A secure state requires a secure police force; therefore, no private citizen may possess weapons of any kind without being a duly designated member of the Militia, henceforth to be known as The Sons of Liberty.
–Second Amendment, Constitution of The Incorporated Precincts of America
I’ve barely shut the door before Julia leaps on me. We practically tumble to the floor. Laughing, I hang up my hat, chuck my phone on the counter. By reflex I flick the light switch, forgetting the power’s out. Blackouts are common, so we have candles everywhere. A few are kinda small, but I light them anyway. New ones are hard to get, expensive too.
Julia is chattering away, trying to sound brave in the way six-year-olds do when they don’t want you to think they’re afraid. The fifty thousand watts of power she was using before the blackout tells a different story. She’s trying to make me feel less guilty about being so late, like that’s even possible.
“And I didn’t even cry once, Joey,” she says.
Her red, puffy eyes, and the clean streaks down her face, show she’s lying. She wants me to believe her, so I play along.
“You’re getting so grown up,” I say.
“Did you get something?” she asks.
I pull the stew from my coat pockets. Thanks to the big ones inside, I saved four cans from Harlan. She claps excitedly, her face lights up like it’s Christmas morning.
“Where’s Winnie?” I ask.
“He’s asleep on the couch.”
“Don’t wake him. Just save him a little.”
She nods, turns to get a pot.
“We’ll eat this cold, power’s out dummy,” I say, pointing at the lights.
She sticks her tongue out, twists her face up in disgust.
I laugh. Then I shoo her away with, “Go wash up, then run down to Ms. Witting’s. See if she’s eaten today.”
It’s more than an excuse to get her out of the house while I hide the contraband. Someone needs to take care of Ms. Witting, and since no one else is stepping up, I figure it might as well be me.
“Won’t I be seen? I’ll get in trouble.” she whines.
“No, they’re all kinda busy right now,” I reply.
“Just do it, Julia,” I say, sharper than I mean to.
Her shoulders slump and with an exasperated groan she stomps to the bathroom. A few seconds later she comes back, holds her hands up to me.
“Okay stupid head,” she says.
I nod, say, “Now Ms. Witting.”
I wait until she leaves, scurry to my room, shrug off my coat.
As I pull the contraband from my belt, I notice it is large, rectangular, and red. I know the color is coincidental, but it’s fitting something this illegal is red. There is a crimson welt where the spiral binding has dug into my skin.
I don’t care.
I look at the thing which was commonplace until a few years ago. In the upper right corner of the shiny plastic cover it says, ‘Five Subjects. College Ruled.’ I open it. The paper is pristine, unmarked. The pages don’t have serial numbers in the corner, so I know it’s unregistered paper. Even registered paper is rare these days. The Corporation likes most everything on computers. Easier to sneak a peek.
I don’t know how Earl got his hands on unregistered paper. Must be from before The Night of a Thousand Knives, maybe even The Capitol Event. Even more mysterious than its origin is why the second he offered it to me, I had to have it.
If it were anyone but Earl, I most likely wouldn’t have bought it. Thought it the trap it certainly would be. But Earl and I go back a way No matter what I’ve bought, The Sons have never once invited me for debriefing.
No sir, Earl’s safe as houses, as dad used to say.
As much as I want to linger, Julia will be back any minute. I stuff the contraband under my mattress. In a flash I’m back in the kitchen with a minute to spare before Julia and Ms. Witting come in, hand in hand.
She looks older than her fifty-five years. I haven’t seen her in two days. Her graying hair is a tangled mess. She’s still wearing the same clothes.
“Ms. Witting, come sit down,” I fret. I’ve taken care of her for a while, but calling her Doris, like mom did, just doesn’t seem right.
She gives me a frail smile, murmurs “Thank you, Joey dear.”
She’s gazing around the kitchen like she’s looking for something but doesn’t remember what. Julia takes her hand, smiling with the open, honest delight of a six-year-old.
“Come sit next to me, Ms. Witting,” she says, guiding her to a chair.
While I open the cans, Julia chats with her about fairies and princesses in her excited girl voice. Ms. Witting perks up a bit.
Once upon a time, she had a granddaughter who loved Disney. Maybe she still does, if they haven’t worked her to death or starved her at the Liberty camp yet.
The only thing I know is Julia hates all that pixie dust stuff. She’s more of a Kaiju and Mecha kind of kid. I smile as I dole out gluey blobs of soup. She might be only six, but she sure knows how to make people feel better.
At least for a little while.
And in a place like this, that’s everything.
* * * * *
The hunters track down their prey, poor bastard, and tonight’s episode of Manhunt ends. As always, it’s equal parts predictable and frightening. I mean, somehow the hunters always find the contestant, even if they’re miles apart.
Julia’s putting away her crayons. If it were up to me, which it isn’t, she wouldn’t be in the room when it’s on. Hell, I wouldn’t be in the room, but the law is the law, and I can’t take chances. Besides, she rarely watches. Just lies on the floor and colors. I can’t be sure, but I think lately she’s started peeking.
I get up, wash the dishes, tell Julia to get ready for bed. Ms. Witting appears sullen again. I suspect her black mood is because she doesn’t want to go back to her big, empty house. I kinda understand. Almost before the thought enters my mind, I hear myself blurting out, “Why don’t you stay here tonight. You can have my parents’ room.”
She brightens a little at the prospect, but says, “Where will they sleep?”
Ms. Witting often forgets things, at least since the Sons came to her house last February. I understand how she feels. If they hadn’t left me Julia, I might be just like her.
“They’re out of town.,” I lie. “Besides, when they get back, I think they’ll feel better about leaving Julia and me alone if they know you kept us company.
“Okay, Joey dear,” she says, wandering around my kitchen again.
A little later, after I put Julia to bed, I pull a few things out of mom’s dresser. Then I find Ms. Witting, help her bathe, and put on clean clothes. Not long ago, the idea would have made me blush, want to die. But that was the old world, this is the new.
After she’s dressed, I bring her to my parents’ room. She asks me to sit with her.
When I hear the steady, shallow breaths telling me she’s asleep, I go to my room, put on pajamas. Tomorrow is a school day. The voice from the T.V. downstairs says it’s eleven thirty, but I don’t go to bed.
Instead, I take the death sentence from under the mattress, sit at my desk awhile, staring at it. On impulse, I grab a pen, open the book.
I put the pen to paper, start writing the date on the first line. I’ve only written NOV. when I stop. Cross it out. It doesn’t seem right to carry on now, like everything’s the same. Like I’m the same.
Because I’m not.
Then my hand moves, gliding over the paper with a will of its own. I see I’ve written YEAR 0, DAY 1 on the top line of the paper. It feels right. I move my hand to the next line, not sure what to say. But when the pen touches the paper, it moves again.
This time, it doesn’t stop for a while.