After a too long hiatus, I’m back.
This is my first short story for the public to read. ‘God and Guns’ is approximately 3700 words.
Synopsis: The Southern States have seceded again. Two young men have a secret, a secret that they cannot reveal to their family, that they dare not even reveal to themselves. A secret that would force them into a re-education camp if discovered…if they are lucky. Their only hope is to escape across the border to the freedom promised by the United States just a few miles away before it’s too late.
GOD AND GUNS
I hate Kentucky, hate the Southern States.
We used to live in Atlanta, back when Georgia was still part of the United States, before the South rose again, before the Second Secession. Like the mythological Phoenix, the Confederate States of America has risen from ashes more than a century and a half cold. I think their motto this time is ‘God and Guns.’
An explosion of mortar shells rocks the house and temporarily drowns the Beethoven—or is it Bach today—loudly broadcasted across the border a few miles away. The U.S. forces are careful to target their mortars to strike close, but not hit people—civilian or military.
Has it only been four years since the South seceded? Four years of the Great War for Southern Independence? That’s what the government keeps calling it at any rate. Whatever. It’s mostly mortar fire and an occasional skirmish. And the South is losing even that. But, God forbid the government acknowledges that publicly. Better to keep the people ignorant. Easier to control them.
“Hey, Will.” Bobby walks into my bedroom. “Happy birthday.”
“Hey. Thanks, I guess.” Bobby Winters, deep blue-eyes, short blonde hair, my best friend. We’re both on the varsity football team at Cedar Springs High. Which is the only good thing about turning eighteen. I won’t be starting my mandatory military training until after the season is over. After all, football builds leadership, which is important for a young man. Again, whatever.
“Can we get out of here for a bit?” Bobby’s eyes glance sideways at the wall separating my bedroom from the kitchen where Mom and my sister are cooking dinner.
“Yeah, probably, Dad won’t be home for another hour.” I pull on my boots and we leave, making a detour through the kitchen
“Mom, Bobby and I are going to head outside for a bit.”
My mother looks up from the pot she’s stirring and wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.
“Hello, Bobby. I didn’t hear you come in.” Mom gives us a bright smile that doesn’t quite touch her eyes.
The music, the mortar shelling, the so-called war, they’re getting to her. Her face has gotten older in the last six months. Dad’s been talking to her, heard them through the walls. That’s how I know we’re losing.
Bobby’s grin is quick and infectious. “Hello, Mrs. Johnson. I came in through the back.”
She treats Bobby like one of her kids. “Enjoy yourselves. But don’t go anywhere near the base. I don’t want my birthday boy blown to tiny little pieces by those damned Yankees. And don’t be long. Dinner will be ready soon and I’m making your favorite.”
Fortunately, she gave up pinching my cheeks about the same time we moved to Cedar Springs. Right after Dad joined up with the Confederate Army.
I glance side-long at Bobby. “We won’t.”
Bobby and I head out the back door and climb onto our four-wheelers. Kicking his to life, Bobby roars off in a cloud of dust and pebbles.
I follow him, but it doesn’t take me long to figure out where he’s going. The small pond where we fish and camp out, where we first—no, don’t even think it. Too dangerous. They’d ship us off to a remedial education facility if anyone ever found out. And everyone who goes into ‘Remediation’ comes out a zombie of the body politic, spouting only party propaganda, a shell of their former selves.
“Did you get it?” I ask when we stop.
“Yeah. The old man’s getting sloppy. He’s not sleeping much now. The higher ups are threatening to re-educate him unless he starts making progress against the…Yanks.” Even though we’re alone, better to be careful what you say and do, make it a habit even if you don’t share the sentiments. A single slip of word or action can get you shipped off to Remediation.
“Assuming they even get the chance. I’ve heard my dad talking. We’re losing here and all along the border. Half our equipment doesn’t work anymore.” I pick up a flat rock and skip it across the pond.
“And you were right. The border sensors are breaking down.” Bobby pulls a folded paper from his pocket. It’s a xeroxed copy of a map of Cedar Springs showing the border between Kentucky and Illinois with several hand drawn marks and symbols. He drops his voice to a whisper. “The X’s are where the sensor towers are. The circled ones don’t work anymore. Unfortunately, they’re set close and there’s a lot of overlap, so if one fails it leaves only a narrow path between the ones to either side.”
“So, it’s possible to get through.”
