pain? Where’s Maheen? I didn’t know what to do, and I couldn’t remember what she’d told me.
I pushed. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to do that. I bore down with the pressure, with the pain, to rid myself of it. I stood up and squatted. I screamed again and fell back as the pain became an agonizing outer pain as well as inner, and I knew the baby was coming.
I pushed. I had no strength but I pushed. I stood up again and held on to the bedpost, hoping for gravity’s assistance, but the baby was stuck between my legs. I’d heard of babies stuck, the cord wrapped around their necks, and I panicked.
“Come out!” I screamed. And I squatted down lower and pushed with everything I had. And the pain lessened. I could feel a release of pressure, and my hands instinctively reached down as the baby’s head emerged. I waited, leaning against my bed, and another push expelled the shoulders. I supported the waxy, mucus-covered head as my body convulsed and shivered. I fell to my knees. It was a strange pleasure, this horrific pain, and I pushed again as a tiny child streaked with blood slithered out. It was a girl. Regina Callyn Foster.
My head spun as I collapsed on my side and took her with me. She was silent, but I knew she was supposed to cry. Or at least breathe. I shivered, waited, and rolled on my back. Nothing. I pinched her nostrils and removed fluid as Maheen had said she would do. Wiped around her mouth. Patted her back and slid her sticky body over my sweaty stomach. She wailed. I lost consciousness as a door creaked and her lips latched on to my breast.
The bus was scheduled to arrive at 8:45 a.m., but I’d anticipated a long wait. Perspiration trickled down my forehead and back. The morning air was already so hot and thick I could almost feel it brush against my face as I pressed against the shadowed side of a building. Up and down the sidewalk, gray-faced people went about their business, and a few shopkeepers opened their doors. A little boy tripped over a block of cement raised up by the roots of a long-dead tree, and his mother screamed at him.
“Watch where you’re going!”
The boy burst into tears.
Fifteen years of Global Isolationism had taken their toll in ways no one could have imagined much less predicted. Protesters had filled the streets early in the Right Way Regime Founder’s first term as president, and opposition leaders struggled to make the wrongs right but to no avail. The changes came on gradually, but even as conditions worsened, even after the bombings incapacitated dozens of major cities and took millions of lives, the faithful waved the flags of victory. Shouts of “America is great again!” and “No pain, no gain!” resounded.
No one except the RWR knew what had really happened when the bombs struck, but Islamic terrorism was officially blamed. It might have been a Middle Eastern group. It might have been Russian. It could have been North Korea and their long-range missiles or China — no one knew. We heard gossip and stories, but we were so used to lies we didn’t believe anything anymore. Newspapers and online media outlets were gone, and journalists disappeared when offices were destroyed at the hands of terrorists. Or so the rumors and the emergency RWR print news said.
All I knew was that a weekend at Virginia Beach with a friend and her family turned into a month of madness. I was sixteen, almost seventeen, and there was no Internet, no landline or mobile phone connections, no way to communicate. And when I finally hitched a ride home, I found my mother buried under a heap of rubble. My school and my friends were gone, and I never heard from my friend in Virginia again. Everything I knew was gone; my father, a successful corporate and environmental attorney, had already disappeared a year earlier. He’d never been a big part of my life since my parents were divorced, but he was my father. He was Dad. And the look on my mother’s face said he was gone for good. And now both were gone.
Some degree of normalcy returned in a few months, and during my year in a shelter, I finished high school and learned to shut emotions off and get on with life such as it was. A dollar bought hardly anything. And if you weren’t the right color, religion, or nationality, you were in trouble. If you were gay or lesbian or anything other than heterosexual, you’d better hide. And if you weren’t a white man, if you were a woman, you either knew how to play the game or not. Conformity meant survival, and protesters disappeared. Suspicions had died down somewhat since, but blame, distrust, fear, hatred, and violence were the norm. Sometimes I hated my own light-brown hair, my blue eyes, and my fair skin because it automatically placed me in the group responsible for so much devastation even though, as a woman, my privileges were limited.
Early on, grass roots protest organizers worked tirelessly, and we marched, wrote letters, and made incessant phone calls to government leaders. Anything to stop what was happening. But the Founder and the RWR pressed on, and the Resistance grew resigned, complacent. We worked with what we had, which wasn’t much. Rumors sometimes warned us that food and medical supplies were running out, and we hoarded, stockpiled, and held our collective breath. Rationing was ordered, but when the grocery stores were replenished, the shelves were always wiped clean within hours. We were accustomed to being the Land of Plenty, and so few complied with rationing orders they were impossible to enforce. But for us, subversion gave us a degree of satisfaction and control though it often meant anxious waiting for future deliveries.
And after widespread gun violence, mass murders, and bitter neighborhood and even family battles became ordinary and epidemics swept through the country, the sinking ship finally began to right itself, at least on the surface. That happened when the military began to patrol the streets and police brutality turned peaceful protests and freedom of speech into memories from the past. The price was steep, and a silent desperation fell over all of us. But I remembered how things used to be, and with each passing year, the anger I’d shut down boiled closer to the surface.
I kicked a rusty signpost and started walking. The metro no longer ran, but it was early, and I had the day off. Walking might be better for what I had in mind anyway. I rummaged in my purse for my mask and fitted it tightly against my nose and mouth as a dump truck belched clouds of black exhaust. The heat and humidity would only get worse as the day went on, and with it, the pollution. I didn’t want to end up with a lung infection again.
That morning, after Regina left for her volunteer-sponsored Neighborhood Summer Camp, I flicked on the news. Bold headlines dominated the RWR news site, and fear rose in my throat. I held back from making a conclusion, though. You could never tell whether the news was truth, alternate truth, or propaganda, but this seemed real.
The RWR had announced an amendment to the constitution based on a new understanding of treason as defined in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Translated to ordinary English, it meant anyone who spoke against the RWR or discussed imaginary treasonous acts, even privately among associates, would be questioned if caught. It amounted to treason, an RWR official stated in a video, because words are a way of “levying war” against the country, and listening to such words or imaginings amounted to “adhering to their enemies.” He stressed that it wasn’t an impingement to freedom of speech; it was an important, necessary means of curtailing treasonous acts to protect the American people. And somehow, it had passed into law.
And we all knew what “questioned” meant. It was a euphemism for torture, the kind of torture previously reserved for party defectors, protest organizers, and terrorists. The very same torture was called Conversion Therapy when used for other violations such as sexual transgressions, and those, too, would now be considered treason, according to the announcer. If traitors didn’t respond to the less extreme forms of Conversion Therapy, it would become progressively more intense. The implication was that Water Therapy would be used, the kind that makes you feel like you’re drowning, and Electroshock Therapy as well. It was all for the good of the country, the announcer reassured listeners as he closed, as always, with the RWR slogan: “America is Great Again!”
Something in me snapped as I shut the computer off. I wanted to scream. Do something. Make someone listen. Anything. I had to. I couldn’t hold back any more. I grabbed a book and flung it across the room.
If only we had fought harder, sooner. Protested louder. If only. I had prayed, even before the bombings, for an assassination, for a madman to do the unthinkable, and I’d been sickened by my own violent thoughts. But I also knew the president-turned-fascist-dictator, the brazen originator of this madness, had to be stopped. And that I could do it myself. Alone. The Power of my mind was enough, and no one would ever know.
But I couldn’t entertain the thought; it was too awful, too much against my nature. I wanted to believe he’d see reason and come to his senses or that others would stop him. Perhaps he’d resign in the face of the protests and worldwide ridicule. Or he’d be impeached and kicked out of office. And I imagined that a dead leader, a fanatical, iron-fisted tyrant mysteriously killed by an unknown assailant would only make things far worse. I knew he’d probably die of a brain hemorrhage like the one my uncle had suffered, but what if an autopsy showed evidence of something … strange? The country, even the world would be terrified. His allies, his supporters, his constituents would rally, and I’d eventually be found out. Alone, I couldn’t do it. But if I had help … even then it was just a passing fancy. I never thought things would get so bad. Nobody did.
Back then, even in Washington and New York City, we could breathe and not fear sickness. We could walk and not worry about decaying sidewalks or entire missing blocks of concrete. We complained about the heat and smog in summer, but it was nothing like this. We didn’t have summertime temperatures exceeding 100 day after day, week after week. I was only thirty-three years old, but I remembered. And today, in only mid-June, the temperature hadn’t been cooler than ninety-five for weeks.
Just ahead, the loose corner of a giant billboard flapped in a sticky breeze: America is Great Again, it announced. The image of the Regime’s Founding Father — the old, orange-faced man with the yellow hair — presided over the street, his white-circled eyes following me as I walked a bit faster, as anger rose like bile in my throat. These filthy streets had been bright and green and filled with protestors when he was sworn in, when the wind had whipped at the combed-over hair lacquered to his head like a helmet. But the wind failed, and so did the protest and every protest afterward. And little by little, we’d become complacent. Apathetic. We had to live our lives. We had to raise our families. Try to get by. Hope for the best.
I watched my step more carefully as the streets and sidewalks become treacherous. I maneuvered around trash and dirty disposable diapers. Fast food wrappers and chicken bones. Beer cans, whiskey bottles, and the occasional syringe. A maggot-infested dead cat. I avoided eye contact with dead-eyed drug addicts lounging on heaps of old tires and the teenagers and gangs crowded around part-stripped cars. Old men and women with blank stares on stoops and fire escapes. The occasional groups of construction workers, ever ready to whistle and hoot. I ignored them all, but I listened.
On the block where the 24-hour diner should have been, the one I’d worked at briefly while pregnant, I found an apartment building with a fenced play yard instead. I stopped to watch the children and listen to the women. Half a block down, I mingled with the crowd gathered around a saxophone player outside a bar. I threw a coin in his hat but returned to the outskirts, eavesdropping.
“They gonna either drown us or electrocute our heads,” said one man. “Cut off our nuts,” said another. “Yeah, you better keep your mouth shut now.”
A man rocking an old toy wagon with a baby in it muttered, “I don’t have no argument against the government. I got food and beer. What else do I need?” A woman with a toddler on her hip shook a finger at him. “You need a good smack upside the head, that’s what you need,” she declared. “You know damned well my brother is … Oh, just shut up.” She leaned over to wave flies from the baby’s mouth.
Two young women with long braids and patterned skirts and sandals held hands as they leaned against a building. One woman rested her head on the other’s shoulder as both stared at the saxophone player, silent, motionless like statues, faces blank as plaintive notes serenaded the crowd.
“I would forget about public displays if I were you,” someone chided as she walked by. “Keep it private. Stay alive.”
In these neighborhoods, people spoke their minds, not like so many in the educated classes who had tightened their lips and faces years ago. And if they heard something that wasn’t an official report, something a White House window washer or Supreme Court janitor overheard and passed to a friend, I knew it would spread like wildfire, and it would be as close to the truth as you could get. It was almost a system, like underground reporting, and I wasn’t the only one aware of it.
I headed back home. It was true, then. Things would get worse. Quickly. My silent screams, the outrage, the frustration rose in me once again. The RWR never wasted a moment once a decision was made. And the checks and balances that used to slow them down no longer existed. Too many had put their own self-interests before the interests of the country for too long, and anyone in government, other than those in control, were puppets.
Outside a church, a weary preacher stood at a makeshift pulpit and assured the faithful they were saved, that Christ was coming soon, that they’d soon be raptured into the heavens while the rest were left in this hell. Arms waved, and shouts rang out. Praise Jesus! Thank you, Lord Jesus. We’re waiting for you! I kept my expression neutral. Sometimes I wished I could believe as they did.
I stopped for lunch and took care of errands and a little shopping and headed home. I walked the four floors to my apartment without checking whether the elevator worked. I had upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment as Regina got older, but I was on the same floor as my original, smaller apartment, and the building had changed little unless I counted the wear and tear. Most of us pitched in to keep it clean, and though worn, it was cleaner than it had been when maintenance workers swept by once a month. I slipped my key in the steel door and left the smell of a dozen dinners to the comparatively odorless air of my apartment.
I expected to find Regina in the living room reading or watching a TV show, but the silence was loud, the computer monitor dark.
I set my purse on the coffee table and walked down the short hall. Her bedroom door was closed. I peeked in my own bedroom.
I turned around and took the few steps back to her door and knocked. I waited and knocked again. I didn’t like to intrude now that she was older, but this was unusual. I opened the door part way.
I pushed the door wide open. She sat on her bed and stared. Her eyes were blank, but I followed them to her dresser on the opposite side of the room. The plaster statue of Jesus crashed to the floor.
When Regina Callyn was born, Maheen said I was lucky. Lucky she came so fast and that nothing had gone wrong. She’d let Regina suckle as she cleaned up, spread an old plastic shower curtain under me, and cut the cord. I hadn’t been unconsciousness for long, and when contractions started again, she wrapped the baby in a towel and nestled her in a pillow as she helped me deliver the afterbirth. When she examined me, nothing was amiss. I fell in love with my daughter, and I gained a friend.
Two months later, I found another low-paying restaurant job in a rough neighborhood, but at least it was a job. Maheen showed me how to express my milk for bottle feeding and get Regina used to it, and she watched her while I worked. Fortunately, she worked during the day and I worked at night, and my schedule was flexible. I often wondered how I would have managed without her.
Back then, I was constantly exhausted, but I obsessed over diet and exercise. And I finally found a high-paying position in the political district once again. It wasn’t easy. I admitted I’d been fired for weight gain at my previous, similar job and claimed to love the food featured on the RWR channel’s TV commercials. I’d eaten in excess — the Regime’s new food company was such a success — but I finally found a balance with food and exercise and was back to my slender self. The manager bought it. A woman might not have, but this man clearly liked what he saw.
And the years had passed. I became a model employee and an expert in restaurant hospitality, but I didn’t know how to be a mother. But Maheen was a mother — her grown daughter had been detained in Iran when the travel and immigration bans took effect — and she lent me her wisdom. And somehow, we got by.
I had watched as the Washington I’d known and loved slowly decayed and the government became all-powerful. As the homeless found shelter amid ruins. As tidy parks became overgrown jungles, as gangs ruled the streets, and as food choices, especially fresh and out-of-season, imported food, became limited or exorbitantly expensive despite a now-steady supply of staples and canned goods. As the country stabilized, we adapted to the new reality — everything had changed overnight with the bombings. But other changes came slowly, steadily, just as our democracy had slowly been primed for a fascist takeover.
My NoMa neighborhood had remained fairly safe and decent. Life was tolerable as I left childish dreams and expectations behind, and it was even fun sometimes as Regina grew older. But the anger, the blinding hot rage I’d concealed for so long smoldered and erupted when I saw how she would never experience the Washington — the America — that I’d grown up in and had taken for granted. And it was only getting worse.
Politicians and high-level corporate employees were regulars at my restaurant, and they tipped well. Faces became familiar, and many knew me by name. And one day I thought I recognized someone from my first job; it was the only way I could have known a politician unless my mother had known him, but this man was young, and that was unlikely. I felt his eyes on me, but when I looked, he turned away. I didn’t see him again for a week.
I was taking an order when he burst in the door. He was with someone, another man in a similar suit, and they argued but stopped in the foyer to settle it before approaching the maître d’. A wave of dizziness startled me, and I blinked a few times before I realized what it was. I pushed against the pressure as I lifted my head to focus on him. I pushed his Power back until it was gone and mine took over. Confused and unsteady now, he followed his friend and the maître d’ to a table near my section. I continued my work and ignored him; I was too busy to think. And he stared but looked away when my eyes were finally pulled toward his. And then I knew who he was. He was the blond man who had raped me. And he was Regina’s father.
The resemblance was unmistakable. The same blue eyes, the same blond hair though Regina’s was still bright and his had darkened with age. The same angular face and bright white teeth. And he had the Power. My Power. Regina’s and Maheen’s Power. It wasn’t as strong as mine and nowhere near Regina’s, but he had it. It hadn’t been active when he raped me. I would have known. But when I left that apartment … memories flickered.
I turned away, shaken. I could feel his presence, his position, and I avoided looking in his direction. He could stare at me as much as he liked and no one would suspect a thing. But the rights didn’t go both ways. And in this case, I didn’t want them to. I desperately hoped he would leave and never come back.
