Robert Brown rinsed his hands with cold water from the porcelain sink in the men’s room then dabbed his face. He stared at himself. He straightened his navy blue tie and smoothed out his battleship grey shirt before returning quietly to his desk in the perpetual near silence of the Fulfillment Services Accounting Section of the Department of Homeland Security.
He peered through the glass partitions into the office of the Regional Director of Fulfillment Services. The uniformed man was still there. Though Robert could hear nothing through the soundproof glass that sectioned off his boss’ office from the rest of the workspace, he knew the man was laughing, his head tossed back and his body heaving with each convulsion of hilarity. The Director laughed as well and he wasn’t a man known for his mirth.
Robert looked up at the photo of President Spencer that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. Spencer’s eyes focused on Robert nine hours a day, 9:00 to 6:00 minus one hour for lunch mandated from 12:00 to 1:00 regardless of what time you wanted to eat. Spencer was hailed as the savior of the Republic. It was rumored that before his second term expired he would break with convention and pass a constitutional amendment to run for a third term. For the good of the nation, he said.
Robert focused on his computer screen. He had to finish this assignment by the end of work today. There was no staying late either. Employee desks and computer screens were locked by departmental security at 5:00 exactly. Then the security guards came, checked their bags and escorted them to the parking lot. He smiled to himself. His work was important. The good of the nation depended on it. The future of the nation depended on it.
He focused on the task at hand, monthly accounting for July 2022 for the warehouse facility at Green Island, New York. He pondered the numerous two letter codes that represented the various categories of items he accounted for both incoming and outgoing. The codes never had any clear relationship to what they represented. Clothing for instance wasn’t CL but rather BZ, electronic equipment wasn’t EE or EQ, but rather MM. This was how the government kept us secure; secrecy, codes, staying a step head of the enemy. He smiled to himself. We know about everything and everyone who comes in and out of the country. Nothing and no one passed into the population without a security review. And it worked. There hadn’t been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2020.
Robert entered and rechecked his numbers, entering the raw data he had received from the Green Island facility into columns; date of entry, type of package, clearance code, disposition code. The work was repetitive but reassuring. He was protecting the homeland.
The door of the Director’s office opened. The man in the black uniform stepped out, still laughing noisily. Robert focused on his screen.
“I trust then we will see you in Green Island soon. I want you to see the facility and what we’ve accomplished there,” the man in the black uniform said quite loudly. He gazed about the room, scanning the cubicles and the faces. Robert breathed deeply and continued working.
“I look forward to it,” the Director said.
The man in the black uniform extended his hand. “We have served the nation and our people well,” he said.
“Yes, I believe we have,” replied the Regional Director of Fulfillment Services.
Robert got into his car and pulled out of the parking lot toward Route 787. He headed north toward Troy. The trip took just over a quarter hour. He stopped at the American Diner for dinner. It seemed just about everything was called the “American” something these days.
Robert parked toward the back of the lot. He stepped out of the SUV. The air had cooled a bit but was very damp and muggy. It reminded him of summers during his childhood in Yonkers. The season would change soon, the leaves with it.
He sat down at a booth in the corner of the diner. The waitress walked toward him with a smile. “Hello Robert, how are you? Haven’t seen you in a while?”
“Been busy, you know, with my dogs,” he replied. He liked Bethany. She was petite and slim, her dirty blond hair falling to her shoulders. When she smiled her whole face lit up. He often thought that he would like to ask her out, take her somewhere for a fun Sunday, perhaps for a hike along the Hudson and a picnic. But he knew that would never happen. He was too shy. He kept to himself.
“Well glad to see you anyway,” Bethany said. “What you think you want to have?”
“What’s good tonight?”
She thought for a moment then bent toward him and whispered. “I know we’re calling them something else now but we’ve got really good chicken enchiladas.”
He smiled. “I think I’ll just take a burger and fries.”
Robert flicked off the TV. He had to let the dogs out and put away the folded laundry. He couldn’t watch anymore anyway. President Spencer dominated the news. It seemed 25 of 30 minutes of every broadcast was dedicated to covering him. Spencer’s rise seemed like a whirlwind. Robert never saw it coming.
Trump won the election in 2016. It took everyone by surprise. It wasn’t even a close win. His party won control of both houses of congress too. All the experts and the pundits had been proven wrong. Mike Pence was his V.P. After three months in office Trump stunned the nation. He would resign. He had realized he never wanted to be President anyway. He just wanted to show the nation that he was a winner.