“Possible, yes. But hard. We can’t be off by more than thirty feet or so, after that it’s a two mile dash to the river and a half mile across. Then hope they don’t shoot us on sight when we reach the other side.”
I pick up another rock and toss it. It sinks without a single skip. I know the answer to my question, but I have to ask it anyways. “Aren’t there any bridges?”
“No, all the bridges were blown back when the war started. You aren’t scared, are you?”
“Shitless. But I’m not gonna wuss out. When’re we going?”
“Friday, after the game.”
“After the game? We’ll be exhausted.”
“New moon. It’ll be dark.”
“Okay.” I sigh and look at my watch. “Let’s get back before Mom sends out a search party.”
* * *
“Happy birthday, Will,” Dad says handing me a large, flat box across the dining table. “How’s it feel to finally be a man?”
“Um…the same as yesterday.” He’s been in a suspiciously good mood since he got home. I carefully open the wrapping paper trying to avoid ripping it as much as possible. It’s a habit now, born from a desire to irritate the hell out of my sister that works to this day—kinda like leaving the toilet seat up.
Bobby is the only guest for my eighteenth birthday party and he’s more family than guest. At least Mom made a chocolate cake, considering liver and onions are most certainly not my favorite meal.
“Come on! Just open it already.” My sister rolls her eyes. “You are seriously disturbed.”
I lift the top off the box and open the tissue paper to reveal a camouflage jacket with my last name over the right breast pocket. The patches all perfectly placed with my Mom’s eye for precision. My first basic duty uniform. This doesn’t bode well for me and it must show on my face.
Dad’s smile disappears. “You’re eighteen now. You start boot camp on Monday.”
“But I have school. And football.” Boot camp! Not in-school training? This can’t be happening. I will be locked on base with no way out.
“It’s your patriotic duty. God!” Dad storms away from the table, his chair hitting the wall with a thud, a stream of profanity trailing behind him.
“Why do you always go out of your way to anger your father?” Mom asks, her mouth a tight line, her cheeks red. She slams the knife she is using to cut the cake on the table. “I’ve raised you in a God-fearing household and this is how you repay us? You go to your room, read your Bible and pray to Jesus for forgiveness. You’ll be lucky if your father doesn’t send you to Remediation tonight.”
She turns to Bobby. “Bobby, dear, I’m sorry you had to see this. Please tell your parents we’ll see them in the morning at church.”
My sister serves herself a piece of cake. “Way to go, dumbass.”
Bobby and I just look at each other. The look in his eyes says it all. Tonight.
* * *
I pry the glass out of the window careful not to shatter it or trigger the alarm. The motion sensors Dad put up outside have long since been disabled. He got tired of them going off for every coon and deer that wandered by.
The night is quiet. No music. Not a good omen. Nights are often filled with loud and obnoxious music, usually some heavy rock version of the 1812 Overture. At random intervals, they stop the music to keep us from getting used to the noise. Seems to work, everyone’s always on edge.
I lower my daypack to the ground. It contains a couple changes of clothes and a few small personal items.
If I’m caught I’ll definitely be put in Remediation. There’s no turning back now. I slide out the window.
Bobby’s waiting for me on the other side of the barn. He doesn’t say a word, just squeezes my hand. We follow the same path we used yesterday. On foot, it takes us almost an hour to reach the pond, even with the light from the quartered moon.
We look at the map and get our bearings, then head parallel to the sensor line until we reach a nonworking tower. Once opposite the tower, we slowly make our way toward it using the flashing light on top as our guide. There’s not much room for error with the sensor overlap, especially as we get closer. And there’s usually someone in the tower at all times.
Step by step, we approach the tower, the last hundred yards on our bellies. The windows in the small building are dark, but we don’t want to take any chances.
We stop for a minute to listen, but the only thing we hear are the chirruping crickets and croaking frogs. No sign of anyone around the tower bunker. We press on, crawling across the flat grassy field that surrounds the tower. The broad swath supposedly extends the entire length of the border. A kind of no man’s land.
We stop again and listen. It’s still quiet. An owl hoots somewhere beyond the tower. The crickets and frogs continue singing their chaotic chorus. My heart beats hard, fast. Something touches my leg. Every muscle in my body tenses before I realize it’s Bobby. We creep forward, slowly, carefully, aim for the corner of the bunker.
We’re almost there. The first half of our escape is almost over. It’s quiet. No crickets. No frogs. Tobacco smoke.
“You might as well walk the rest of the way.” The bright red glow of a cigarette in the deep shadows of the building gives the only indication of where the voice comes from.