But he became a regular, and he followed me from the restaurant sometimes. How, I didn’t know; I couldn’t see him. But I could feel him. It was a busy Friday evening when he finally spoke to me. I was on my way to work, walking as I usually did, and the sidewalks overflowed with crowds. A block away from the restaurant, he fell into pace with me. I could hardly breathe.
I stared straight ahead until he said “Stop.” I stopped. He stepped in front of me and displayed his government ID.
“You’re not in trouble.” He spoke quietly but with authority. “I just want to talk.” He started walking again. “Do you know who I am?”
I nodded. The restaurant was only a half-block away.
“I was pressured. Forced, almost. And I’m sorry.”
I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to lose my composure. I had to work. I walked faster.
“I want to explain. If you’ll let me.”
The restaurant was just ahead, and I spun around. The Power that should have killed him twelve years ago flew from my brain, from my body, from all of me. His face turned white, and he stumbled. I ran to the door and heard his grunt as he fell. The image of his face loomed in my mind as I left that dim apartment so long ago, after the rape. He had realized then that I had the Power, but I wanted to make sure he knew what I was capable of. I pushed my way past the crowd, sick with fear, and I threw myself into my work.
He didn’t try to speak with me after that, but he followed from a distance. I no longer saw him at the restaurant, but he followed me home. He drove a car around my neighborhood. He was everywhere, and even though I ignored him, I could feel him. What did he want? Why was he following me?
I worked with Regina on strengthening my Power and hers more than ever. We had always played games, hiding from one another and testing it from distances, but now we practiced in earnest. And she had questions. She wanted to know where the Power came from.
“I don’t know. I think it might be a natural thing that only some people have.”
“Did God give it to us?” Regina didn’t believe a god existed any more than I did, but she had the same religion classes in school that everyone had.
“I don’t know. Maybe. But speaking of God, why did you destroy the statue of Jesus? You know it’s always good to keep one in the apartment, in case we’re ever under suspicion for something and searched.”
“There is no Jesus.” She flipped her long hair back. “What are we having for dinner?”
I smiled. She would talk when she was ready.
And we practiced. Regina had more skill in toppling inanimate objects than I had, but her sensitivity to the presence of others was less pronounced. We coached each other, and we even tried new things.
A month passed, and I no longer sensed the blond man’s presence around our neighborhood, but he began to visit the restaurant again. Sometimes he ignored me, especially when he was with a group of other men. When he was alone, which was rare, his presence was strong. He usually came in with a friend.
An elderly couple had my full attention one night when I felt his gaze resting heavily on me from behind. The silver-haired man complimented the food, and he signed the bill with a flourish. He handed the billfold to me and pressed his hand over mine.
“Thank you. We greatly appreciate your attentive yet discreet service.”
His hand pressed down on mine more strongly as he emphasized the words attentive and discrete. As he released it, his eyes remained on the billfold as he stood up. I smiled and nodded as he reached for his female companion’s hand, and I took the bill, as usual, to the cashier in the back. But instead of simply handing it over as I normally did, I opened it. Inside was a typed note on a small piece of unusual paper.
“He is truly sorry. Please let him speak.”
Under the note was a bank check imprinted with my full name: Kathryn Lee Foster. The memo on the check read “Initial account deposit.” The amount took my breath away. I slipped the note and check in my apron pocket and returned to the dining room. The couple was gone.
I fought against the fear that clutched my throat and tightened around my lungs. Who was that man? And what did he have to do with the other man? Why did he give me money? I had never seen him before. And I did not want to talk with the rapist. But it seemed impossible to ignore him now, and part of me wanted to hear what he had to say so I could punish him, tell him what I thought of him, send him flying across the room as I should have so long again. But I didn’t want to remember that night.
Less than an hour remained of my shift, and before I left, I risked a glance at the blond man. I had his attention immediately. I dipped my head once. Yes, I’ll talk. A hint of a smile touched a corner of his mouth, and he nodded. He would wait until the right time. A week later, he found it.
He sat near the tables I served. “A restaurant used to be located there,” he said to his friend as I approached the table next to theirs. He looked around, and his gaze swept over me. “It’s been replaced by an apartment building and a playground. It’s an excellent example of solid new construction, and perhaps you should consider …”
I didn’t hear the rest, but I knew the message was for me. Had he seen me there, too? And no more than ten minutes passed before I knew the time and day.
“I have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday at five, but I should be able to see you earlier.” He held his arm out in my direction and drummed his fingers lightly on the table. Tuesday was my day off. How did he know?
I found him leaning against the chain-link fence where I had stood earlier in the summer. I’d taken a bus, and I arrived just in time. I stood on the opposite side of the gate and waited. The park was full, the day was hot, and parents had brought small plastic swimming pools. The older children filled them with buckets held at a gushing fire hydrant. They went back and forth, laughing, shouting at one another and yelling reminders to shut the gate. Finally, he spoke.
“I had been … looked upon as,” he began. He waited a few moments. Still staring straight ahead, he spoke again. “The children are happy, aren’t they?”
He didn’t make sense. Was this a code? Then it hit me. He’d been looked upon as happy. Gay. Suspected or accused of being gay. But why —
“If … no …” A passing dump truck drowned out his words. I smiled in the direction of the children, as if I were interested in them instead of this man. In case anyone was watching. I could sense his agitation.
He spoke louder. “I had to prove I wasn’t. To save my own life. I couldn’t say no. I was young. Stupid. But I couldn’t see any other way. And I’m sorry.” He stared straight ahead, lips tight as the truck’s noise faded.
All the pain of that night unraveled as he blurted his words out. As he spoke of the secret that was ours and the secret that had only been his but that was now also mine. I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart pounded in my ears. I couldn’t imagine his situation; I could only feel my own. He had said he was sorry that night. He had looked away from me, and I’d thought it must be revulsion; I knew my face was bloody. Or maybe he hated women even if he desired them. He had been gentle, at least at first, certainly not as rough as the others. But his apology hadn’t mattered then, and it didn’t matter now. He’d done what he’d done.
“Are you?” I waited. Maybe he thought I was asking if he were truly sorry. “The kids look happy, don’t they?”
“No. They don’t.”
He was lying. He’d answered too quickly. Automatically. The public record recited. He was gay, and he had proved he wasn’t by taking part in a rape. By raping me. It all came back now. His fumbling. His awkwardness. The man in the doorway and how his groans became louder when I stiffened. He must have sensed the man’s presence, perhaps weakly, and took my reaction as proof and tried harder to seem like a real man.
“Why tell me this?” My voice came out as high-pitched as my daughter’s. I watched the children for a long time before he spoke again.
“I don’t know. To take away some of your pain. To lessen some of my own.”
Fair enough. If anything, the pain was only worse now. But maybe someday the apology would make a difference.
“Can I meet her?”
What? Who? Regina? I shook my head. “No.”
“Maybe in time.”
“I’m sorry.” He disappeared from my peripheral vision and walked along the sidewalk behind me.
“Can we … again?” I heard a few more words as he continued walking. Perhaps he pretended to talk to himself or on a phone. I waited for ten or fifteen minutes before leaving. Who was he? Who was the man who had given me the note and the money? The check had been marked “Charity” and was printed with a bank and company name I’d never heard of. No signature. I was afraid to cash it and afraid not to, but I had opened an account at the bank and hadn’t touched the money.
It wasn’t long before he arranged another meeting. As with the check, I was afraid to see him and afraid not to. But if he were gay, and since he had the Power and knew how strong mine was, wasn’t he putting himself at risk too? Or was it all a trick? I met him again, but this time in a crowd at a downtown festival. Another time at a farmers’ market. Always outdoors, almost always around hordes of people, always commoners. He dressed as they did in old jeans and a T-shirt and often a cap. Worn shoes. And I dressed the same, which I normally did anyway when not at work, and I learned more at each meeting.
His name was Eric. And the man who had given me the check was his father. The woman, his mother. And without him explicitly saying so, I understood he hated the Regime as much as anyone else. As much as I did. Possibly more. And one day at work, he sat at one of my tables instead of nearby. He gave no sign that he knew me; if anything, he was cooler than usual, and I had never seen the two friends he ate with. He made no attempt to communicate with me, and I didn’t try. But long after he left, when I brought my last bill for reconciliation with the cashier, she had something for me.
“Someone left this for you,” she said. She waved an envelope. “The maitre d’ gave it to me to pass along.”
“Who is it from?” It had to be from Eric, or maybe his parents had been here but I hadn’t noticed. I held it up to the light and pressed it between my fingers. The envelope was opaque, but the content wasn’t paper. It was thicker, heavier than that. A rectangular shape, possibly two.
“I don’t know.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
I was already walking toward the employee room and pretended not to hear. I jiggled the envelope and held it up again so she could see I was preoccupied. It felt like tickets for a movie or the theater only bigger, and I wondered why he hadn’t just slipped it in the billfold. I opened it when I got home. Two train tickets to Charlottesville, Virginia for the following Tuesday. Obviously, they were meant for me and Regina, but I wasn’t sure I could keep on talking with him. Wasn’t sure I wanted him to meet her. Wasn’t sure I wanted to use these tickets at all. Why had he come into our lives? Everything had been fine, at least in the circumstances we were in, and now I was filled with memories, resentment, and hatred. And rage.
Would Regina want to meet her father? I had no doubt about the relationship. He looked like her, she looked like him. Even more than she looked like me. I decided to let her make the decision.
Her nonchalance was no surprise. She controlled her emotions as carefully as I did except when she decided not to. And then, in the safety of her bedroom or mine, she would let go. But now she was reserved.
“I already know who he is,” she announced. She jumped up from her bed and sat at her little dressing table that also served as a desk. She combed her long, silky hair and examined her complexion in the mirror.
“You do?” I was only half-surprised. Since he’d been in the neighborhood, she would have sensed his presence. Not because of his relationship to her, but because of his Power. Or perhaps relationship did have something to do with it. I’d have to ask Maheen if she’d heard of that. We’d talked about the Power a few times, and she was far more knowledgeable than I was.
“Sure. He snooped around here a lot for awhile, and he followed me to school a few times. I could always tell he was there, and he saw me looking at him. At first I just wanted to let him know I was aware of him. For safety, you know. But he looks almost exactly like me except he’s a guy. And he has the Power. So I guessed.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
She shrugged. “I would have. Sooner or later. It was a little bit of a shock. You know? That he was back. And I wondered why you weren’t telling me.” She gave me her accusatory look.
I had wanted to be truthful when she first asked questions about her father, when she started pre-school. But I couldn’t tell her the truth. I had to give her something she could understand, something she could share with her classmates. She’d been too young to keep a secret, and I thought that a lie, at that age at least, was better than the truth that would be difficult at any age. I explained he had served in the army, and he hadn’t returned. No one knew what had happened to him — I didn’t want to say he died — so he was technically missing in action. She was satisfied with my explanation, and I planned to tell her the truth when she was older. When she could handle it. When I could handle it.
And now that time had come. Or had it? Maybe it was too much to tell, and I didn’t know what he would tell her. He hadn’t even told me his full name yet.
“I think he wants to explain in person. Would you like to meet him?”
“Of course I would! Are you kidding me?” She looked at me like I was crazy, and I had to laugh. She set her comb down.
“When? And where?”
“Next week. In Charlottesville.”
“Virginia. Or somewhere near Charlottesville. I’m not exactly sure yet. He gave us train tickets. It’s not far. It will be fun.” I didn’t let her know I was afraid. Afraid to trust him, afraid not to. What was I getting us into?
The late-morning trip to Charlottesville was uneventful. I had no idea what to expect, and I could only tell Regina it was a surprise and it would be nice. Fun, even. Maybe. I was torn between what to tell her and what to hold back. I couldn’t lie. But I couldn’t tell her the truth, either, not even the truth about how much I’d been speaking with him. Most of it was too personal, too painful though he’d had questions about Regina and our lives in general. I could only tell her we’d met, and he wanted to explain in his own way. I planned to take my cue from him and modify, as needed.
A driver met us at the station. He was dressed casually, but there was no way to miss his military stance and habits. He might even be an armed security guard from Washington for all I knew, but I didn’t know what … Regina’s father actually did or the position he held. I watched the news enough to keep up, but I knew only a few names in the Regime other than those in charge. The details no longer mattered.
A highway led to hilly country roads and stunning mountain views. Finally, after almost an hour, we turned on a rocky dirt lane. Regina and I exchanged glances. I shrugged. We had hardly spoken, and we remained quiet now. Before long, the dense forest thinned, and a stone farmhouse and barn appeared. A broad expanse of lawn surrounded the buildings, and on the opposite side of the barn, the fields climbed a hill and stopped at the horizon. A uniformed man greeted the driver, and he opened our doors.
I looked beyond him, and so did Regina. Her father stood on the house’s porch which, as I saw now, wasn’t so much a farmhouse as it was a country home, almost a mansion. We stepped out and waited for further instructions.
“This way.” The man closed the car door and led us to the wide porch. He saluted Regina’s father and returned to the car.
In any other circumstance, I would have liked Eric. I imagined my mother would have been delighted with him, and he would have become her pet, a politician whose favor she carefully curried in exchange for inside stories or information. He wasn’t loud or brash, and he wasn’t arrogant like so many politicians were. He was handsome, in a bookish, boyish way, and he was always impeccably groomed. Mannerly. Courteous. But I knew what lay hidden underneath, and I didn’t want to see him in flattering sunlight, relaxed and smiling as I did now. And as we approached, that image evaporated.
“Hello, Kathryn. Please sit. Or would you prefer to stretch? I know it’s a long trip.” I flinched at the sound of my name. He smiled again, a gracious host, and gestured at the old-fashioned, wrought iron table and the yard at the same time. I hesitated, unsure. Regina stared. He pulled out a chair for her and she sat, staring up at him.
“You must be Regina. I’m Eric. Eric Kearney.” He extended his hand. Standing so close together now, in person, I was better able to compare, and their similarities were striking. His hair, even though it was darker and slightly wavy, was fine but thick like Regina’s. Their noses matched perfectly just as their blue, almost violet eyes did. Both had long fingers and rather large hands. Regina’s mouth was more like mine, though, wider with smaller teeth and fuller lips, and her facial structure was softer too, but I had no doubt he was her father.
“That’s Regina Callyn Foster,” Regina corrected him, as she shook his hand. I didn’t hide my smile. She never hesitated to correct anyone. She probably wondered why we didn’t have the same name as him.
“We have a lot to talk about, Regina.” He joined her at the table, his eyes fastened on hers.
“Maybe we do. And maybe we don’t.” She folded her arms against her chest and eyed him just as closely. I didn’t intervene. Something had made her suspicious. Or, more likely, she simply didn’t trust him. He’d left her, after all. And she was probably wondering why he didn’t visit us at home. Like normal fathers. And where was the rejoicing? Where were the hugs and kisses? Why wasn’t her mother happy?
Eric glanced at me. He seemed lost. What to tell her would be my choice, then.
“Can you keep a secret, Regina?”
“Of course I can. You know that.” She rolled her eyes. I took a deep breath.
“Your father and I didn’t … we didn’t stay together for long. We couldn’t because he worked for the government. I thought he went to the army, like I told you, but he didn’t in the end. They just wanted him to live and work somewhere else, and I didn’t know where he went. And things were too dangerous. We weren’t married, and he didn’t know you were on your way.” I looked at Eric. He seemed relieved.
“Did you love each other?” She looked at me and then him, back and forth.
I thought I had prepared for all possibilities. But not for this one. I didn’t scramble long for an answer.
“Yes,” he said. “I loved your mother very much. And I still love her. But things have changed, and it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t try harder to stay or visit you. I was young and naive, and I didn’t know how to do much more than my job.”
What? I nodded and hoped Regina would see it as agreement, as if we had both once loved each other so she wouldn’t ask me the same question. But it was difficult to hide my outrage. How could that be even remotely true? Love?
“Are you married to anyone else?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Are you going to live with us now?”
“No. I can’t. I’m sorry. But I’ll visit when I can. If you want me to.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Is that all? Is there anyone else here? Any kids?”
