I remember the day that America fell to them. I could just make out the fires raging in Washington from my parents’ house in Virginia.
It was a late August day and it was unseasonably cold. I walked down to the lake with our dog.
On the rocky beachfront, we walked alongside the water. I winked at him and he smiled a loose, panting smile at me. I slipped off my boots and the thick wool socks my mother made me wear, and rolled up my pants to just below my knee. Then, I waded out into the dark, icy water.
The water’s horizon edge met a pale sky. A few birds floated silently a million feet way. I traced them with my eyes, watching them dip and rise and figure-eight. To this day, I swear I saw an eagle zoom past them, nosediving towards the surface of the water, and disappear into the lake. But, my only corroborating witness was our dog. And he’s dead now.
As I stood in the cold water transfixed on the aerials of that late summer sky, the world as I knew it was dying. The people, the society, and the country I knew and loved would never be the same again.
Just as my legs were starting to burn with numbness, Tobey, our dog, began to bark at me from the shoreline. I turned around to see what was bothering him, but I saw nothing.
I walked in the forced slow-motion of underwater walkers out of the lake. I picked up my boots and socks and began to put them on, but Tobey darted off with a snarl suggesting I hurry. So, I left my last good pair of boots and socks behind on that beach.
Tobey galloped on and on towards home and I struggled to keep pace. As we ran along the paved bike path threaded through the light woods near town, I saw a few others running in our direction. Then, a few more. More still. A small army of joggers, bikers, sightseers, wanderers, and a boy and his dog. All heading towards, it seemed, my parents’ house. Tobey ran so fast, I didn’t get a chance to find out where the others were headed or why they ran.
My parents’ house stood on a prominent bluff. At that time, it was a little family secret that if you climbed up into our cramped third floor attic and crawled out the window onto the small awning on the roof, you could see Washington, D.C just beyond the top of the old juniper tree in our backyard.
Tobey sprinted up to the house and barked ferociously at the front door. I threw it open expecting to see my parents dead in a pool of blood given Tobey’s urgency and the strange mood in the air that day.
Instead, I found the entire house lifeless and abandoned, with papers and personal effects left just as they were. As I searched room by room, Tobey quietly followed me growing more and more dejected as my parents never appeared.
As we entered the living room, I saw the television had been left on though it had been muted. My father, the news junkie, hated commercials and always muted the TV when they came on. I guessed that he must have muted it like that and then something happened to him and my mother. ‘Cause they didn’t bother to turn off the TV or the dining room light.
Tobey sat down solemnly on my father’s favorite seat on the couch. His eyes searched me forlornly. Pleading for a solution.
I turned away from him, unable to bear his sadness and my panic, and approached the dining room table full of papers, as always.
I looked them over. Nothing out of the ordinary: stacks of white papers, policy proposal drafts, raw data charts, financial forecasts. Standard fare for my think tank researcher parents.
But then, I saw it. Beyond the papers, the mugs full of yesterday’s coffee, and the yellow legal pads, a single white sheet of printer paper with neat, tight printing–my father’s handwriting in black ballpoint. It stood out in the space where his laptop usually resided. I picked it up. It stated:
You are a wonderful, intelligent, strong boy. You need to be very brave now. Things are happening beyond your mother’s and my control. The greatest joy of our lives has been watching you grow into the young man you are. They are coming for us soon. And they will come for you too. We have packed your backpack for you. It’s in your room. Get it and go to your Aunt Reina’s. Take Tobey with you. We will try to meet you there. There are no guarantees in this world, my boy. That much is sure. But, no matter what happens out there, please know and remember that we love you with all our hearts and beings.
Mom & Dad
My chest felt tight. Tears burned the back of my eyes. I couldn’t understand what was happening.
I began to fold the note up. As I did, I noticed a single bloody fingerprint on the back of the note. Alarm rose quickly in me.
Just then, I heard pounding at the door.
I shoved the half-folded, bloody note into my pocket. Tobey shook off his sadness enough to raise holy hell at the door.
“Leave it alone, Tobey!” I pleaded. “Come on! We have to go.” He ignored me and kept barking louder and faster.
I ran up the stairs to my room and, sure enough, my backpack sat up on my bed. I threw it around my shoulders and returned to the landing just in time to see the front door smash open. Four men in black tactical gear holding rifles fanned out through the foyer. Tobey raged at one of them biting hard as the others, nonplussed, moved quickly through the first floor.
I stood frozen on the landing, crouched behind the banister.
A fifth man, larger than the rest, walked in. He coolly approached the man whom Tobey had engaged with. I watched in terror as the large man grabbed Tobey with one hand, ripping him from the other man’s leg, and held him out in front of his face.
The large man smiled evilly. “Very bad dog,” he spat.
Tobey, undeterred to the end, growled and bared his teeth.
The large man removed a combat knife from a thigh sheath with his free hand and slit Tobey’s throat.
I couldn’t stomach or bear the sounds of my dying dog so I ran. My heavy, devastated footsteps giving away my location.
I ripped down the attic stairs and raced up. No time to pull them closed. No time to wait it out. Had to keep moving.
I shimmied and squirmed with my heavy backpack through old boxes and clothes and Christmas decorations. The front of my shirt covered in dust. My bare, cold, wet feet throbbing.
I made it to the window at the far end of the attic just as the first of the men made it up. I pushed hard at the window, but it was stuck by the latch. I didn’t think to undo it. No time. No time at all.
I elbowed the window hard breaking the glass, but leaving sharp, uneven teeth for me to pass through. No time for cowardice.
Just before I made my final push through the window, I looked out beyond the juniper and made out the faintest outlines of Washington, D.C. Fires dotted downtown. Smoke rose from everywhere. And in that moment, with Tobey dead, my parents off to parts unknown with them, and the world on fire before me, I thought–in the pregnant pause inside the eye of this storm–‘I don’t want to be brave. I don’t want to be anything or anywhere. I want this all to stop.’
And that’s when I felt a hand grab at my bare foot. I instinctively pulled my knees up and away from the probing paw of the man behind me, coming for me too. And I pushed myself out the window, dragging my backpack behind me.
I didn’t feel the pain from my cuts in that moment. I would later. I do now. I clumsily dropped from the tiny third floor awning on the roof of the house, breaking several small bones in my naked, bloodied feet.
The man had made it out onto the third floor awning. He was coming for me too again.
I couldn’t stop the tears, but I could still try to run. And I did. I kept running. And I still am today. Just now, I’m not running from something. I’m running toward it.
Thomas Andrew “Drew” Stevenson, the first commander of the resistance forces called the Forward Guard, finished telling his story. His audience, a moderate-sized group of men and women, former Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans, who called themselves the Gremlins (on account of the mischief they caused for Them), had expressed an interest in joining the Forward Guard just when it needed more assistance. So, Commander Stevenson made the 117 mile ride himself from deep inside what used to be known as the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in western New York to one of the only remaining unconquered cities in North America, Toronto, to speak to them.
The Gremlins listened quietly to Stevenson’s tale. It was, perhaps, one of only tens of true accounts of the day They took over. Most of the real stories had been “edited” out of existence, usually by a gun to the head in the storyteller’s sleep or, more perniciously, by the virtual chatter of an armada of misdirected, misinformed young men manning keyboards from seaboard to seaboard defending what they believed was the status quo.
Nothing dies so softly as the truth. Or so They say.
In time, the Gremlins would join Stevenson and his Forward Guard. And they would attempt to reclaim a free, verdant, and peaceful world for all. But those stories are for another day. . . . .
THE VERY DISTANT SIRENS