Pence chose a little known activist to replace himself as V.P. He said the nation needed young blood and fresh thinking. Richard Spencer was the president of the National Policy Institute, a non-profit that promoted the rights and culture of “European-Americans”. He said he would respect the constitutional rights of all Americans.
A little less than a year later Pence was assassinated while on a trip to Europe to sign an agreement to pull the United States out of NATO. By the summer of 2018 Spencer had begun the transformation of American society along the lines he said President Trump would have wanted. Trump, from his perch in Mar Lago, endorsed Spencer’s programs.
“Okay boys,” Robert said to his twin Dobermans, “time to go out.” He opened the door to the rear yard from the kitchen then picked up a stack of laundry and carried it upstairs to his bedroom. As he placed his undershirts in the top drawer of the dresser he heard the dogs growling and underneath the growl whimpering. Grabbing his pistol and a flashlight from the bottom drawer he rushed down the stairs and out the door into the yard. The dogs stood at attack stance in front of the garbage pails.
“Down, back,” Robert commanded them.
They stepped backwards slowly, still growling. He circled around them and pulled out his flashlight shining it directly into the face of a teenage boy cowering behind the pails.
“Please don’t shot me,” the boy said.
“Come out from there,” Robert ordered. He looked around at his neighbors’ windows to check if any lights had gone on, or if anyone was watching from behind the darkness.
The boy stepped out from behind the pails. He was skinny and filthy, his clothing in tatters. His face was gaunt, chin partially covered by thin, wispy hair. Robert figured the boy couldn’t be more than fifteen years old.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for something to eat,” the boy whimpered. He averted his gaze then covered his eyes with his hand to shield them against the intense beam from the flashlight.
Robert noted the boy’s skin. He looked around at his neighbors’ windows again. “Maybe we should continue this discussion inside.”
The boy took a step to the right. The dogs growled again at his ever so slight movement.
“Down boys,” Robert said. “Shhhhh.” He patted one on the head. “Back in the house,” he ordered. The dogs stepped back tentatively at first then turned and ran through the gaping lighted portal that was the door to the kitchen. He gestured to the boy with his head. “Inside.”
Terror was evident in the boy’s face. “But the dogs…”
“The dogs won’t bother you unless I tell them too. Now, into the house.”
The boy moved slowly toward the kitchen door. The dogs watched from inside. As he put his foot onto the first of three steps that led to the stoop the dogs began to growl again. He stopped. Robert walked in front of him, the pistol pointed at the boys head. “Don’t try to run ‘cuz I know how to use this.” He went into the kitchen and put the dogs into their large crates in the corner of the kitchen. “Come in now,” he called to the boy.
The boy walked the three steps slowly. In this light Robert could see how emaciated the boy was. He could also see his complexion clearly. He gestured with his head toward the living room. “Go in there and sit down.”
The boy obeyed. Robert took a quick look out into the yard then closed the door and locked it. He put the flashlight on the counter but kept his pistol. He walked stealthily into the living room slipping the doors of the dogs’ crates shut as he passed.
He studied the boy perched on the edge of the couch. The room had quickly filled with the scent of the boy’s unwashed body. Robert pulled two tissues from the box on the coffee table and covered his nose. “Get up. I don’t want you stinking up my furniture.”
The boy quickly rose from his seat and covered his eyes with his hands. He began to cry, silently. “I’m sorry sir, please let me go. I was only hungry. I haven’t eaten in days.”
Robert’s mind raced. He wasn’t sure what to do. The law was clear about harboring vagrants. “Where are you coming from?”
The boy began to weep.
His voice rose. “Answer me or I’ll call the police now.” He picked up his ID badge from the coffee table. “You see this? You picked the wrong house to trespass. I work for Homeland Security. I defend this country. Now tell me who are you? Where did you come from?” Robert walked forward a step and pointed the pistol at the boy’s head.
The boy sank to his knees, the tattered, dirty rags that served as his clothing accentuating the boniness of his starved shaking body. “Just kill me,” he begged between his sobs. “I can’t take anymore.”
“Where are you from?” Robert asked again, this time nearly shouting. The dogs growled from the kitchen.
The boy looked up at him. The face Robert peered into was barely human, but the eyes, deep and dark, implored Robert to show mercy in whatever form it took. They touched something inside Robert. He lowered the gun and his voice.
“Where are you coming from?” he whispered.
“Green Island,” the boy said then collapsed.