He laughed. “No, I’m afraid not. No kids, I mean. My parents are inside. This is their house.”
“Well, I should meet them too. If they’re your parents, then they’re my grandparents. Right?”
Eric shot me a look. I swallowed. She was quick. And she wasn’t afraid to assert herself as I’d taught her, but it wasn’t always wise. I’d have to speak with her about that. I nodded.
“She’s smart. A natural leader. And she’s not afraid of anything or anyone. She has no need to be. You’ll want to stay on your toes.” Regina could destroy you. I gestured toward the front door. Regina stood to the side, waiting to be let in. “And I think she’s giving you temporary approval. But you’ll have to earn it to keep it.”
He nodded, dazed, and turned to Regina and the door then back to me. “Would you like to meet my parents?”
“I believe I already have. Let Regina meet them. I’ll chaperone.”
He nodded and opened the door, letting Regina in first, then me. I squeezed by, not wanting to touch him or even look at him.
The door opened to a foyer with a sitting room on the left. A large library on the right led to a formal dining room beyond it. Small tables with computers were set up in both rooms, and two young women were busy with stacks of papers and envelopes. They didn’t look up.
Eric led us through the sitting room to a private office behind thick, ornately carved wooden doors. The walls were lined with books and folders like the library, and it was crowded with the same small tables and computers as the other rooms. An older man was at work here, and Eric’s parents sat on a sofa to the side. They, too, seemed busy with documents spread out on a low coffee table.
They were obviously expecting us, though, and they were all smiles as introductions were made: Elaine and George Kearney. I nodded, sat quietly, and let Regina take center stage with Eric. I didn’t want to be a part of this scene, this family. I was only there for her. And their cheerfulness only made me dive deeper into myself and relive the pain all over again. Surely they didn’t expect me to warm to them, did they?
“Kathryn, if you’re comfortable with it, we can leave Regina with my parents for a little while. She seems to be getting on well, and I’d like some time with you.” Eric’s voice startled me, and every time he used my name it was like a trespass that slashed through my selfhood, my identity, myself once again.
“Go ahead, mom. It’s okay. Look, cookies. And fruit salad!” A housekeeper had emerged from a door in the back and was setting a tray filled with snacks on the table. I hesitated, but Regina’s happiness reassured me. It was fine, they were fine, and she was in control regardless. They didn’t seem to have the Power, and Regina would know as much as or more than I did.
“We’ll be sure to save some snacks for you, Kathryn,” Elaine said.
The shudder of violation passed through me again, but I nodded and followed Eric. I knew she hadn’t meant to be offensive and neither had Eric, but that knowledge didn’t remove the sting. We walked beyond the house, past the barn, and out to the fields, staying close to a thin row of trees and undergrowth. The path led to a strip of mowed weeds and grass that divided the fields, and we turned on it. Eric slowed and examined the soil and plants as we meandered through the field. He gestured that I should walk closer.
“Please follow me.” He paused and took a few more steps. “It’s better …” He continued to examine low-lying plants. Or soil, it was hard to tell.
“My parents and I and many others … are part of the …” He took a few more steps. “Resistance.” He let that sink in before continuing. “I realized you had the Power when we first … met.” He stopped and faced me, apparently satisfied with his inspection.
“I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me, too, but the shame I’ve wrestled with can’t be anything compared to what you’ve suffered. I’ve said I’m sorry, and I am. I’ve said it every day since … And I appreciate that you came here today as well as the other times we’ve met. But this, of course, required much more effort and time. And trust. I want to continue to earn your trust, as you said I must do with Regina. I understand that.”
“Do your parents know?”
I closed my eyes. I thought he must have told them I was an old girlfriend or that Regina was the result of a brief, mutually agreed upon encounter. And that he was sorry only for shirking responsibility.
“Everything?” I kept my eyes closed.
“Yes. I … I had to ask them for help. I became depressed. Suicidal. I was hospitalized, and they had to know. I had other challenges too, but that sent me over the edge. I needed their understanding.” He spoke calmly, evenly, but a tremor gave away his emotions.
I didn’t allow myself to feel anything. I didn’t even want to think of it.
“They don’t judge you, Kathryn. They’re not like … others. They only want to help to the extent that you or I will let them.” His voice was soft. Gentle.
I nodded. I couldn’t truly listen. I couldn’t care about his side or his difficulties. What about mine? I shifted my thoughts. What had he meant about the Resistance? It still existed? As an organization? I opened my eyes and saw his closed hand pressed against his lips, a deep crease that drew his eyebrows together. He dropped his hand and continued.
“What happened to you, and to me as well, wouldn’t have happened were it not for …” He didn’t finish. I knew what he meant, and he didn’t have to. The RWR. “And it’s time to end it.”
“What? You don’t mean …” I tried to keep my face steady, expressionless. I took a deep breath.
“There’s no other way,” he said. “We’ve gone over it countless times, and there’s nothing else we can do. We have thousands. Thousands committed to this effort, and tens of thousands who aren’t sure but who might join, perhaps help behind the scenes or later on. An army. People like you. Like me. And, I assume, Regina?”
I was so filled with angst I could hardly listen. An army of people with the Power? To resist? To overthrow the Regime? They had thousands too. A real army. Weapons. Guns. Bombs. And we would destroy them? My mind filled with images of dead bodies scattered on the ground, in buildings, in the restaurant where I worked. The images I’d had years ago, when I fantasized of this very thing, flickered through my scattered thoughts. What was the plan? And the angst turned to anger. Rage. Fury, even, at the thought of finally destroying those who were slowly destroying us.
I remembered his question about Regina and nodded. “You don’t know? You can’t tell?”
He shook his head. He was lying.
“Yes, Regina has it. You already know that.” I watched him again.
“You should know. You were following her. Both of us.” My voice turned sharp.
“I can’t tell for sure, but yes, I followed you. And Regina.” He remained calm but his voice took on an edge. “I know she has it, or I’ve been almost certain. But I wondered whether I was merely following my intuition. Or predictable paths; her school isn’t far away. I had a detective on the case as well.”
“Pfft.” My lip curled. The case. We were a case.
“Kathryn, I had to. I had to be sure you were trustworthy and whether you or Regina associated with anyone who might not be. Picture my situation, please. Picture the entire situation we’re all in.”
“Why don’t you picture my situation? How do I know you’re trustworthy, in any way?”
“I do. Daily. Believe me, I do. And you have no reason to trust me. I know that. I didn’t mean …” He stepped back, eyes big.
Good. Let him be afraid now. But I let it go. His Power wasn’t very strong, as I’d thought, or he wouldn’t have asked about Regina’s. I watched him carefully. He was telling the truth now. I probed a bit, sent a wave of Power in his direction. His eyes glazed over, and he wavered. Why couldn’t I do that when they, when he … and why had it been so easy when I made him fall? I pulled it back and let him recover. Regina would laugh at that strength and say she barely noticed it. Eric was overwhelmed.
“Sorry. I had to test. And I’m sorry about making you fall awhile back.”
“Forget it. I’m fine.”
“Regina could easily destroy you. From where she’s standing right now. I can feel her monitoring us from inside the house, but it doesn’t bother me.” I shrugged. His reaction was what I expected: shock. “And your parents at the same time. With very little effort. Her work right now is only to sharpen other skills.”
“And you?” He cleared his throat.
I shrugged again. “About the same.” He couldn’t know my power was far weaker than hers. Still very strong — Maheen had told me that — but nothing in comparison.
“So why didn’t you kill me? And those other men?” He frowned, almost angry. Perhaps he wished I had.
“I don’t know. I’ve wondered the same thing. Maybe … I don’t know.” I shook my head.
He turned toward the house, and I followed. I couldn’t let on that I hadn’t been able to. He couldn’t know that I was ever vulnerable. I couldn’t trust him that much.
His parents sat on the porch with Regina in a bright blue wicker rocking chair, rocking and plucking the petals of a daisy. Eric went inside while I made polite conversation with his parents. Regina was happy, I could see that. Feel it. And in her rolled up faded jeans, white peasant blouse, and two long braids, the rocking chair and porch was a perfect backdrop for a photo. Maybe another time.
His father hitched at his trousers and sat up straighter. “Kathryn, we trust you’ll use the income we’ve provided in a sensible way. The bank president is a close friend, and I didn’t want to pry, you see, but I did ask whether you’d deposited the check. He said you had, but the money was untouched. We hope you’ll use it, even if only for Regina’s comfort and education. We understand it may be difficult for you. But Eric is her father — I’m sure you see that as well as we do — and he wants to behave as such with respect for your preferences, of course. Going forward, you’ll also have monthly checks deposited automatically. It’s his money, to tell you the truth. Money already set aside as part of his inheritance.”
“Thank you. We do appreciate your help.” I glanced at Regina, and she nodded vigorously. Part of me was deeply resentful, insulted. We were already comfortable with what we had, and I was proud of myself for raising her as I had. Another part of me was overwhelmed at the thought of life being easier and having money set aside for emergencies. But the reality of why they were giving me money — that these strangers were privy to my experience and my life without my consent — was difficult.
Eric emerged from the house with a small, pleated folder and a large covered bowl. He set the bowl on the table and held out the folder.
“Please take a look at this document, but do so within forty-eight hours. The ink will fade quickly and disappear. Memorize the information, but don’t rewrite anything. It’s for your safety as well as everyone’s.” He smiled and nodded toward the file. I took it and remembered the note his parents had given me. I’d tossed it aside, but when I threw it away, the text was gone.
“When you’re finished, burn it. Completely. We don’t have much time. Do you have any questions?”
I studied his face and evaluated his parents. Regina rocked happily between them, and I looked to her for confirmation.
“They’re all right, mom. You worry too much.”
I laughed. Maybe I did. I turned to his parents.
“Will you be —”
“No,” Elaine said. “We don’t have the Power that our son has. That you and Regina have and that the whole country, even the world, is counting on though they don’t realize it. It skipped a generation. My mother had it, and George’s mother did too.” She gestured toward her husband. “He thinks his father may have had it but wouldn’t admit it. You know how men are sometimes.” She waved her hand as if the issue were a pesky fly.
I laughed. Her levity was welcome. She seemed so confident and light-hearted. My own mother had been that way too.
Eric nodded toward the approaching car. “My driver is here. He’ll take you back to the train station now. Oh, and this is for you and Regina.” He brought the covered bowl and held it out. “It’s fruit salad. The housekeeper cut up extra pineapple since Regina said she likes it.”
“I love pineapple!” Regina grinned, and her cheeks were rosy as she shook hands with both Elaine and George and thanked them. At that moment, I could only be proud of her good manners, proud of having taught her carefully as my own mother had taught me.
Eric’s smile was big. Mine was small, but for Regina … I accepted it graciously. Fresh fruit was expensive. Eric turned to me after I thanked them.
“Please let me know when you’ve made a decision. I won’t attempt to communicate with you again until I know. But I’ll be there.”
I couldn’t decide whether his final words were meant to be comforting or a threat. What if I didn’t want to join? What if I would rather raise Regina to appreciate what we had, not worry over what we didn’t have? What if I just didn’t want to get involved? Could I trust him? Was he lying? Was this a trap? I had no answer. My heart pounded in my chest, and I could feel it even in the tips of my fingers, my temples, my eardrums.
I understood all he had explained. I could see and feel his grief, his sadness, his deep regret for what he had done. I believed his apologies were sincere. But that understanding didn’t vanquish my fear. And it wasn’t so much a fear of physical violence but of something darker, something much worse. Fear of his political involvement, maybe. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the RWR. Fear of this uprising, this resurrected Resistance.
I skimmed through the brief on the train. My hands shook as I read it over and over and read it again that night at home. I tried to memorize it. I didn’t dare copy it verbatim; instead, I used a code to record key information on random pages of the few books and journals I owned. The process of memorization was always easier if I copied the material or took notes, and this was no different. I wouldn’t likely need the notes, and most of it pertained to “in the event of” scenarios. But writing them, isolated from other text and in a different kind of language, imprinted them on my brain.
I slept poorly. And the next morning, I shared the information with Regina. The text was already difficult to read, but I let her take her time. She became frustrated.
“I don’t get this. I don’t understand why you want to go against the government. I know you told me they only teach us the history they want to teach us in school, that it’s propaganda, but are things really so different now? Is it really a lie that this is the greatest country in the world? And so much better than it used to be?”
Fear rose in my throat once again. This was all she had ever known. She was comfortable, all things considered. She didn’t know what she was missing though she’d had a taste at Eric’ parents’ house. She didn’t know that fruit salad was something I took for granted at her age. But our basic comfort was precisely why I wasn’t sure the fight was worth it. What did we stand to lose? Could we create something even worse? Did we even stand a chance?
“It’s a lie, Regina. Things aren’t better. This country is not great or better than it was. It was already great. Imperfect, yes, but we had made so much progress, and now it’s a disaster. The Regime doesn’t want us to have the freedoms we fought so hard for or even basic Constitutional freedoms, the freedoms our nation was built on. Religious freedom. Freedom for women to vote and control their own bodies. Freedom of the press. They don’t want ‘life and liberty for all’ and opportunities, not just for women, but for people of color, people with different religions or no religion, gay and lesbian and bisexual people, people born different from how they feel and want to change, freedom for people to be whoever they want to be and love whoever they want to love.
“The RWR wants one race to rule the country. One religion. White men only, with few exceptions. They believe their religion, which they hardly practice themselves, is the only right religion. That only men should have rights and women should serve them. That people need to be controlled by one leading power or they become confused. But they really just want power for themselves, so they lie.”
I had her attention, and I kept going, knowing I was channeling my own mother. Growing up with a big-city journalist meant not just hearing her latest news and opinions but reading it too. Will you take a look at this! my mother would say as she shook a newspaper in front of me. She made sure I read. Made sure I watched the evening news or online reports. Made sure I listened to her reactions, her opinions. Made sure I asked questions.
“And at first, people needed an enemy, a scapegoat, someone to blame for their problems. So many unhappy people, uneducated but hard-working white people especially, thought — and still do — that other people are the source of their problems. They’re unable to see that real happiness and peace comes from within and from loving their neighbors and even enemies. Religions, even Christianity, teach that. And the RWR provided them with enemies … people who are different, people they were suspicious of or hated anyway. But the RWR leaders and their most faithful followers have no souls to love with. Their souls are buried so deep they can’t function. And so the leaders’ thoughts and beliefs and emotions like hatred and anger control them. But lots of people who thought the Founder was okay at first don’t anymore …”
I stopped. We’d had this conversation many times, and I worries I was boring her. But each time, it seemed like news to Regina. I suspected she understood more as she got older, and at that moment, her eyes were big.
“I’ve told you how things used to be, and I know that’s hard to believe. I’ve shown you pictures, and you’ve read books from back then. Do you know how many books have been banned or burned and taken off the digital market? You can’t read them anymore; they don’t exist because the RWR worries they’ll turn us against them. I know it’s hard to understand. I think when you get older, and when you’re unable to do what you want to do or unable to express yourself freely as you do with me and even most of your teachers … if you’re abused by those in power or punished unfairly, I think you’ll understand better. You’ll start seeing the difference more in how women are treated when you start high school. But you don’t have any comparison right now.”
She considered that, and a vision of her supporting the Regime flitted through my mind. Maybe she couldn’t see anything wrong with the way things were. She was comfortable, cared for. I had to find a better way. But what was I asking of her? She was just a child. What was I asking of myself?
“Let’s go for a walk.”
We took a bus to the Capitol Building and got off well before the final stop. I rarely went near the Capitol these days, and now it looked shabby and tired. We strolled the National Mall, hand in hand, and stopped at the Victory Pond.
“This used to be called the Capitol Reflecting Pool,” I said.
“Why did they change the name?” Regina frowned. “What was wrong with the first name? I can see clouds in it. So it reflects stuff.”
“Because Reflecting Pool sounds too peaceful. Too “new-agey,” as they called it. Too much spirituality, as if it was a pond where you could reflect — think — and maybe think too much about the Regime.
“I know. Isn’t it?”
We passed the pond and approached the traffic circle we’d have to cross. A tall monument stood on a cement base in the center. I pointed.