Bobby touches my hand. I can just barely see the shine of his eyes. One disappears briefly as he winks at me. He’s up to something.
I climb to my feet and step forward slightly in front of Bobby.
“Both of you,” the disembodied voice sounds irked. “And raise your hands.”
I raise my hands as Bobby gets to his hands and knees.
There’s a click and hiss behind me. A bright light flashes past my arm arcing toward the cigarette.
The crack of gunfire. Burning pain as something slams into my shoulder.
Bobby rushes past as I spin and drop from the force of the bullet hitting me. He stops several feet in front of me. “Oh shit! I didn’t mean to hit him, just blind his night vision.”
I groan. This isn’t just a game. It’s real now.
“Will!” Bobby’s beside me. “Shit! I’m sorry man.”
“What?” God! The pain. In the movies everyone gets up and keeps going. They lie.
“Can you walk? We’ve got to get out of here. Someone’ll have heard the gunshot and seen the flare.”
So, that’s what that flash was. With Bobby’s help I get to my feet. Every move jars my shoulder. I grit my teeth and fight down the nausea.
We stumble past the still-jerking smoker, our eyes averted from the bright red glare of the flare buried in his throat. The smell of burnt flesh makes the nausea worse. My stomach jumps. I drop to my knees, heaving. Liver and onions taste as bad coming up as they do going down.
Bobby helps me back to my feet. We stumble in the dark. It’s going to be a very long two miles to the river. And no trees to help hide us.
Bobby keeps looking back trying to keep us on a straight line away from the tower. I just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
I don’t see the dip in the terrain until the land disappears under my foot.
Bobby lands on top of me. Between him and the pain I can’t breathe.
“Are you okay?” He pushes himself off me. “I’m sorry.”
“Just rest here for a sec.” He disappears briefly, crawling back up the small embankment.
He slides back down next to me. “No lights, but the flare’s still going.”
“Great.” I start to stand.
“No, wait.” Bobby fumbles in his pack. He shines a small LED light on my shoulder and carefully examines it. “Looks like it passed clean through.”
He puts the flashlight between his teeth. A knife slices away the pack strap. He opens a sterile gauze pad, and presses it against the entry wound under my shirt. “Hold this here.”
A second pad presses against the exit wound and tape secures them tightly, if somewhat awkwardly, in place.
The pain has faded slightly. But it still hurts to move.
“What’s in your pack?” He helps me slide it off my other arm.
“Clothes mostly.” I pull it close and dig through it for the pictures I’ve brought with me and tuck them in my back pocket. The small copy of the U.S. Constitution goes in another pocket. I’ve managed to keep that hidden for the past four years, I’m not giving it up now.
At the bottom of the pack is my Bible given to me by my parents when I took my first communion. I look at Bobby’s face in the moon light and close the pack. Screw the Bible.
Bobby takes the pack, stuffs it beneath some brush and helps me stand.
“We’ve got about a mile and a half to the river. Think you can make it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really.” He smiles and tips his head toward freedom.
It’s still quiet behind us, but we’ve wasted a lot of time. Holding my left arm tight against my body, I start to jog. It hurts like hell. The movies definitely lied.
Bobby hesitates, but quickly catches up. He doesn’t say a word. We don’t really have a choice. Not now that we killed someone.
We haven’t gone more than the length of a football field when we hear the sound of a vehicle in the distance behind us, soon followed by indistinct shouts.
“They shouldn’t be able to see us,” Bobby says, his breathing deep, not yet a pant. “But it won’t take a genius to figure out which way we’ve gone.”
I just nod and pick up my pace. Under normal circumstances I could easily jog the two miles to the river, but that was without a bullet hole in my shoulder. I’m sweating, every breath burns. The only thing pushing me on is the thought of Remediation. I am not going through that. I will kill myself first.
* * *
Bobby suddenly pulls me toward a small group of sapling trees. We find a felled tree and huddle down behind it.
I lay gasping for air like a landed fish, Bobby beside me is breathing almost as hard. He pulls out his little pen light and shines it on my shoulder, careful to shield the light. Blood has soaked through the tape.
He moves the light up to my face, and then turns it off. “I don’t know how you’re still on your feet.”
“I won’t…remediation. How far?” I had lost track of time and place. It was all I could do to just keep my feet going.
“Here. Drink.” He hands me a bottle of water. “Half mile max.”