Robert looked at the body on the floor then at the cable box. It was nearly midnight. The dogs continued growling. He needed to get control of the situation. In these times you had to be careful. His neighbors knew his habits the same way he knew theirs and every light in the house was on and that was unusual. No matter that, he was sure at least one of them was aware that something had happened in the back yard.
He stared at the boy and covered his nose again then began moving about the first floor turning off lights. He went into the kitchen, calmed the dogs, filled their bowls and latched them into their crates, turned out the kitchen light and closed the door behind him.
Robert glanced back into the living room. The boy hadn’t moved. He sprinted up the stairs and flicked off the lights in his bedroom and the bathroom. He pulled out a pail from under the bathroom sink. He used his cell phone for light and filled the pail half full with cold water from the tub. Grabbing a hand towel from the rack next to the door he headed back downstairs stealthily so as not to get the dogs barking again. An emergency candle sat on the table next to the sofa in case of blackouts. He lit it, it’s light casting a golden glow over the room.
Robert knelt over the boy. His stench was nauseating. He soaked the hand towel in the pail of cold water, wrung it out and placed it on the boy’s forehead keeping it there for a few seconds then wiped the boys cheeks.
The boy began to stir. When he opened his eyes and saw Robert hovering over him he pulled away, terrified.
“Relax, I’m not going to hurt you.” Robert said.
The boy tried to prop himself to a sitting position but collapsed again.
“Stay there,” Robert said walking to the kitchen. He realized how ridiculous his statement was. Where would the boy go? He didn’t have the strength to sit up.
Robert returned from the kitchen with a glass of apple cider. He loved this cider. It was made just outside of Troy at Van Wyke’s Orchard. Their family had come to the Hudson Valley more than 400 years earlier. It was truly American. He knelt in front of the boy again and offered him the glass. The boy made the effort to prop himself up on his elbow again, this time successfully. Robert held the glass as the boy put his boney fingers around it and Robert’s hand. His nails were cracked and dirty. His skin, stretched thin against his bones, was the color of caramel. They looked like the hands of an old person, not a young boy.
The boy sipped at the cider slowly, “Thank you,” he said.
Robert hesitated. “You’re welcome.”
After a few minutes the boy sat up. “Please, may I go? I won’t bother you again.”
Robert shook his head. “It’s too late now. You can’t be on the roads at this hour, you know that.”
The boy’s head dropped between his knees. Robert thought he was crying again. It was impossible to know for sure in the semi-darkness.
“You’ll stay the night,” Robert said. “I have an extra bedroom. But first you need a bath. You stink.”
Robert walked up the stairs to the second floor and into the bathroom. He pulled the emergency candle and matches from under the sink and lit it, placing it on the floor next to the tub. He plugged the drain and turned on the water then scrambled down the stairs to the living room. “Can you stand?”
The boy tried to get up but couldn’t make it to his knees. Robert held his breath so as to close off his nose from the boy’s filthy body and offered his hand to him. He pulled him up then propped him with his left arm and dragged him up the stairs leaving him seated on the toilet. He reached around to the small linen rack and pulled out a towel.
“Here, try to undress and cover yourself. Then I’ll help you into the tub.”
Speechless, the boy began to pull at the filthy clothing. It literally came apart from the effort to remove it.
“Leave it on the floor,” Robert instructed.
“Can you help me to stand?” the boy asked.
Robert moved toward him. As the boy pushed up against the sink with his hand to raise himself his pants fell to the floor. With his body exposed Robert nearly gasped. He had never seen a human being in such condition. His muscles were as tattered as his clothing had been, his skin covered with sores and his bones pressing through the nearly translucent flesh. He lowered him into the tub and handed him a bar of soap.
“Thank you,” the boy said barely above a whisper.
Robert felt his dinner move up into his throat. The boy looked up at him, tears in his eyes. “Could I have a little more of that juice?” he asked.
Robert trotted down the stairs and brought the bottle this time. When he returned the boy was lathering the soap slowly on his body. In the candlelight Robert saw the tears streaming down his cheeks.
To Be Continued…
A. J. Sidransky is an award-winning novelist. His most recent book, Forgiving Mariela Camacho won the David Award for Best Mystery of 2015. His debut novel was selected as a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards for Outstanding Debut Fiction in 2013 and his second novel, Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon was selected by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Second Novel in 2014. He lives in Washington heights with his wife and son and works as a writer for a magazine. Check out his website at www.ajsidransky.com.