“See the Victory Monument?”
“It used to be called the Peace Monument. And this traffic circle used to be called the Peace Circle. Now it’s called the Circle of War.”
“Why? Why did they change it?”
I looked around. I shouldn’t have been talking like this in public. I lowered my voice and stood closer to Regina as we waited for the traffic light.
“Because they don’t want people to think about peace.”
“Do you mean no wars and fighting and stuff like that?”
“Yes. No hatred. No anger, or at least not the kind that ends with wars or hurting people. Working things out instead of fighting. Love and compassion instead of fear.” I gave her a hug and a kiss on her cheek. “This is love. Unconditional love. I’ll always love you no matter what.” I held her tight. No matter how or why she came to be and no matter what she decides.
“I love you too, mom. Unconditionally. Most of the time.” She grinned, and I mussed her hair and laughed.
I had brought Regina’s sketchbook and pencils so we had some pretense for being here. Just a young girl who wanted to sketch the Capitol and a patient mother. I handed it to her, and we sat on a bench.
“Why don’t you sketch, and I’ll read.” I pulled a small Bible from my purse. It was the safest thing to read in public these days.
“And let’s people watch. You know what I mean. Sketch them, if you want, while you’re at it.” I smiled without looking at her. She knew I meant to probe, to dig a bit, see what they were made of, see if she could locate their true selves, their souls. To see if they had any Power, which was in the instructions anyway.
“Can’t we go in?”
“No. They don’t give tours anymore.”
“But my teacher said we could.”
“You’ll have to ask her how, then, and we’ll do it. Regular people like us haven’t been allowed in there since I was a teenager. But I could be wrong.” I held back a sigh. It was one of the many lies they told. And when you tried to get a ticket, they were booked months in advance. If you called more than once, you would only get a recording that said the same thing.
Men and women and a few children were scattered around the steps. Visitors, like us. A few politicians lingered, too; you could tell by their look-alike suits and ties and their quick movements and constant talking. I leaned over her sketch pad and held my hand out for her pencil. I drew a cube with a line going through one of the sides. She’d have to break through the walls with her power to feel anyone.
“Remember the instructions.”
I turned to my Bible but concentrated on the building. I could sense movement before I could focus on individuals. A raucous bunch gathered here, there. A large group in a semi-circle. And the constant unspoken vibrations of thoughts and emotion. The anger and fear were thick and dense in room after room, and the near weightlessness, the lightness of calm and reason was present in only a few individuals. I followed the diagram I’d internalized from the instructions as well as memory; I had visited the Capitol several times with my mother, who knew it well. The Senate chamber should be here. The food court and shops there. The trains below, here. I traced halls and corridors to rooms by the presence of energy or lack of it.
On the south side of the building, I focused on someone standing alone before a crowd. I could sense anger and something familiar … Eric. That had to be him. If he were addressing a crowd, he must have a leadership position of some sort. The House of Representatives used to gather here, but I didn’t count on my memory. What was true then was false now. Or maybe it was the same. The documents hadn’t specified what each room was used for.
I focused on the man I thought must be Eric. I already knew his soul, his awareness, his consciousness; it was hidden under only a few layers. He was real, he was human, despite the vibration of anger now and the Power that hovered within him. It wasn’t strong, but it was there. I moved my concentration to the crowd and examined each, one by one. No souls, no Power. Some were more transparent than others, but not by much. As I neared a back row, I felt someone else like Eric but unfamiliar. I probed. And he, too, was filled with Power.
“It’s dark and ugly in there.” Her face twisted as her pencil flew across paper. “I don’t like it. It’s ugly!”
“I know, I know, honey. It’s all the hatred and the anger. How many?”
“Two. I found two.”
“So did I.”
“Is one Eric? My dad?”
“Where are you?”
“A big room. South, I think.”
“Yes, I think one is Eric. I’ll go to the north side, and you can continue on the south side.” I kept my motherly smile on, as if we were discussing sketching techniques rather than people inside rooms behind thick walls. An hour passed before we had covered every inch of the building. It was time to go home. I glanced at her sketchpad.
She had drawn what I could only feel. The House Chamber as I remembered it from tours and photographs. People sitting, standing, shouting, someone delivering a speech. And darkness. Shadows and light in swirls. Contorted, demon-like faces. Hands like claws.
“Let’s go home.” Anyone could be using binoculars to get a better view. Eric had driven the lesson home when he was so careful at his parent’s house. Anyone could be anywhere with a camera, a microphone attached anywhere. I hadn’t thought of that or considered what she might sketch.
I stood up. “Let’s go.” I closed my book and pointed at her sketch pad, and we went home in silence, each lost in our thoughts. Each sensing people, probing them lightly as we walked along, as the instructions had told us to do. We would have to come back here several more times until we knew the layout perfectly. We would do the same at the White House, the Pentagon, and other buildings. Others in the Resistance would be doing the same, and we all had to be of one mind. Could we really do this? Was it even possible?
Together we counted 106 individuals with the Power over the course of a week. Seventy-four women and thirty-two men out of thousands in ten government buildings, all with the same Power that Maheen, Eric, Regina, and I had. Not all of them were in leadership roles. Many, especially women, were clerks and office assistants, hospitality workers and janitors. We found four women in a laundry facility, and twenty-one in government building cafeterias and restaurants.
Regina was excited as her skills improved, and she rarely made mistakes. Outside the White House, I didn’t count knocking a man’s hat off as a mistake. And at the Supreme Court building, we both giggled when her focus shifted and the last joint of a white marble finger clattered off the Woman Contemplates Future Child statue.
It was just a matter of practice, and I took the opportunity to explain that the statue used to be called the Contemplation of Justice, and what the woman held wasn’t a child but a mythological character who represented justice. A sculptor had been hired to remove her hijab-like head covering and disguise her prominent breasts. Regina became annoyed. Didn’t Maheen wear a hijab and have breasts? And wouldn’t she soon have breasts of her own, like mine, as I had told her she would? I could only tell her the truth: that some people saw other religions as a threat and therefore hated them, and that they hid the statue-woman’s breasts because they feared women and their own desire for them. And she should never be ashamed of her body, I reminded her, no matter what anyone did or said.
Eric showed up for dinner at the restaurant a week after our visit to Charlottesville. I acknowledged him with a slight nod when his eyes met mine. I had decided to go through with this, but I needed specifics. I was terrified at the prospect, and I still wasn’t sure I trusted him, but I had to. My old fire was back, not just in sudden bursts but burning daily. The anger, the outrage that had driven me to take part in protest marches so many years ago. The fury I’d shoved down when my mother and friends were killed, when so much of Washington and the whole country was destroyed, and even before that, when the Regime’s Founder was elected and later, when he was sworn in. Everyone I knew thought his election campaign was a joke including my mother and her friends, and nobody thought he’d win the primaries much less the election, but he had. And the joke had become a hideous reality.
And now that I had even a faint hope, I became outraged once again. Eric and I didn’t communicate beyond my short nod, but he slipped train tickets in my billfold. This time they were for Aberdeen, Maryland.
A different driver and car took us to a forested park along a river, and panic threatened as houses and buildings became sparse. Forty minutes from Aberdeen, I had no sense of our location, but I knew it was inland. Aberdeen had smelled vaguely of the sea, but this place smelled of trees and soil and decaying leaves. Eric was waiting for us in front of an old, unoccupied house that smelled of mildew. The kitchen table was covered with thick dust, and chairs and a couch in the living room were protected by sheets of plastic. He opened the kitchen windows when Regina made a face, and a cool breeze ruffled the curtains. The air was so much cleaner here than in the city.
“Better?” He smiled and opened a drawer, grabbed some towels, and let the water in the sink run for a few moments before wetting them. He wiped the kitchen table and chairs, dried them, and gestured for us to sit.
“So, as you can imagine, I’m curious to know how things are going so far. Will you be joining us?”
I glanced at Regina. She nodded vigorously. Relief and fear swept through me at the same time.
“There’s your answer.” I tried to smile. This was her father, after all.
“How many did you find?”
“Regina? Would you like to be our spokesperson?” I wanted to give her some control. Remind her she had a voice in this. She sat straighter.
“Sure. We found 106 people with the Power. Seventy-four women, the rest men. Am I supposed to call you Dad or anything?”
I suppressed a laugh. I loved how she blurted out what was really on her mind after giving short shrift to what was asked of her. When her questions were answered, she would go on forever with the issue at hand.
Eric beamed. “You can call me Dad or Eric or anything you want. Within reason.” He glanced at me.
“I guess I’ll call you Eric. Mr. Eric, since you’re a grown up. How’s that?” She looked at me now for approval. I nodded.
“Okay.” She looked at both of us and frowned. “You guys sure are uptight. Relax. Why did we have to count them? The instructions didn’t explain. And why did we have to learn the inside of the buildings?” She flipped her hair back and looked straight at him.
Once again, shock registered on Eric’s face as I held back laughter. He clearly had little experience with smart girls who weren’t taught to be submissive. And I knew she was testing him, besides.
“Regina tends to get to the point quickly, Eric. No fuss. No bother.”
He chuckled, more amused than irritated. “Okay.” He paused and addressed Regina directly. “I wanted to get your count to be sure ours matches it. Just an accuracy check. And everyone needs to be familiar with the layout of the buildings.”
“Just in case we need to go inside. Which we won’t. Other people will do that. But we want everyone prepared just in case.” His tone was one of reassurance. Regina didn’t look worried, but I had wondered the same thing.
“But why do those other people need to be counted at all? Aren’t they on our side?”
Eric nodded. “They’re on our side. But we’re watching for unknown strays. People who might not be on our side. Or people we didn’t know about who might like to be.”
“And how will everyone know what to do? I mean, don’t we have to be sneaky or something?”
“Order in the court!” Regina grinned and pounded her fist on the table. I was glad to see them getting along, having fun now.
“Yes, Your Honor.” With a mock serious look, he continued. “We’re organized just like a business. A dozen people are in charge of big regions around the country, like head managers. Lots of other people oversee smaller areas and report to them — they’re like middle managers. And lots of people organize in cities and towns and report to the middle managers. I’m one of the main organizers, and I’m also in charge of Washington. Both you and your mother are in my group, and we’ll work together in a small team.”
Regina beamed. My stomach sank. We’d be working with him? I cut in.
“How, exactly, will we work with you?”
“Side by side. I can’t give more details than that. But I have a question for you now, if I may, Your Honor.” He turned back to Regina and winked. “How strong is the woman in your building?”
I stifled a gasp. He knew about Maheen? My protective instincts went into overdrive. But of course he did. He must have sensed her or even seen her with Regina when he was snooping in the neighborhood.
“She’s even stronger than I am,” Regina bragged. “I call her My Queen. Queen Maheen.” She giggled. When we didn’t laugh, she explained. “It rhymes.”
I have her the biggest smile I could manage, and Eric winked again and looked to me. He wanted facts.
“Regina, please explain to Mr. Eric.”
She shrugged. “She’s stronger than me, like I said. Much stronger. She knows a lot about the Power, too. And she’s my nanny, sort of. For when Mom’s working. She’s—” She caught herself.
“What?” Eric pressed.
“Nothing. I was going to say she makes the best cookies, but that’s not on topic. Mom keeps telling me about that.” Her determined tone and guilty look covered her lie. She was convincing enough for Eric, but not for me. I was sure she intended to tell him where Maheen was from. Regina was fascinated with stories about Iran, but it wasn’t something to be blurted out carelessly.
“How much does she know?”
“About what? The Power? Or about all this?” She gestured at me and Eric, and Eric nodded and gestured as she had.
“She doesn’t know anything — she’s not a mind reader. I thought this was secret.”
Eric nodded and gave her a thumbs up. “Do you think she’d be interested in joining us?”
“I don’t know. I could ask, but I’m not sure what we’re doing exactly. Or when. No clue here.” She jabbed her chest.
“We’ll meet on the day of. Early. That’s all I can say right now, but it will be the best possible time. You’ll probably figure it out yourself. I won’t say how. But I think you will.” He cleared his throat.
“I need something from you. Personally.” He glanced out the window. His driver was pulling in the driveway. So this would be a short meeting, then.
“I need to improve my own Power. I’m weak, and I know it. I’m a weak link. I’m accustomed to taking responsibility. Capable of helping others should they need it.” He laughed and rolled his eyes. “As things stand, I’ll need someone to help me if anything goes wrong.”
Regina and I exchanged glances. I knew his power was weak. But help him strengthen it? After what he had done? I hadn’t been able to even consider forgiving him — if that were even possible. Help him become more powerful? Possibly stronger than me?
“It’s okay, mom. We should help him.”
I pursed my lips. She might be right, but she could be wrong. She was too young, too inexperienced. I decided we could help him but with limits.
“You’re better off if your power is stronger. I agree. We’ll all be better off. We’ll have to spend time with you, though. Give you exercises. Test you. Challenge you. I don’t know where we can do that safely.”
“I think your apartment would be safe.”
I looked at both. “I disagree. We rarely have visitors. Certainly not a man. And we’re in the spotlight. Police are always in our neighborhood. We’re too close to the Capitol and the White House — everything. I work with politicians and RWR leaders every day.”
“But mom, that’s the point. Why would we do something wrong when it’s so easy to get caught? Besides, he’s my father. Why can’t he visit?”
“People do wrong things all the time, Regina, even when it’s easy to get caught. They don’t stop to think. Eric? What’s your reasoning?”
“I’m too well-known and too respected for local police to be concerned. They’d think I’m investigating something or someone in your building if they even questioned it. Besides, it’s obvious Regina is my daughter. That’s reason enough to be at your apartment. And if someone notices? It would be overlooked or intentionally leaked to the media as a distraction, entertainment that everyone will either love or hate. But I won’t be in trouble and neither will you. Boys will be boys, you know.” He made a spitting noise and shook his head.
I doubted Regina understood his last comment. It was an old joke, far too old for most younger people to understand. It was a mockery of the Founder’s self-admitted misogyny and promiscuity back when those things mattered.
“All right then.” I sighed. “You can visit. But if there’s trouble …” If there were trouble, what could be done? What kind of trouble? There were too many unknowns. And the risks were beginning to overwhelm the benefits.
“If you don’t want to do this, I’ll understand,” he said softly.
I stared. And I let my power creep out, just a little. I probed and felt and examined every part of him, every layer. He wasn’t lying. He meant what he said. He grimaced, knowing what I was doing. Feeling it. The invasion. His power was so weak I could hardly feel it. But it was there. Like a tightly condensed ball of fire at the base of his brain, glowing, glowing softly. He had capacity for growth. He paled, and I drew back.
“You have to get used to it. The strength I used just now was nowhere near what’s needed to cause you injury. But I can tell you’re weak. Regina? Do you think Maheen will help?”
She nodded. I turned to Eric.
“You can arrange times with Regina, then. Keep in mind that she has activities during the day, and I work most evenings. So we have limited overlap, and that depends on your schedule too. Maybe Maheen will be willing to host you at her apartment. How much time do we have?
“Soon. You’ll know soon. Regina? When should I visit?”
Regina was happy to take the reins, and she only had to get my final approval. They decided on an early morning to start, before her community art classes, which was fine with me. We were almost out the door when Regina remembered something.
“One more thing. You didn’t explain what, exactly, we’ll be doing. I get that we’re stopping the government. The Regime. We’re resisting. We’ll overthrow them or something. But how?”
My eyes met Eric’s. I should have explained; it wasn’t in the instructions. How could I even expect her to do this? She was a child. I could hardly think of what we would do.
“Well?” She folded her arms over her chest and looked at me.
“We’re going to kill them.”
Regina wouldn’t talk on the way home, and I let her be. I had to think. After dinner, she immersed herself in a book, and after she went to bed, I lay awake on the sofa. I stared at the ceiling. Remembering. Memories of my mother flitted through my mind, images of my father, of my friends and out-of-state relatives I hadn’t seen for years. Holidays, vacations, my friends and I goofing off in high school. Small victories and petty failures. Dreaming of boys and my first date, my first kiss, the relationship that ended over a difference in political beliefs. The other boy I dated who believed as I did and marched with me after the RWR founder was elected. The way we’d talked about going to college, marriage, a family of our own. The way things used to be. I turned on my side and curled up.
