by A.T. Farrell
They came for us in the summer. I was glad of that. I’d rather be stripped naked and shot with the dignity of not shivering. I looked at Coll one last time and closed my eyes. I said “I love you” into the brick wall.
The dead sing to keep from forgetting. This is from one of the few encounters I remember with my grandmother, spoken in her sweet and soothing accent. I think I was four. I carried that weird piece of advice for the rest of my life. I thought it must work for the living, too, so I sang to remember—phone numbers, addresses, names of people I might run into again. It was never as much help as I wanted it to be in school. As an adult it became a party trick and it made me famous at the post office where I worked. I might recognize a fragment of a tracking number and say when we’d last seen it or where it was supposed to be going. This was only really effective one time, but the reputation stuck.
When the news got bad I sang the headlines to myself just so it didn’t feel so bad. When things got worse it seemed too disrespectful to sing. I hadn’t sung a headline since February. By then it was clear the authorities had dissolved through infighting and desertion.
The gunmen went for the heart and gut. One to get you quick, and one to let you bleed out if they missed the first time and couldn’t stick around to confirm. They weren’t good shots. They were self-trained, and generally not very talented. We called them the Loose Recruits. No one had formally named them, but we might say, “The Loose Recruits surrounded a car in Tallahassee and flipped it over with the family inside,” and everyone would know what you meant and get quiet. Even when the incident was a thousand miles away, we referred to them in this familiar way. Because we all knew one, probably more than one. They weren’t all loners plotting in basements. There were stories of people’s own children or longtime friends cropping up among them. Carrying on ostensibly normal public lives while quietly buying from arms catalogues, stocking up on armor and batons and ammo for years, in case one day someone loud enough came along to validate all their worst impulses. They were just waiting to be called out into the light.
I had only met one that I was sure of. My manager Deanna had our whole branch over for a cookout last summer. Her neighbor heard the party and invited himself. He wore an orange polo with the collar up, had a healthy scruff, and wore his hair duck-tailed in the back. He drank fast and threatened to throw women into the pool with a menacing laugh. We adjusted and got to be about as relaxed as a person can be at a work party when a shot rang across the backyard. The neighbor had slammed his palm on the glass table and raised his bottle like a weapon over Jeff who sorted packages. Jeff liked to call me his little brother and laugh because I had about ten inches on him; he stood all of five-feet-four. With everyone staring, the neighbor took a fresh beer and stalked away through the gate. Colleen had been nearby, and on the walk home she told me they had started to argue about the election, talking general party differences when Jeff pointed out that the number he was relying on had been verified by three sources. The next thing out of the neighbor’s mouth was, “I’ll knock you out.” We didn’t realize we were lucky to live in a time when that was the extent of that kind of incident.
After the declaration came, Deanna caught her neighbor spray painting her house with slurs. It all seemed to happen at once; they stepped up faster than anyone thought possible. One day they were there.
And one day they were here. Smirking and head-capping anyone who spoke up. They rounded the rest of us up at the edge of the junior high and goaded us to the wall. Deanna’s neighbor had his face covered with a dust mask but I saw his duck tail. I kept thinking as it happened, “After all this, at least it will be over. At least it isn’t winter.”
With my face in the grass and my hands bound I watched their discount combat boots churn up soil as they beat it to the jeep. Their trench coats billowing as they jumped in. I knew how my body must be convulsing. I’d watched the viral videos of individual executions, appearing with increasing frequency in the lead-up to the neighborhood sweeps. We had no reason to think it wouldn’t happen. It’s just hard to see yourself in a firing line.
Eighteen of us there, prone, enriching the earth with blood and bile. After my body stopped moving I could see all of us from above. Colleen was three bodies away and had twisted her face from me. I could hear the Loose Recruits nervously laughing as they sped off. I could feel the bodies from the last neighborhood, slightly colder than ours. I could sense the tension in the next round-up.
I don’t know if those who had gone down with me hung there as I did, invisible and isolated. But I knew I was wrong in my dying thoughts. It wasn’t over.
Before I could go, I would have to bear the weight of what we had allowed to happen, even as it continued to collapse in disorder and cacophony. Over that sound I’m waiting and singing. Trying to remember those days when we went to work and lived in our houses during those preceding years of blind denial. When I start to forget who I was I focus on where I used to be and sing my own name. I’m still waiting, through many winters.
A.T. Farrell is a writer and editor who specializes in nonprofit communications, where his work involves feature, copy, and ghostwriting in print and online. He is an advisory committee member of Write Rhode Island and an associate editor for the Bryant Literary Review. He has a master’s degree in classics, with a focus on ritual sacrifice in Greek comedy.