I take a sip and hand it back. Bobby pushes it back toward my mouth.
“No. Drink more, you need it.”
I don’t argue, I’m thirsty, but I don’t dare drink too much. Don’t want to vomit from an overfull stomach.
We rest for a few minutes. We need it. My legs shake like jelly during a mortar bombardment. My shoulder burns like I’ve been branded. I feel light-headed, dizzy. I look at Bobby. “Let’s go.”
He nods and stands. As he helps me up, he suddenly drops, pushing me down.
The trees light up as a jeep crests the small hill we had just come over. It passes by us on the way to the river. The manhunt is on.
We crawl through the brush from log to log, trying to keep as hidden as possible. It’s dark, but if they have night vision gogs we’d stand out like a couple of trees on top of a hill at sunset.
The jeep comes back shining a powerful spotlight on the trees. We scramble for a low spot that can’t even be called a ditch and hope there’s enough deadfall to hide us in shadows.
A bright halogen light sweeps over us. We hold our breath. It disappears, comes back, and disappears again. The jeep cruises slowly away.
We wait until we can’t hear it any more. In the east, the first hint of dawn appears, a faint rosy glow low on the horizon.
“We have to go,” Bobby whispers in my ear.
I agree but crawling is too slow. In a crouched run we work our way forward. It isn’t easy and I keep tripping over roots. Bobby has to support me.
The brush and logs end, cleared back from the shore of the river about two football fields away. There’s no more cover.
“Ready?” Bobby asks.
No, I want to just lie down and die. “Yeah.”
Bobby slings my arm over his shoulder and grabs me around the waist. In a shambling half-jog, half-walk we make for the river and freedom. We’re going to make it. We have to. We won’t survive Remediation. Let the South keep their God and their guns.
One hundred yards.
We run. My heart pounds, head spins. I stumble. Bobby catches me. They can keep their Bible.
The sky lights up behind us. Don’t look back. Keep going. I hurt like a mother! I only hear the pounding of my heart. They can keep their archaic beliefs.
Gun shots. Bobby drops, carrying me with him. We roll, panting, wheezing. My head is going to explode. We get up. Bobby’s limping. Won’t go back.
The world is lit up in the stark white of halogen. There’s shouting behind us, a bullhorn maybe. Don’t look. Just keep going. The river’s right there. Freedom.
We’re not going to make it.
The jeep pulls up next to us. Camouflaged soldiers jump out and circle us. Shouting.
Dad’s face is contorted with fury. He’s beyond mad. He’s embarrassed.
I stand up straight, lift my chin, and look him straight in the eye.
The back of his hand strikes my cheek.
I stumble, but keep my feet. I straighten up, lift my chin, and again look him straight in the eye, my teeth clenched tight against the taste of blood. He may have caught me, but he won’t win.
A soldier spins and crumples, screaming in agony. A thunderous clap rolls overs us.
Bobby and I fall to the ground. The soldiers fire their semi-auto rifles in the direction of the river. A second soldier drops screaming.
Bobby grabs my arm. We crawl to the river under cover of gunfire and confusion. Slip into the water.
It’s cold. The current tugs at us, pulls us away, we try swimming. I go under, come up coughing, spitting out river water. Bobby has a death grip on my shirt. We dig into the water.
Freedom or drown. The current is strong. Too strong. Bobby’s gone.
“Bobby!” I don’t know where he is. I can’t hear anything, see anything. I get pulled under.
Strong hands grab me, pull me. I struggle. I’d rather die than go back. I’d rather die than go on alone. Let me die.
I’m pulled over something that feels like an inner tube. I fight.
“Easy, son. You’re safe now. What’s your name?”
“Won’t go back.”
“You don’t have to. What’s your name?”
“Welcome to the U.S., Will.”
No answer. Someone’s doing something with my shoulder. It hurts, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of being alone, of losing my best friend. Losing Bobby.
The boat bumps up against the shore. I’m pulled out, helped to stand.
Dry land. Land of the Free. The sun peeks over the horizon. I’m grabbed from behind.
River water drips from blonde hair, blue eyes glisten, a huge smile spreads wide to reveal white teeth gleaming in the sunrise.
My vision blurs, tears stream down my cheeks. We made it. We’re free. No more secrets. Maybe there is a God after all and He’s on our side.
In the first light of our first day of real freedom, we do what we haven’t dared for over a year in fear of a punishment worse than death.
I wrap my good arm around Bobby’s neck and kiss him.