The tears fell for a long time, and I was almost asleep when Regina tried to fit herself into the little space left. I moved back, and she curled up as I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her closer. We had often snuggled like this when she was younger, but we didn’t do it as often anymore. I stroked her hair, and I didn’t press her to talk. This was enough. I didn’t have to join any cause. I didn’t have to take an active role in the Resistance. I could be a support person somehow. And so could she, if she wanted to. We could offer shelter afterward in our apartment. Supply food and water. Help in some way and do anything but kill people. I had a hard time imagining it. And I didn’t want to imagine Regina becoming a murderer, either. Because that’s what it was — murder — no matter the reason, no matter what we fought against.
How could I do something so wrong even with no other option? It was us or them. We gave them a chance, early on, and they exploited it. He, the Founder, had exploited us. And we couldn’t live like this anymore. Could there be an exception? How could I live with it? How could I let Regina live with it? I was an adult and capable of making a well-reasoned choice. Capable of choosing my actions, choosing the memories and even the nightmares I would be stuck with. Choosing the possibility of failure and the suffering or death that might result. But she was not. As smart as she was, no eleven-year-old had the capacity to truly understand pros and cons and future consequences. And I couldn’t choose for her. How could any parent expect a child to do something so heinous, so horrible, even if the reasons were sound?
We fell asleep like that, at peace with each other even as we wrangled in our minds. I could feel the tension in her, but I could feel her love and her trust. Her soul was so close to the surface, so sweet, barely covered by woes and worries or prejudices and misconceptions. No real anger, no hatred. And she was a beautiful soul, a soul protected by the light of her Power.
When I woke, my arms were empty. It was early, but I made a cup of tea and tip-toed to her bedroom. The door was open, and she was awake. She sat on her bed, staring trancelike as she had that day when she knocked the Jesus statue to the floor. But this time, her focus was different. This time, she had cleared her dresser and arranged dozens of tiny plastic people and animals in rows. One at a time, in rapid succession, she knocked them over with her mind. “Pop, pop, pop,” she whispered. She got up, rearranged them, and started again. “Pop, pop, pop.” Faster and faster. More violently the second time.
“Pretty good, huh?” She turned to me with an impish grin.
“Very good. Amazing, actually.” I sat next to her. “Can I try?”
“Sure. Let me set them up.”
When she sat down again, I concentrated. The first few wobbled as I fine-tuned my focus, but I knocked the others down quickly though not nearly as fast as Regina had.
“You’re just warming up. Try again.” She patted me on the back the way I often patted her in consolation. Like mother, like daughter.
This time, there was no wobbling. Pop, pop, pop. Not as fast as Regina, but fast enough.
“Good job!” She held her hand up for a high five. I slapped her palm and grinned.
“Not as fast as you. I should practice.”
“You should.” She got up and placed the tiny figures in a plastic bag.
“Where did you get them?”
“Maheen, of course. She’s really good at it. She practically blows them up.” She laughed and placed the bag in a drawer before setting her lamp and stuffed animals back on the dresser. She leaned against it.
“Yeah?” I swallowed.
“Don’t be. I can do this. I wasn’t sure, but I can. I get it. I do.”
I shut my eyes.
“I hear stories in school, you know. Kids talk more than grown-ups do. And teachers don’t always keep their mouths shut like they should.
“Well, it’s true. And I know things are bad. I know how things used to be. Sometimes I just need to hear it from you, though. You know? I know you tell me the truth. From anyone else it might be”— she looked around dramatically and leaned closer — fake news,” she whispered.
I laughed. Where had she heard that one? It was so old.
“And Maheen tells me stories. Did you know she hasn’t seen her family in almost twenty years? Even her daughter?”
“And did you know her daughter was totally legal? Not exactly a citizen, but she had all the right paperwork. She went to Iran to visit her grandparents and she couldn’t get back when that idiot banned people from countries like Iran. Where they have a lot of Muslim people, you know.”
“Maheen came here because she loved the United States and wanted to join in, you know, to be an American. To start a better life like everyone else here did. Did you know that? And she had to leave her daughter behind. Family stuff, I don’t know. I think her husband hit her too but … it’s complicated. And then her daughter came and even went to college. Maheen got her citizenship, and her daughter was supposed to get hers too, but it was taking forever. So when she left, she couldn’t get back. They had email for awhile and other ways to talk, and the stories are terrible. But she doesn’t tell me really bad stuff, so don’t worry. But I can guess things because I’m not stupid, and it makes me mad. You know?”
I nodded. “I know what you mean. It makes me mad too. And no, you’re not stupid. You’re very smart. But I don’t know about —”
“It’s my decision. And I want to help.” Her jaw was tight.
“It’s my decision too. I’m your mother, and you’re still very young no matter how smart you are. I’d never forgive myself if something bad happened to you.”
“I won’t forgive myself either if I don’t do something. I have the Power. And it’s a gift, isn’t it? What else is it for? Why do we have it? And I’m so strong, so much stronger than most people. Maheen told me. And these government people don’t even have souls. They’re not even people. They’re monsters. And I think it’s okay to do this when people are suffering. Isn’t it self-defense? Like an army protecting good people?
“You should hear my friends. There’s the kid who’s sure he’s gay but can’t tell anyone except me and one other kid, and I guess his parents know. Catalina, the Mexican girl — she gets made fun of, and her dad got beat up. Trevor, he’s African-American — same age as me — and he got beat up by police for no reason. And another boy who’s Muslim and he’s, like, totally American, born here. His whole family has always lived here, grandparents and everything, and they’re scared like everyone else. The stories about older sisters, brothers, relatives, parents … I hear this stuff all the time, Mom. I know what’s going on. I just don’t talk about it.”
“I didn’t know that. I wish you’d tell me.”
“You have enough on your mind. You’re always sad, always worried. You have enough. And I’m a big girl.”
“Oh, sweetie.” The tears came again. “I always have time for you. I always have more space in my mind and my heart than you think.” Regina came to my side and wrapped her arms around me. She was getting so tall. She was almost twelve, and growing up so fast.
“Just let me do this. Maybe I can guard you and Eric. And Maheen. She’s coming, right? And whoever else. I could just protect you guys and warn you or something. Only knock someone down if — I don’t know. If you get attacked or something. Then I wouldn’t have to kill anyone. Just be an extra. Just in case.
“That’s not a bad idea.”
“So I’m in, then.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“But I will be. I’m not letting you do this without me. Either I go or neither of us goes.”
“Aren’t you getting bossy!”
“I promise this will be the only time for a long time. It’s too important.” Her face was earnest, determined. Did she realize she was risking her life? Did she know what that meant? But how could we fail? So much Power …
I sighed. It wasn’t unreasonable for her to act as a guard of sorts. An extra set of eyes. But even that seemed like too much. But what choices were left? Regina was special, I knew that. And maybe, just maybe, I’d have to trust her. Do something I’d never have thought possible. Something that no parent should allow. But these weren’t normal times. It wasn’t a normal situation.
“Okay. But I reserve the right to change my mind. That’s not fair, I know, but I’m your mother. And if I can’t let you do this after thinking some more, that’s the end of that.”
She nodded. “Okay. Shouldn’t we talk with Maheen?”
“Yes. I planned on it. Don’t you have something going on this morning? Why don’t you get dressed and have some breakfast — I defrosted muffins last night — and I’ll meet you at her apartment. She’s usually awake by now.”
Regina hopped off her bed, her long hair glittering like silver in the early morning light, and hugged me.
Maheen was making tea, and she invited me in. I spoke quickly as I followed her to the kitchen. She gestured toward the table. She wasn’t surprised with the plan, but she was suspicious.
“How do you know this man is trustworthy?” She set two cups of tea on placemats and sat down.
“I can only go by my own judgment. I believe he’s honest. And I don’t know if Regina told you, but …”
Her dark eyes met mine over the rim of her tea cup. “I don’t know what Regina might have told me. What do you mean?”
I closed my eyes. I had to tell her. I’d thought of it the night before. She would see the resemblance anyway, and Regina might let something slip. I hadn’t asked her to be secretive about him specifically, after all.
“He’s her father.”
“What? No, Regina didn’t tell me anything about him except …” She set her cup down. “She did mention a trip to the country, and she said the man you visited is rich and has a fancy house. And that he’s very nice and probably your boyfriend and … Oh. Oh, my.” Understanding spread over her face. “You’re not saying he’s … oh, Kathryn.”
I nodded and buried my face in my hands. When I finally looked up, Maheen was fussing with a few errant gray and black hairs and tucking them under her hijab. She blinked as her head shook back and forth in tiny shakes.
“I admit I’m shocked. How did this, how did he …”
“I think he found me by chance and recognized me. Or maybe he searched to find out who I was and what became of me so he could apologize. And I recognized him, too. At the restaurant. He’s in politics; I’m guessing he’s a representative, possibly from Virginia. Maybe a senator; I don’t know.”
“Politics! Apologize? Since when do rapists apologize?”
Her words cut through me. “Maheen, please don’t. I know, you’re right. It’s crazy, and I’m terrified of him sometimes. But he’s Regina’s father and I just can’t think of that. He wanted to talk to me. And he apologized, over and over. He told me he was pressured to prove he wasn’t gay and that he was afraid for his life, which I believe though I didn’t ask for details. He was young; he’s my age. That doesn’t excuse what he did, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to forgive him. But I think he’s honest; I even met his parents. They’re the ones with the fancy house Regina told you about. And I think he hates the RWR as much as I do or anyone else. Possibly more.”
“I don’t know how you can stand being near him.” She finally took a sip of her tea. “How can you be sure he’s her father, though? There were others.”
“I’m positive he’s her father — they look so alike it’s almost weird, like they’re twins. The others were … just different. It’s hard to be near him, to talk to him. Horrible sometimes. But I do it for Regina; she’s thrilled, and he wants to be her father as much possible. And he’s been giving me money for her care.”
She nodded. “Money says a lot. I’ll take your word for it. When will this Resistance take place?”
“Very soon. I don’t know the exact day or time. But he says we’ll know somehow. And he’ll let us know regardless.”
“Us? You mean Regina will take part?” Her eyebrows rose.
“Yup. I’m going.” Regina walked in and closed the door. “Mom and I had a big talk. I’ll just be back-up. And Mom says it’s possible she’ll change her mind, but I don’t think she will. We have to do this.”
Her eyes glittered in a way I’d never seen before. And Maheen stared back for what seemed like minutes. As if they could communicate in a way that I could not. Maheen finally turned to me.
“And what would my role be? What would I do?”
“The same as mine, I guess. Follow Eric’s lead. And … destroy.
A week later, I understood what Eric had meant. I saw — felt — people with Power on sidewalks and near the Capitol and the Pentagon. More at the White House. Like tourists at any time of year, some explored parks or the sites, and a couple sat in my restaurant. They seemed to sense my Power, and I knew they were sensing me, trying to probe me. I threw up a barrier and shut them out. I’d discovered that ability while playing with Regina, to create a wall of protective energy wrapped around us individually and together. And we continued to practice, to make our walls strong.
Eric visited three times. Twice at our apartment with Maheen, and one time at her apartment when coordinating our schedules became impossible. She brought two friends with her each time for her own protection, and it made me feel safer, surrounded as I was by four strong women. Eric invited them to join the Resistance, but they refused. They didn’t explain, but I knew. I understood fear now better than I’d ever understood it before.
Maheen became more convinced of the cause as time went by, and she agreed to take part. She, too, had had her share of hurt and anger and suffering for reasons different from mine and reasons that were the same. We spent hours with Eric, and we saw evidence of progress. But he needed to practice control; at one point I blocked him; he was getting much stronger.
The time came closer. I could feel the excitement in the air as people of Power gathered. They were all over the city. They looked like anyone else, though some didn’t hide the lost looks on their faces. Had they registered as tourists? How could so many newcomers wander freely, unnoticed by police? And not all the extra tourists had Power, and that puzzled me.
I turned on the news; I hadn’t watched it in days. And there it was. I had completely forgotten. It was the annual Right Way Regime Founding Day parade. The celebration of their ascent to power. The day when “America is Number One” went into effect with, supposedly, wealth skyrocketing. The dollar on the rise. Unemployment approaching zero percent. No abortions. Crime almost non-existent. Homicides unheard of. Streets cleared of the homeless, gangs, and drug addicts. Immigration stopped and walls built along both the Mexican and Canadian borders. And all progress was due to the Regimes’ zero tolerance policies, deportation of the evil ones, and superior management.
I almost laughed at the lies. Clearly they hadn’t included Washington in their report. And how many executions had taken place? How many innocents, how many people of color and so-called undesirable factions of the population had been erased? Imprisoned or slaughtered in the streets? How many rapes had been ignored? How many crimes committed that hadn’t been counted? Anyone could walk down the street and see the lies. And though few traveled much, word spread.
The RWR parade would take place on Saturday. Three days. In the early days, attendance had been sparse. Now, with younger people reaching maturity and starting families of their own, old sins were forgotten. Or maybe some were just curious. Or maybe, like me, they didn’t dare to not attend. Most people in the educated classes strove to keep up appearances, and I had brought Regina every year since she was a baby. For me, it was a balance between social scorn at my unwed mother status and being accused of being unpatriotic. Back then, I figured that at least as a patriot I might get credit for not aborting one of God’s children. But there was no logic. No sense.
And now I understood the plan. What better time than during a parade with almost mandatory attendance? Crowds, confusion, everyone blending together. Police would have to gas the whole city if they wanted to stop us, if they even understood what was happening, which they wouldn’t. And all the main RWR leaders would be there if past parades were an indication. Eric would know. He was on the inside.
I checked with Maheen. She was ready. And when Regina came home I told her. I didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but Eric would tell us. Somehow.
I worked Thursday and Friday night, but I didn’t see him. My stomach churned. I needed to know for sure. I wanted details, some way to know what we were doing and when. I wanted this over with, all of it. On Friday night, I had to tell Regina I hadn’t heard from him, but we’d see him in the morning. Everything would be fine.
I kissed her good-night and hugged her tightly. I made a cup of tea and sat in our little living room and turned on the news. Nothing had changed. No reports of trouble. Not that I trusted the news for much, but there would have been a lie to distract us. It was just how the RWR operated.
I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep when a noise woke me. I sat up and looked around. A shaft of bright sunlight flickered through the only window. Morning. Barely. I lay back again.
Nothing unusual, I thought. The usual creaking of the building, probably, but I was too nervous to tune it out. And it came again. A light tapping at the door. A presence. I reached outward to feel, to sense. Eric. A part of me was shocked that I could feel relieved with his arrival. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my robe.
“Eric?” The presence grew stronger — somebody had joined him — and I opened the door as far as the chain would allow.
“Yes, it’s me. And someone else. Can we come in?” He was panting, as if he’d been running.
I closed the door, unfastened the chain, and opened it wider. I pressed a finger to my lips as they strode in quickly. I didn’t want to wake Regina. He turned around.
“We had some trouble. We’re okay. It’s okay. Don’t worry.” He glanced at the other man.
“What’s going on?” I fastened the chain again on the door and bolted it.
“Nothing. I can’t say.” He took a deep breath. “Well, everything’s going on. Today is the day. But we’ll have to leave here earlier than I planned. The parade starts at ten. You figured that out, didn’t you?”
“Sorry for showing up like this. I couldn’t … You understand.”
I nodded. Secrecy. I understood.
“This is Makani. He’s on our team. Makani, this is Kathryn Foster.”
Makani was a big, dark-skinned man. He extended his hand immediately and pumped mine, grinning.
“Pleased to meet you, Kathryn.”
His enthusiasm was contagious.
“His position at the rear of the crowd, where people like him are supposed to stand” — his tone was sarcastic — “is advantageous. Bases covered, you know.” He winked at Makani, but his banter was short-lived.
“I’ll give you additional instructions before we leave. Is it … I was hoping we could have one more practice. But you can go back to sleep if you want. We could —”
“No, I’ll be all right.” I stifled a yawn. “How are Makani’s skills?” I barely felt him.
“Mine are good.” Makani said. “At least, that’s what they tell me.” His faded, patterned shirt, sandals, and sleek black hair suggested the Pacific Islands. But I couldn’t place his accent.
“Let’s sit down and get some practice in, then. We can always improve. But let’s be quiet. I’ll get Maheen soon.”
I excused myself to get dressed, but I pushed the coffee table against the sofa and placed cushions on the floor first.
I settled into a cushion and focused on Makani when I returned since I already knew Eric’s power.
“Do you mind?” I scanned him lightly, superficially. He blinked a few times.
“No, I’m good.” He shrugged. “Just go easy on me, will you?” He laughed. I hit him hard.
“Whoa! Easy!” His grin disappeared.
Eric laughed. “Don’t mess with Kathryn.” He looked up. “Or her daughter. Good morning, Regina.”
Regina stood in the hallway, silvery hair tangled, sleepy but watching. So young. So beautiful inside and out. I hated her involvement in this. She needed to be a child, not a soldier in a resistance army up against an entire fascist regime. I could feel her probing Makani, her face expressionless.
“Not her, too! Hey, hey ladies. Take it easy on this old man.”
“He needs practice, Mom.” She yawned. “I’ll get Maheen.” She ambled to the door. Eric was on his feet in a flash.
“What?” I jumped up and exchanged glances with Regina. Now I knew why he’d been running. He’d been pursued, and he was worried someone was out there.
Eric wrapped his arm around Regina’s shoulder. I froze. My hands clenched as I fought the urge to tear him off, to throw him across the room. He stood at the closed door.
“Anyone out there, Regina?” he whispered.
“No. I could have told you that, Mr. Eric. I already checked. I always do these days.” She smiled up at him, oblivious to the screaming inside my head. No! Don’t touch her!
“Good job. I should have known that. But let me check anyway. You got me covered?”
She nodded, clearly bored as I struggled to let go of my panic.
He peeled back the chain and opened the door, little by little, and finally looked up and down the hall. He nodded.
“Go ahead. And I’m just being a dad. Ok?” He combed his fingers through her messy hair and smoothed it.
She slipped out. He kept watch as I wrestled with my reactions. Dads hug daughters, don’t they? Fix their hair? It was normal, right? I sensed Regina enter Maheen’s apartment, and he closed our door a second later.
“I know she’s safe with Maheen, so I won’t worry.” His eyes lingered on mine; he could see my fear. Sense it, now that he’d had so much practice. I turned away, and he followed me to the circle.
“Who’s Maheen?” Makani was stretched out on the cushion, hands behind him.
“Kathryn’s friend. You’ll see.” Eric turned to me. “Shall we?”
I put Makani through the routine. I invited him to try to sense me and encouraged him to work harder. After a few minutes, I wrapped myself in my own energy.
“I can’t feel you anymore,” he said. “There’s something … around you.”
“Good. You shouldn’t be able to sense me now.”
“You can protect yourself?” Eric asked.
“Yes. It took some time to learn. You just wrap the energy around yourself instead of directing it outward. It might help to use your hands at first, like this.” I extended my hands and moved them in a circle over my head and around. “Follow that mentally. Or let the energy flow out of your hands and cover every inch of space. Then do it without your hands. Envisioning a circle of light might help.” He raised his arms up and imitated me.
The doorknob rattled. Eric jumped up quickly and checked the hall before letting Regina and Maheen in. I greeted Maheen with a smile and made introductions as Regina sat next to me.
“Makani, this is my friend, Maheen.” He stood up and extended his hand. Maheen was just as tall and just as big in her long, flowing blouse, and he shrank back just a little.
Maheen only grasped his hand lightly before she removed a large candle from the bag on her shoulder, dropped her bag next to me, and sat. She placed the candle on the coffee table and lit it as her deep voice filled the room.
“We’re going to clear ourselves of negativity. Breath in deeply, slowly, and then breathe out.” She demonstrated. Eric and Makani seemed embarrassed, but Regina and I were accustomed to her rituals. We breathed.
“We’re just letting go of our thoughts so Power can flow better,” Regina whispered. “Come on. Breathing won’t hurt you.” She grinned as we went into another round of deep breathing.
“Focus on your breathing,” Maheen said. “In. And out. This is the key. When thoughts return, as they will, simply return to your breathing without judgment.” We went through a few more rounds and sat quietly before she spoke again.
“Now we’ll let Power come into us. We will channel the universe’s Power.” Maheen held her hands up and we raised ours as well. After a few moments, she dropped her arms and nodded.
“Regina will lead now. I have counseled her.” She slipped my hand and Makani’s in hers and instructed us all to hold hands.
Regina smiled and scrambled to her feet. That left me sitting next to Eric. He scooted a little closer as I stared at his hand and fought the urge to run. Cry. Curl up in a ball. Disappear. Hide my hand. I flipped through options but none were feasible. I had to do this. For Regina. I looked away and held out my hand. Pretended it was nothing. Stared at the floor. Felt his hand as it closed tightly around mine. Felt him lower our hands to the floor. Felt Maheen squeeze my other hand and hold it tight for a long time. She knew. And she understood.
“I will show you how to make your power double what it is now,” Regina said.
Makani folded his arms over his chest and raised a skeptic eyebrow. I almost laughed despite my distress. She sounded like an announcer for a TV commercial, and he wasn’t interested in what she was selling.
“Makani.” She looked straight at him. “You’re thinking too much. You’re allowing habitual energy and judgment to block your flow. Breathe deep. And release.” She demonstrated and repeated as his breaths matched hers. “Now knock me over.”
“What? Are you sure?” He glanced over at me. I nodded.
“I’m sure.” Regina’s high-pitched voice remained steady.
“As long as you’re sure!” Makani relaxed, and his expression changed. He stared at her intensely as he focused.
She was unfazed. “That’s not too bad.” She held up her palms. “Try to narrow it, though. That will make it stronger. Focus on my right hand.” She waved then held her palm steady.
She nodded at Eric. “You too. Try to move my other hand.”
She stood motionless, patient. Her hands didn’t move.
“Not bad. I can feel you both. Mr. Eric, you’re stronger than before. Let’s try something else.”
“Am I going to make any difference? I can’t even budge a kid.” Makani looked around. “I was afraid I’d knock her over and she’d get hurt, but she didn’t even blink.”
“I’m almost twelve, Makani. I’m not a kid.” Regina gave him a stern look.
Maheen laughed. “Oh, you’re strong. Quite strong. You are too.” She glanced at Eric. “But you’re trying to make a dent in someone a hundred times stronger than both of you put together. But it’s good practice. Makes you work harder.”
Makani’s mouth dropped open. “Sorry, Regina.”
“It’s okay. But come on, now.” Regina waved her hands again. “Back to work. Focus. Hard.”
We went on like that for over an hour. She brought out her miniature dolls, and we had time to laugh, time to let go of stress. Both Eric and Makani were able to knock a few over. The room sweltered with the heat our Power generated.
Finally Eric looked at his watch. “Time.” He looked around and fastened his eyes on mine. “You remember the instructions?” He pulled out his mobile phone and made a few quick taps.
I nodded as chills raced across my back and shoulders. We had five minutes for the bathroom, medication, or any other need; the instructions had emphasized personal care. And no matter the size of the group, we would leave alone or in twos, then take separate routes. As we rushed about, Eric said Regina and I would walk together, he would parallel us one or two streets over, and Maheen and Makani would take a parallel street on the other side.
We would kill or be killed.
“Are you scared, Regina?” I smoothed back the loose strands of hair from my daughter’s cheek.
“Nope. Are you?” She looked up and all I could see were her deep blue, almost violet eyes.
“A little worried, that’s all.”
“Don’t be, Mom. It’s going to be all right. I can tell.”
I held her closer and wondered how she could be so sure. She snuggled her face against my neck; she was more worried than she would admit. I worked on staying calm, but it was impossible.
At the last minute, Eric told us someone would pick us up and drive us halfway to the parade. Now Maheen and I sat on either side of Regina in a white, six-door car while he and Makani sat in the rear, facing us.
“Is your driver going to … be there?” I could feel his power.
“Yes. He’s not really a driver, though, he’s one of the organizers. He’ll pick up key members of his team after he drops us off near the convention center. You, me, and Regina first. He’ll take Maheen and Makani over to Sixth. We’ll all meet on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Maheen interrupted. “Remember what we talked about. Stay alert. Be aware. And do the best you can to protect yourselves above all. We should have spent more time on that. But we’ll have more than just misdirected Power to worry about.”
“I’m pretty big,” Makani said. “And physically strong.” He grinned at Maheen. “I’ll protect you, don’t worry.”
Eric nodded. “Good point, Makani. Innocent people will be pushing, stampeding to get away. And Maheen, you’re right. That’s covered in the instructions, but I know you didn’t see them. We’re counting on shock and speed, positioned between the crowd and the parade, as close as we can get. In, out. Strike, retreat. Repeat. When we’re done, follow the crowd like you’re one of them. Act confused. Terrified. And go home.”
I nodded. “Eric, Regina will be covering us, protecting only. I don’t want her on the front line, so to speak. But since she’s so strong and fast, she’s the best for the job. The … our responsibility is more straightforward.”
Eric nodded. “Good thinking.” He looked out the window, but I caught the worry. I had to look away when he pressed a finger to the corner of his eye. Had something changed? Why were we driving? Were we walking into a death trap? Was I wrong about him, wrong to trust him?
“Focus, Mr. Eric.” Regina’s voice and face were like ice.
The car made a final turn and rolled to a stop in front of a red brick church. A street sign announced Eighth and N Streets. We’d have to walk down to Seventh, then. I yanked at the door handle and stepped into blazing sunshine, the heat, the smog. Eric watched the car drive away before turning to us.
“You’ll take Seventh Street, and I’ll take Ninth. No need to hurry; we have a little extra time. Wait for me on the corner of D Street. There’s a little store there and a coffee shop.”
“You’ll be by yourself?” Regina’s icy focus disappeared. A creased forehead, a quivering lip replaced it.
“I’ll be fine. No worries.” Eric tried to smile but I could see the fear. Feel it. And there was something else.
He took two quick steps, crouched down to her level, and scooped her into his arms. She clung to him and held tight as his hand stroked the back of her head. “There, there. Everything will be fine.” He glanced at me as she buried her face in his shoulder.
I kept my face still. I couldn’t go there. Not now.
“Focus.” I could only whisper.
He nodded and gave Regina another hug before he stood up. He gently pushed her away and looked in her eyes, one hand still on her shoulder. “I love you. Remember that. We’re doing this for you. For all of us, but especially for our children and their children.”
Her concentration was back, and she nodded. She wrapped her hand around his and returned it to his side. “See you in a few.”
She turned and I followed, but I looked back. Eric still stood, watching, his wavy hair blown back by a breeze. A nod was all I could give him as I turned and followed Regina.
Seventh Street was crowded for this time of day, but that was to be expected with the parade. We walked silently. I tried to keep a smile on my face and turned to Regina after we crossed New York Avenue.
“Regina? Let’s smile. Let’s be happy.” I reached for her hand and we swung our hands between us. And I smiled; how could I not? This child, this beautiful human being was a gift. I hadn’t always seen her that way. She had been a thing, a growth, a hideous product of hatred, of violence, of the RWR and all it represented. I’d never spent time worrying what if I had aborted her? I neither wallowed in guilt nor congratulated myself on the choice I’d made. If the risks weren’t so high, that probably would have been my choice. That no woman should have to face those risks, that I should have been able to choose freely, was just one thing we’d fight for today. I would never question it. And I knew she would have entered the world regardless. Somehow. If not through me through someone else. Recalling how she came to be was almost as horrid as watching Eric touch her, but I wouldn’t deny him the opportunity to be her father or her to be his daughter. Still, I couldn’t help wishing she’d been conceived in love. Couldn’t imagine ever looking at him without the memory of that long-ago night.
Now I risked my life for her in a different way and she for me. For all of us.
We passed the Post Office, endless restaurants, the RWR Sports Center, and what used to be the location of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It had been razed, like everything else that suffered damage in the bombings, and a high-rise office building now stood in its place.
Sweat dripped down my neck, and I glanced at Regina. Her forehead, too, was drenched. My anger surged. In just fifteen years, temperatures had climbed, oceans had risen, and with lax environmental controls, no one trusted the water we drank or the food we ate. Nothing about the environment was ever mentioned in official news, but rumors circulated. The Potomac River had risen a few feet, and everyone knew it. Land had been lost, highways had been submerged, islands lost. Barriers had been erected around Georgetown University, and the stench of dead fish often permeated the air as far inland as the White House. And it meant the Atlantic Ocean, where the Potomac drained, had risen equally as high. It had to end. America was not great. It was destroying itself.
“We’re almost there,” I whispered. I scanned the area. I could feel Eric two streets over, slightly ahead of us. Maheen and Makani trailed by a block on Sixth. When we approached the RWR Theater Company, I knew we were almost there.
Two men tapping mobile phones hurried by. They were government employees with identical suits, plus I’d glimpsed an RWR pin on one man’s lapel. Something put me on alert, and I followed them with my Power.
“Regina? Did you get a sense of them?” I kept my voice low as I dusted imaginary dust from her shoulder and saw two more men headed our way. I looked up at a restaurant sign as if searching, and I pulled Regina by her elbow to the restaurant’s wide window.
“Let’s look at the menu. Maybe we can eat here later.” I scanned it quickly, and the glass reflected the two men as they strode by. “Hmm. I don’t think so. Too expensive. We’ll try some other place.”
Regina caught on quickly and followed my cues as we browsed slowly to the next restaurant. When the men were well ahead of us, we resumed walking. All four men turned right.
“Not good. Anger but also … determination, I think.” Regina looked up at me. I nodded. That’s what I had felt too. We waited, and I could tell by her blank stare that she was examining them though they were out of sight. I followed them too, and they turned back in our direction but at a distance.
“They’re looking for someone,” she said. “Oh, no. I think it’s Eric, but I can’t tell for sure. They’re headed his way.”
“No!” I concentrated and sent a few pings to him. “Warn him, Regina. Just lightly. Quick. He should be able to tell it’s us.”
I sent one more and hoped he received it. We walked faster. I could feel him moving in a different direction. Coming toward us but not directly; he zig-zagged. Then he stopped.
“We have to believe he’s okay, Regina. He can protect himself. Let’s go.” I grabbed her hand again, and in a few minutes we were on D Street. A coffee shop was on the opposite corner. He would see us there, wouldn’t he?
Sirens sounded just as we stepped off the curb. We jumped back on the sidewalk and watched. Traffic cleared and three police cars raced down the street, lights flashing. My hand clenched Regina’s tightly as we attempted to cross again. The four men on foot were moving fast now. In front of the coffee shop, I concentrated again.
Eric was moving, but he zig-zagged as he had before. The police cars stopped. But the men stopped too, and the energy of the police and the four men merged. Had they got in the police cars? The sirens started again, and I could feel Eric moving back to where he had been and then forward. The men were gone. In a minute, we saw him walking toward us.
My shoulders relaxed. I wrapped an arm around Regina and waited for him to cross. He seemed fine, unruffled, not worried on the outside. But fear rippled through him. Who was pursuing him and why? Or was it coincidental and nothing to do with him? Regina ran to take his hand.
“Everything’s okay.” He paused to catch his breath. “Let’s go. The parade will start in about ten minutes. And thanks for the warning.” He was hiding something, but there was no time to ask.
We walked toward Pennsylvania Avenue holding hands like a family with Regina between us. His baggy jeans and old T-shirt disguised him well, or at least it made him look a lot different. His baseball cap and sunglasses helped, too, but I wondered whether it was too much. Or not enough. For our first few meetings in public, it seemed fine. Now … It was too late to worry, either way.
The sidewalks were crowded right up to the barriers along the street. Why had the RWR changed the parade route? Before, it was held on Constitution Avenue, and there was so much more space along the National Mall. I held Regina’s hand tightly as Eric led us forward. The concentration of Power here was like a shimmering haze and had no beginning or end. It filled every space, even overhead, but it didn’t cause damage like a direct hit would. This power simply oozed and swirled like eddies of fog on a damp night. I squeezed Regina’s hand and leaned forward toward Eric.
“Do you feel that?” I whispered.
He nodded. He searched the crowd and stood on his toes. “Have you spotted Maheen and Makani?” But I wasn’t tall enough to see much until someone moved.
I scanned up to Sixth Street. So many people, so much power. It was difficult at first to isolate individuals, but it wasn’t long before I felt Maheen and then Makani.
“They’re coming now,” Eric said.
“Yes, I feel them too. Regina? Can you feel them?”
I glanced her way. She nodded. She was focusing, but not on what I expected. I watched as she gazed toward the Capitol.
A distant blare of drums and trumpets rang out. I froze. I didn’t know what to do or how we would do it. Maheen and Makani joined us, and I hugged Maheen. The cheers of the crowd rippled down Pennsylvania Avenue, a tsunami over an ocean, louder and louder as it approached. And then the wave was upon us, washing over our heads and on to the White House, where the parade was supposed to end. The noise was deafening, and Eric drew us in to a huddle.
“The rest of our group and many others are close by. Some will stay out here; others are headed toward … indoor tasks. We head toward the front of the parade. When the parade is fully organized, my mobile phone will buzz. We’ll all get a Power signal from an organizer. Then we strike. Work as fast as you can, and don’t be concerned with … the fallen. That’s separate, not our job.”
I interrupted. “What about performers, ordinary workers? They always have clowns and dancers and —”
“No. Absolutely not. We expect they’ll run at the first sign of trouble. You’ll recognize political leaders by their suits and lapel pins. Employees by formal dress and name tags. Military personnel will be obvious. Don’t pick and choose. Just get them all.”
“Pop, pop, pop.” Regina was still in her trancelike state but paying attention to Eric at the same time. My throat tightened. This was wrong. She shouldn’t have to see this. Do this. I couldn’t let her go, but I didn’t want her here, either.
“Kathryn?” Maheen tapped my shoulder.
She unwound her long, light-blue hijab, ripped an end down the middle, and handed one side to Regina. She pulled and pulled until the entire piece of fabric was in two long pieces. She tied them together and unknotted the colorful fabric belt at her waist. She tied it tightly to the other end of the hijab strip and now, with the belt, it became a rope, a lifeline fifteen feet long. She handed the other end to me.
“Wrap it around your wrist. This way you won’t get separated.”
Tears smarted my eyes as I followed her instructions. I whispered my thanks.
Regina was still motionless, and Maheen reached for her wrist and tied it loosely. “You can still slip your hand out if you absolutely have to.”
“Thank you, my Queen. My Queen Maheen.” Regina giggled just a little.
Maheen kissed her cheek. “And thank you, Regina. Everything will be fine today. You’ll see. Kathryn, have no fear. Have confidence in your daughter and in yourself. And in all of us.” She looked around, and her eyes settled on Eric.
“Maheen, thank you. For everything.” A new light lit up Eric’s face as the drums and brass instruments punctuated his words. His hand gripped his pocket. “Let’s go.”
A jolt hit me. I thought I’d been bumped by someone, but it was only in my head. The signal. I shot a look at Regina and could tell she’d felt it. Makani looked a bit unnerved as he and Maheen moved back toward the edges of the crowd. Regina, Eric, and I moved forward slowly, steadily as we forged through the ecstatic crowd. We slipped through tight groups and separated at times. I kept Regina close behind and mentally rehearsed passing the rope to her if I had to break away.
The band became visible when the crowd ahead parted, and my heart pounded. Behind the band, two giant, flag-shaped balloons came into view: the RWR emblem and the U.S. Stars and Stripes. I could make out floats behind it. We had another minute, at most.
“Stop.” Eric came to a standstill and looked at a street sign. “We’re moving too quickly.”
I furled and unfurled the fabric around my wrist. People would scatter. They would run when they saw what was happening. I’d keep her close until there was space to let her move back.
“We have about a minute,” Eric continued. “I’ll be working right along with you, but I’ll stay slightly behind to catch those who aren’t obviously RWR, the ones I know are members but aren’t obvious.”
My knees shook. I glanced at Regina but she was focusing.
“Regina. Stay aware. We have to communicate.”
“I’m here, Mom. Just scanning. There’s more than I thought. A lot more of us. More of them.”
I scanned, too. Politicians were much further back, but I could already feel them. They were like molten bricks with a density around them that others didn’t have. Even among the commoners and parade performers whose souls were deeply buried, most were porous, lighter that the RWR members, as if the layers could be peeled away. Not so with the politicians, especially those higher up in leadership as I’d learned when we scanned the government buildings repeatedly: the appointed cabinet members, the various secretaries, the directors, the ambassadors, the advisers. Their layers were melded together like rock. Granite. They’d never be able to access their inborn compassion, the natural love for their fellow humans. And that’s what made it possible for these humans to perform inhumane actions for their own glory.
And my rage was ignited once again. The fear left, and I was ready. It was that hardness that allowed them to do what they did, to repress others, to control others and destroy them. It was what allowed them to believe that only one kind of human should have control. People like them. White people. Northern European people. Men. All others must be tightly controlled. They would never be capable of anything but glorifying themselves at the expense of others. And it would never, ever satisfy. Like drug addicts, they’d only seek bigger conquests and more control.
The band marched by, and the drums pounded in my head. The balloon flags moved on merrily to cheers and applause. I seethed at the applause for the RWR flag and watched clowns dressed in red, white, and blue follow on stilts. And behind them, a long car decorated with flowers and ribbons was filled with men in dark suits. Dark suits and lapel pins. I leaned down to Regina.
“The crowd will scatter. I’ll hold you tight until they do. When there’s enough space, I’ll loosen the rope or let go so you can get far behind us. Cover us. Don’t do any pop pop pop unless you absolutely have to, for self-defense or ours. Do you understand?”
She nodded. I stared at her. “Yes, I understand,” she said.
“Okay. I love you, more than anything else in the world. I love you with all my heart and soul, and we’ll get through this.”
“Love you too, Mom.” She looked up at me with confidence, but I sensed her tremble.
“We’ll be fine.” I tried to keep the same trembling out of my voice. For her. For my Regina.
“Time.” Eric’s flat voice snapped me out of my reverie. I straightened my shoulders and looked up. This was it. No turning back.
And the rage flowed as I stared into the faces I had only seen on TV. Online. On posters. All the damage, all the loss, all the death and destruction. I saw it all. The poverty, the filth, the rats, the dead cat on the sidewalk, the drug addicts and prostitutes huddled in rubble and old tires on desolate lots. My dead mother, my missing father. And the man standing next to me, a victim of another kind of hatred who had, in turn, inflicted it on me. And the karma had come around full circle with Regina. All of us. Against them.
Pop, pop, pop. I shot my power out as the three men stood and smiled and waved at the crowd from their roofless, antique automobile. I pounded them, and I watched the confusion come over their faces, the wobbling, the same as my uncle so many years ago. My rage only increased as I railed against them and felt others doing the same. I knew they were dead before they fell over.
Shouts and screams rang out. The band continued and drowned the shrieks as panic erupted and people closest to the car pushed against the crowd behind to escape. Police officers stared at the car, at the crowd, back and forth. I looked one last time as blood trickled out the ear of the last man to collapse.
We had to hurry. I grabbed Regina and pushed forward. I could see only one thing: a float, a large float with six men gathered at the front. Again, I aimed at each, one at a time, and started over again with the first. One man screamed and grabbed at his head. Over and over until I knew they were gone.
The crowd pushed and shoved, and I had a hard time standing. The band played on, and the drums and brass poured through speakers as loud here as it had been in the front.
“Mom! Look out!”
A man crashed over the barrier, staggered toward me, unseeing, hands pressed against his head. I jumped aside and stared until he was down. I ran.
Again, two floats down. Pop , pop, pop. And again. I recognized a few customers from the restaurant. Why did they appear in public like this as easy targets, unprotected? Politicians didn’t do this before the RWR, did they? I looked around. They were protected, now that I was looking for it. Bullet proof glass rose up at least eight feet on the floats. Security everywhere, armed, no doubt. Helicopters above — or had they just arrived? Sirens sounded in the distance and still the band played, unaware of what was happening behind them.
Where was Maheen? I sensed her presence and glanced over toward a grassy area and found her. Her eyes were blank. Makani walked next to her, and Eric was just ahead. How many more?
I sensed a presence hiding behind the next float, a flowery creation meant to represent the two flags. When she darted out, I recognized her from TV. The Founder’s adviser, in that role since the early days when he campaigned for president and first took office. She had lied and lied to protect him and those who followed. She looked the same as she always had with wispy-thin, eternally blonde hair and make-up far too dark and heavy for her now deeply lined face. Pop. She sprawled face first, legs tangled, her high heels flying. Watching her go down was worth the horror that swept through me at the same time.
Military vehicles — cargo trucks, tanks, camouflaged Humvees, and even a helicopter on a float came into view. An aging, round-faced, thin-lipped man from the early days, the often-mocked media manager known for throwing podiums at reporters manned the tank. A blonde woman with glasses, the force behind the Christianity now taught in public schools, sat cross-legged, surrounded by men, on the front of a dune-buggy. The shaggy-haired, unshaven paunchy man who preached that equality was a daydream and celebrated sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in official publications, one of the Founder’s closest associates, waved at the crowd from a desert dune buggy. Finally, they’d met their ends as my Power and a fierce, invisible firestorm from all directions shot them down.
As memories raced through my thoughts, I downed each one and their security guards. With my Power running hot and strong and fueled by my rage, they went down fast. But that level of power produced sights I didn’t want Regina to see. That I didn’t want to see. Blood pouring. A skull cracking. I pulled her close and ran. A marching military unit had already been destroyed, and bodies formed dark heaps in the street.
The Capitol Building loomed up ahead. The band had stopped, and the absence of music made the screaming and the shouts of police and medical personnel that much louder. More real. I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears when the sound of a low-flying helicopter drowned it out. It was almost overhead. Military police stood in windows. Some crouched with weapons on an open platform. One man sat, his legs dangling and shoulders strapped with weapons, ready to drop out.
“Regina! Run! Go home!” I ripped the rope from my wrist and threw it at her.
“No! I’ve got this.”
I stared as the men in the helicopter collapsed, one by one yet so quickly it was a blur. The man who had been sitting fell to the street, and the engines sputtered. But they roared back to life as the machine changed direction and moved toward the Capitol Building. It hovered for a moment and the engines died as it crashed into the Victory Pond.
“Regina?” Had she … I stared at the pond. Waves crashed over the sides, and steam belched from the half-submerged helicopter. She was at my side, so deep in her trance she didn’t respond when I shook her. I seized the rope she hadn’t caught, and she followed me as I charged forward. We had no time to waste. One more car… I knocked the occupants down quickly, smoothly, and felt Eric’s power involved. The crowd had cleared, and I struggled to keep my face blank. Was a blank face normal in a situation like this? I didn’t know. I pretended to look for someone when movement caught my attention.
My vision became a tunnel. The edges became blurred, but distant objects became sharp. At the top of the Capitol stairway on the left, someone struggled in a wheelchair. Groups of two, three, and four politicians were scattered on the long stairs, rushing toward the seated man.
A woman stood behind him. I focused more closely. She wrestled frantically with the wheelchair, pushing, pulling, unsure how to engage it. She crouched down and yanked at a wheel. Her long, bronze hair, her slender figure so fashionably dressed, and her perpetually squinted, makeup-darkened eyes and red lips were unmistakable, even twenty years since she had become First Lady of the United States.
And the man in the wheelchair was her husband, the president who had become the Founder of the Right Way Regime. The perpetually tanned, angry old man with watery, white-circled eyes and a mouth shaped like the letter O. The billionaire with the fifth-grade vocabulary and potty mouth who had bragged about his sexual conquests on TV. The man who insisted his small hands had nothing to do with his manhood. The president who had captivated and destroyed so many millions had finally met his end. I reached out to probe him and feel for his soul, but there was nothing. Truly nothing. Only layer after layer of pride, hatred, and self-interest. A bully. Under that was pain, horrible, black pain. Loneliness, grief, and loss. Fear, fear I hadn’t imagined could exist and more hatred. Something else was hiding, and I could only think of a lost little boy. A child, a child so deeply wounded he’d never come out. His soul, such as it might have been, had been destroyed and it was long gone, never to return.
I hurled my power forward, and he didn’t flinch. But his body slowly went slack as he slumped to the side and melted into his wheelchair, as if he’d been deflated.
The other men had just cleared the last step. I strained my eyes to be certain, and all were government employees and politicians. I focused on each and could feel the Power of others, all working in unison to destroy what had taken over our country. We would rebuild somehow. America would be great again but hopefully humbler this time around. Better than we had been. Better for the entire world.
I turned away as the last one wavered and clutched his head. I had thought of sparing the First Lady, but someone else took her out. I’d always seen her as a victim, and I felt sorry for her. But it was over now. Regina was just a few feet behind me, and her father was just beyond, turning away, walking fast. Most of the crowd had dissipated, but he skirted around a few people with white faces, motionless, in shock.
We had to leave. It was too empty. I put on a face of blank horror and turned back on Constitution Avenue. We would reach Pennsylvania again in a few minutes and return home. I averted my eyes from the street and the mayhem. And I remembered a park just ahead on the right. We could slip in under cover of the trees, walk through, and avoid Pennsylvania and what was left of the parade. I could see Maheen and Makani in the distance.
“Are you all right?” I whispered to Regina as we walked.
She nodded and gazed unseeing as she held a finger up. “Someone. Somebody. A bunch of … I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. I guess we’re all right. Let’s get out of here.” I took her hand in mine and made sure the rope, still attached to her wrist, was comfortable.
Sirens filled the air. It didn’t matter anymore. There was no leadership left. No one to accuse, no one to chase, no one to arrest. Even if someone confessed for some crazy reason, nobody would believe them. They’d be locked in a hospital for the mentally ill, at worst.
We walked in silence and passed horror-stricken stragglers at the back of the terrified crowd. Everywhere voices cried out, “What happened?” and “What did we just see?” and “My God, my God.” People crying, stumbling. I had to ignore it or I’d say the same thing even though I knew what had happened. We caught up with Eric, and I raised my eyebrows when he looked over at me.
“We can leave,” he said. “Plenty of others are still watching. But I need to go somewhere quiet and catch up with what’s going on in other locations.”
His face was pale, and he looked older than he had only an hour ago.
“There’s a park just ahead. Do you see that path?” I pointed. “There should be plenty of bushes plus the trees and probably benches.” Regina and I could just walk fast and turn off further down on Sixth Street.
“Okay. Thanks.” He picked up his pace and began tapping his mobile even before turning on the path.
Maheen and Makani were already turning on Sixth, a half-block away as we passed the park. I didn’t try to catch up. I’d see Maheen at home. There was no hurry.
“Mom?” Regina’s voice sounded weak. “I feel sick.”
I turned quickly. “What’s wrong?”
“Tired, I guess. Hungry. But I don’t feel like eating.”
“We should get some water. And maybe something small to nibble at. I’m sure we can find a store that’s open. Plain pretzels or crackers, maybe?”
“Do you feel like throwing up?”
“No. I just feel weird.”
Shock, probably. Regret washed over me. Regret at what she had just seen. What we’d both seen. What we had caused. I couldn’t think of it, and I was an adult who had seen dead bodies before, bodies under rubble …
“Something’s wrong. And I don’t think it’s me.”
“What?” I shivered despite the heat. Stopped. Her voice… “Regina, what? Tell me!”
Her eyes held terror. “We have to go back. It’s Mr. Eric.”
“We shouldn’t have left him alone!”
She ran. I watched as the rope whipped out of my hand and trailed behind her like a tail.
“Regina!” I raced to catch up. She turned into the park, and I was right behind her. Down the path, into the maze of bushes and trees … where was Eric? I followed Regina. A male figure collapsed against a tree just ahead. She kept running. I looked around. Where was that shouting coming from? It wasn’t Eric. Who?
I tried to focus. So much anger here. Hatred. But who? I whipped around, turned this way and that. Another man, a young man with a shaven head appeared at the park entrance. Four more emerged from the trees and shrubs. And I felt Regina’s power hitting them. But who were they? I had to trust her. As I came closer, I saw the tattoos. A jacket. A T-shirt. And the back of a man’s shaven head: swastikas. Skinheads, then. Neo-Nazis. I rarely saw any, and never heard about them in the news anymore. Wasn’t the fascist nation we’d become enough for them?
I felt Eric up ahead, and his energy was all wrong. His power, so strong earlier, was weak. Something …
A man running with a baseball bat raised it over his head.
“I’ll get you now, you faggot-lover, nigger-kissin’ scumbag!”
Another one pulled out a handgun. My vision became strange again, a tunnel, and I saw the gun though I knew he was far away, on the other end of the park. I took him down. Blasted into him with all the force I had.
I could feel Regina close to Eric, and I turned my Power to the man with the club. He held it high as he ran, ran toward Eric. And Regina was close to him, her Power merged with his.
“No!” The force that came out of me almost knocked me over. I stumbled a few steps and caught myself as the club flew and the man convulsed, still running, blood pouring from his face. My stomach heaved up my throat. I looked away, forced it down.
I turned to the others. Down, down, down they went. Pop, pop, pop. I was mad. Truly insane. Another gun was raised but dropped as that man, too, writhed and fell. Regina that time. She’d been behind tall, dense shrubs from my perspective, but now I saw wide open space in front of her. And she was torn between Eric sprawled on the grass and facing the attackers.
I glanced around. One more. I sent him flying into a tree trunk. I made a quick survey of the park and couldn’t see or sense anyone else. But they could be hiding … What had happened to Eric? Had he already been clubbed? Shot? Was he alive? His Power was so weak.
A figure appeared at the open gate of the park, and I whipped around to destroy it, but it was Maheen.
“Maheen!” I waved frantically.
She was breathing heavy as she came closer. Just behind her was Makani.
“What’s going on here? What —” She took in the scene.
“It’s Eric. I think he’s been hit. Physically hit. Can you back us? Watch for bald men. Swastikas. Neo-Nazis. A bunch are dead all around.” I ran to him.
Sheltered behind the shrubs and next to a tall cement wall with coiled barbed wire at the top, Regina was crying, shaking his shoulder. Was he dead? I knelt and watched his chest. He was breathing. I could see his heart beating in a vein in his neck but felt his wrist to be sure. His pulse seemed normal. As I calmed down, my focus became better. His power was probably weak only because he was unconscious.
“Did someone hit him, Regina?”
She nodded and looked up, her eyes red and cheeks wet.
“Yes. On his head. I got the guy who did it.” She pointed to a body fifty feet away, patted the side of her own head, and turned back to him. She picked up his hand and held it between hers, rubbing, as if to warm him, bring life to him.
“Oh, Daddy. Come back, come back.”
“What do you sense, Regina? He’s breathing, and his heart is beating. He’ll probably be okay.”
“I don’t know. His energy is so weak.”
“I know. I feel that too. But maybe Maheen can tell. She’s a nurse.” I stood up, but Maheen was already squatting down. Relief flooded through me.
“Thanks, Maheen. I’ll watch. Will he be all right?”
“He’ll be fine. I think he’s just barely unconscious. But let me see.” She leaned over him as I moved out to the park’s center.
Makani paced near the entrance and kept his eyes moving. I inspected the back area, constantly turning, watching for any movement, any presence. I was drifting back toward Eric when I felt a tiny signal from Maheen. I ran.
“Is he all right?” I stopped a few feet away. Eric was sitting up with Regina’s help. Maheen stood nearby and smiled as she waited for me, and my hands shook. My whole body shook, and tears welled up in my eyes. She held her arms out, and I wept against her chest as she held me tight. The sobbing took over, and I couldn’t stop. I remembered the first time I cried in her arms, when Regina was only hours old. When exhaustion took over and I couldn’t keep going with work and Regina, Regina and work. The times I wanted to cry in her arms but didn’t: When I came home the night after the rape and didn’t tell her though I knew she knew. The time Regina was so sick, and I was afraid to take her to a hospital. The times when we were both sick. The lonely days. The isolated nights with only a fussy baby and a computer screen for company. I hid my face in her neck as she stroked the back of my head.
“Like mother, like daughter,” she whispered. She was right. That was exactly what Regina always did when I comforted her. And Maheen knew Regina almost as well as I did. I laughed now, and I stood up straight. Sniffed. Wiped my eyes on my shirt sleeve.
I turned to Eric and Regina. He was still pale, but he seemed almost normal now. I walked slowly toward them and stood near Regina. She held his hand and hummed a song, a nursery rhyme, the song I always sang to her when she was sick or tired or needed comforting.
Love was a strange thing. People could hate someone, be angry with someone, but if they’re sick or hurt and need help, the hatred disappears. Evaporates. And compassion takes over. That didn’t include fascist dictators and their cronies, I reminded myself. And it didn’t include other extremes like the skinheads we’d just destroyed, though if they hadn’t attacked us I might feel differently. I didn’t really hate them anyway. I only hated what they represented though I could never love them. I didn’t think I could ever love Eric, either, but at that moment, my compassion was much stronger than my anger ever could be. Especially with Regina needing him so much, needing someone to call Daddy.
“Thank you,” Eric whispered.
A brief, tiny smile was all I could offer. We had so much to do. So much work ahead. The entire country had hard work and lessons to be learned. But maybe, eventually, we wouldn’t have to be afraid any more. Maybe we didn’t have to hate. Maybe we could learn to love. As individuals. As a nation. As a world. Meanwhile, though, we had reality to deal with.
“Do you have any idea why these men attacked you? You specifically?” I watched as he looked away. I shook my head.
“I need to know, Eric. I have a right to know. If you’re going to be around, if you’re going to be Regina’s dad, you can’t keep secrets. And we need to get out of here. Are there more?”
He finally turned back to me. He looked in my eyes, looked around, smiled at Regina, and clasped her hand that held his. “I guess — I hope I don’t have to be so secretive anymore.” He glanced around again. “We, I mean the Resistors, Power or not, have groups of volunteers around the country that help minorities. Black people, people of color in general, the LGBT community, Jews and Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, anyone who feels threatened. We offer shelter and safe places, especially for families and kids. I’m a shelter supporter and volunteer. The local skinheads became aware of us only recently, and I became a target when one of the shelters here in Washington was discovered and attacked last week.”
I blinked. He was involved much more than I would have guessed.
“Fortunately, we only had minor injuries, and no one was killed. Their side wasn’t so lucky, and they swore they’d get revenge.”
“Is that who was chasing you this morning? Before you came to our apartment?”
He nodded. “Makani was a target too; he’s also a volunteer. And that’s why I called for a car.”
“Then both of you are still in danger.” I looked around. Maheen and Makani were directly behind us, near the center of the park.
He shook his head. “Doubtful. The guys with the club and the guns were probably the instigators, the ones who had chased us earlier. Regina described them. It was only a small group.”
“What about those four men? The ones we warned you about. Who were they?”
He hesitated. “I’ve had enemies try to trip me up more times than I can count, and those four … Let’s just call them persistent, and they might have been working with the skinheads. I got a sense of who they were before I dashed into an alley and found myself lost in a farmer’s market.” He let out a little laugh then frowned. “I don’t think we need to worry about them anymore. They were in the parade.”
I shook my head. “I had no idea. No idea what’s been going on. I feel like an ostrich with my head in the sand.”
He laughed. “That’s how it’s supposed to be. Secret, I mean.” He chuckled lightly while I thought about the risks, the dangers involved, the dedication.
“Don’t be. I have my reasons like you have yours.”
His expression changed, and in a flash I was afraid.
“Help me up?” He hesitated and reached for my hand. I felt Regina’s eyes on me; she was out in the park near Maheen. I had to do this. I couldn’t hurt her. It would be easier to help him now than explain to her later.
I reached, and he grasped my hand. I pulled, and he stood. Shaky at first, but he steadied himself.
“Thank you. I think I’ll be fine.” His eyes hadn’t changed, and they didn’t leave mine. He stood only a few feet away. The same blue eyes, the same hair, the same face as that night when I first … saw him. The same … compassion, after the fact. But I didn’t want to remember. I wanted to see him for who he was and probably who he had always been, but it was impossible. The slip he’d made was too big of a slip. Far too big. It had changed me in irrevocable ways. Taken something from me. Destroyed something in me.
He reached out his arms. “May I?”
No! No, I was not going to let him touch me. I closed my eyes. It was too much. Too much for one day. And the tears came again as I nodded without knowing why. I felt his hand on my arm. I froze. He waited, and he placed his other hand on my other arm. And I let him. Step by step, little by little, and I was in his arms. One wrong move, and I’d run. I’d take Regina with me and never see him again.
But he only held me quietly, carefully. Shoulders to shoulders, chest to chest, his arms around me. And that was all. We stood like that for a moment, and the tears rolled silently down my face.
“Somehow, we will heal,” he whispered. “Whatever I can do for you, I will do it. I’ll always be here for you. Always. As much or as little as you want or need.”
And he let me go. He stepped back and looked in my eyes. Evaluated. Checked for damage. I laughed, just a breath. His eyes, too, were wet. And I wondered what it must be like for him, how he must have felt all these years. For the first time, I let myself imagine what walking in his shoes might be like. Maybe, in time, I’d understand.
But now we had other tasks, and I didn’t want to discuss it. Not now, at least. Regina and getting her home safely was my priority.
“Do you think it’s safe to leave now?”
He nodded. “We’ll just stay alert. And someone will drive us.”
“And what will happen with all those … bodies? What will people be told?”
“It’s all been carefully planned. No worries. Military technology will explain part of it — think something like Tasers or electromagnetic fields. Microwave energy. In the wrong hands.”
“Oh.” Technology …
He reached in a back pocket for his mobile. From the other pocket, a pressed white handkerchief. He handed it to me.
A smile leaked out as I dabbed at my eyes and cheeks and let him have privacy. I looked around. My eyes met Regina’s, and we shared the mute understanding we’d always had. I smiled at her and reached out my arms as she came running.
“I knew you’d be getting back with Mr. Eric!”
“Regina!” Horrified she’d made that conclusion, I slipped my arms under her shoulders and swung her around and around. She screamed and giggled as I swept her up to my hip, just as I’d done when she was a toddler. She was far too big for that now, and her legs dangled and kicked.
“Put me down!” She laughed and tried to tickle me. Before her tickling could get unbearable, I set her down. Mussed her hair. Did everything I could think of to get that thought out of her head.
We joined Maheen and Makani, and Eric finally came up behind us. Regina promptly took his outstretched hand.
“Are you up for the walk back to the Convention Center? Someone will pick us up there.”
I nodded, and so did Regina. Maheen shrugged good-naturedly, and Makani headed for the back of the park. Eric still looked pale.
“Will you be okay? How’s your head?”
“I’m fine.” His eyes were glued to his mobile. “It hurts, of course, but I’ve had worse. Come on. Let’s get going.” Still focused on his mobile, we started walking as he tapped.
“We’ll take care of you at our apartment.” I could offer him that, at least. And Regina would like it. He nodded.
As we walked through the big gate at the back of the park, I expected deserted streets. Parade goers would surely be in hiding by now, away from the ghastly scene we had just left. And as the adrenaline slowly seeped away, a dark cloud lowered. What would happen now? Would anyone suspect us? What would people be thinking? I worried about riots and chaos. The Founder and the RWR had millions of faithful followers, after all.
But the streets weren’t deserted. They weren’t packed as they had been along the parade route, but noisy crowds had gathered. In the distance, music played. From another direction, I heard a different kind of music. Music of all kinds blared.
“Makani! Maheen!” Eric called. “Come back. Listen.” They were just ahead and turned as he fiddled with his mobile. A woman’s voice came from it. Music. The same music that seemed to come from above, from a window somewhere in a building nearby. Maheen stood next to me and stared at the ground as she listened.
The same announcement that came from Eric’s phone blared from unseen speakers. And as the woman’s voice rang out, I thought I recognized it. I was almost certain it was a well-known broadcast journalist who had disappeared like so many. I’d assumed they were all dead. Could they have been in prison? Or simply hiding?
As her British accent came over the airwaves, Maheen looked up, startled. The journalist I recalled was originally from somewhere in the Middle East, but I couldn’t remember exactly which country. Afghanistan? Iran? But I nodded. Tears filled her eyes, and now it was my turn to comfort her. I held her as tears of joy and tears of grief wet both our faces. We could cry together, and we could hope together. Openly. Without fear. And maybe someday she’d be reunited with her family. We listened.
“It’s over. You did it. We resisted, and we were silenced, but we never stopped the fight. We survived, and we will rebuild. The RWR is no more. And you — all of us — will never, ever let this happen again. Let history never be repeated. But remember, freedom won’t happen overnight. We have a lot of work to do, and this is only a start. Are you ready?”
Cheers and screams erupted, and the music played. When the cheers died down, she continued.
“Do not let your guard down. This is only a start. Not all will be celebrating, and some may try to resurrect the RWR in some way. There may be violence and protests. Leadership must become reorganized, and that won’t be an easy task for anyone. But we are free, finally free. Reporting live from Washington, this is Mirabelle Farahani.”
The crowd cheered again, and another voice took over to deliver more specific information. Eric turned off the broadcast and shoved the phone in his pocket.
“Shall we?” He grinned. He didn’t seem surprised, but the thrill of victory was in his voice, in his face, in all of him.
“Did you know about that announcement? Do you realize who that was?”
He just nodded. “We planned it but only hoped for it. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s just get out of here.”
I couldn’t agree more.
“Let’s go!” Regina shouted. She pulled at Eric’s hand and he laughed. I grabbed her hand on the other side, and Maheen and Makani led the way.
Yes, we would have difficulties, challenges, obstacles. Our world had changed completely once again, and this time, Regina was a part of it. She would need special care, extra vigilant watching. I wasn’t sure how today’s events might affect her, and I wasn’t sure how they would affect me. Or Maheen. Or Eric.
I glanced at him, and I could tell he was tuned in to me, sensing me. He smiled, and I smiled back. I wasn’t afraid. Maybe someday I could forgive him. Maybe. Regina squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back.
We would take each day as it came. For now, for today, we could be happy. Just happy. Let go of the past. Let go of the worries. Just for today. Tomorrow would be here soon enough.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed 2036: The Final Resistance, please share on your favorite social media platform. And consider writing a review: even just a few words are much appreciated.
Leah McClellan is a fiction and non-fiction writer as well as a freelance editor. In her spare time, she reads novels, poetry, song lyrics, graffiti, and the backs of cereal boxes. And the news. The real news. Always online.
She’s originally from the Philadelphia area and loves riding her bike on sunny Florida trails. Skating in Paris. Skiing in California. Riding the funicular in Athens or whacking down sugar cane in Hawaii. She loves learning new languages, and she’s especially fond of regional dialects and accents.
McClellan studied English literature and history in college (BA/MA), and her poetry has been published in literary journals such as Cimarron Review.
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After fifteen years of global isolationism, widespread bombings, and the leadership of a fanatical dictator, life has changed. Protests are memories, the free press is gone, and tolerance is exchanged for torture. A silent desperation falls over Washington, DC and the entire United States. As a politically active high school student, Kathryn Foster fantasizes about using her Power to stop the seeds of fascism before they take root. But she’s horrified with her violent thoughts, and she hopes for the best instead. When she’s gang raped a few years later, her Power fails. Pregnant, her options are illegal and risky, and she decides to carry the child rather than let the rape destroy her. With her Iranian-American friend Maheen’s help, she fights her revulsion and lovingly raises her daughter, Regina. As conditions worsen, her buried rage emerges as she longs to do something, anything to stop the destruction of her country. And twelve years later, she learns the Resistance has reorganized with thousands of people with Power. Kathryn’s Power. Regina’s Power. Maheen’s Power. And the organizer is not only a well-known politician, he’s one of the rapists and Regina’s father. He tries to make amends, but Kathryn can barely look at him. It’s America’s last chance for freedom, and it’s kill or be killed. Can she trust him?