Jacqueline Kennedy was horny. She’d lost the pillbox hat as soon as she got to Woodbern’s place. He barely had time to shut the door before she was on top of him, grinding frantically as she dragged them to the floor.
“What’s our safe word?” she asked, pausing to afford them breath.
Woodbern felt the bunched pillbox dig sharply into his shoulder. He moved his hand under Jackie’s skirt. His fingers caught on her garter, sliding over the folds of damp singles. She usually insisted on a shower after work, the longer the better, before clambering into bed to watch the latest Subscriber Override.
“Safe word?” he answered. Tendrils of hair stuck to his cheek, redolent of smoke.
She withdrew grinning, sliding back against his raised knee. “Don’t you think it’s time?” She assumed the crisp enunciation and sober timbre of an Override anchor. He looked for the joke in her expression. None was forthcoming.
For security purposes, Subscriber Overrides could never be shut off, so she depended on him through the more gruesome segments. The previous weekend, they had spooned through the usual disclaimer (IN THE INTEREST OF HOMELAND SAFETY/ VIEWING IS COMPULSORY FOR THE ENTIRE BROADCAST RADIUS) before a report on the recent suicide plague. She had flinched at a wrist-cutting, re-enacted for audience edification, burying her face as the screen burnished his apartment walls crimson. She mostly dozed through the exchange between anchor and expert guest.
“What,” intoned the anchor, “is behind this alarming increase?”
“Research suggests that ideas are to blame.”
“Ideas? Can it really be so simple?”
“Yes and no. Ideas, after all, are everywhere.” The anchor nodded sagely in response.
He had almost yielded to his own exhaustion when she roused him for Homeland Heroes. The heroes in question were Ken and Vicky Searle, whose quick thinking helped avert a robbery of the main AgroBank branch at City Centre. A defective card had forced Ken to one of the tellers’ windows lining the south lobby; he paused at a diorama of westward expansion, culminating in the opening of the first AgroBank branch in San Francisco, c. 1915, to make a harried phone call to Vicky—he had forgotten which wine was required for their contribution to the weekly community potluck. Vicky sensed his irritation as she reminded him (again) of the felicitous pairing of Riesling with lamb curry. She did not, however, sense Ken’s apprehension as the grazing bison nearest the display glass grew vivid in the shade of a passing figure. He turned to face the source of the reflection and met the barrel of a Manolete aimed straight for his skull. The gunman raised a finger to his lips. “Right. Riesling. I’ll remember,” Searle promised before reminding his wife to feed the cat.
Unbeknownst to the gunman, the Searles occupied one of the newer tower communities reclaimed from houses gutted after the Tragedy. There was a strict no-pets policy in order to facilitate mandated interior climate settings. Something was up. Recalling the safe word they had agreed to as a discreet signal of looming emergency, Vicky alerted the authorities. Between the early warning and the robbers’ inexperience, only a single nanodrone was required to dispatch the lone gunman—the balance of perps armed with plastic simulacra—without a single civilian fatality.
Onscreen, surviving husband palmed surviving wife’s emergent womb in their cozy nook on the third floor of Cibola Tower 6. In the soft glottal hum at his cheek, Woodbern felt not the taciturn repose of the bereaved First Lady but, instead, the wistfulness of his girlfriend Regina, Gina for short, who danced as Jackie Kennedy three nights a week at the Dreamland Cabaret. Dancing paid her tuition for an online master’s in grief coaching, but she was never a perfunctory performer. Each shift, she took her time getting into character and took time getting out. She refused to draw a line between her day job and vocation. Her time onstage or in the Champagne Room was devoted to cultivating the capacity to guide future clients to catharsis. Dreamland’s patrons were a sad lot; she recognized the fear behind their flirtatious bluster, the desperation in their wandering hands.
Her customary after-shift narratives were different somehow. There were the usual pricks to her vanity—stingy tips, table dances cut short after one song. (She would never match the fervid audience for Dreamland’s star attraction, the sexy survivalist Ruby Ridge.) But Woodbern also sensed relief as she recounted another evening’s disappointments. Offstage, what persisted was ineluctably hers; beneath the pink pencil skirt and matching jacket, beneath the silk blouse and dark brassiere turned to neon purple beneath Dreamland’s signature black lights, beneath even the nakedness of her own skin, she was and remained Regina.
For Woodbern, meanwhile, Gina’s nightly return was an intrusion, no more or less welcome than the reddening sun on a sleeper’s eyes. He acquiesced to her penetration of drawn blinds, the clammy warmth widening in patches over tussled sheets. He would cast them aside at any moment to resume waking life. But let him doze just a while longer, sound the last cold corners of night before they yielded to the creeping thaw of another day.
“Bunny?” she asked now on their improvised bed in his vestibule, Jackie Kennedy only in dress. “What’s wrong?”
Woodbern’s legs had fallen asleep. He felt a tear of sensation as he braced himself by the arms. “Do you have to call me that?”
He regretted asking as soon as the words left his mouth. He watched her eyes widen with Empathy, the capitalized kind learned in her graduate seminars. She tried tempering therapeutic concern with flirtation. “You don’t like being my Bunny?” She shifted slightly. Her blouse revealed an ellipse of skin between pearl buttons.
He decided to table the issue of pet names. “You think we’re ready?”
“JB made everyone at the club give an emergency contact. You’re mine.” She maintained eye contact as she raised her skirt, exposing the top of a stocking. He watched her hand, obscured in pale mesh, descend to the level of her thigh. “Who’s yours?” The material formed an unsightly bulge as she scratched behind her knee.
“Escutcheon hired me a while ago. Long before—”
“I know,” she said. She withdrew her hand and unrolled the stocking. He couldn’t see her expression as she rose on her bare leg. Her skirt unrucked to knee height over two-toned feet. “Almost Curfew.” She consulted her watch. “I’ll miss my train.”
Woodbern watched her bare foot, mottled pink by the pressure of walking. He reached with one hand to stroke the toes, while with the other, he searched blindly for the shed stocking.
Woodbern was a Reader, which in the New Homeland also warranted capitalization, so long as one was careful about it. Days he worked for Escutcheon Enterprises, monitoring numbered video feeds cycled hourly, with breaks between for eye drops and mandated calisthenics incorporating Escutcheon’s patented ergonomic work station design.
He was a thorough observer of human behavior largely at a loss for what it really meant. Which was just fine with Escutcheon Control. (From The Escutcheon Enterprises Employee Handbook, Tab C, Section II, “A Reader’s Responsibilities”: “A READER REPORTS ONLY on Subject behaviors, reactions, and significant alterations observed thereof. INTERPRETATION IS THE PURVIEW OF A SEPARATE DEPARTMENT (see EEEH, Fascicle 8, Folder G, unless redacted, in which case YOU ARE NOT CLEARED FOR INTERPRETATION).” In his thoroughness, Woodbern noted his subjects’ apparent ignorance of being watched, landmarks and vistas suggesting locations far beyond his native radius—but these were nowhere in the sheaf of reports he deposited with the unsmiling collection agent at the conclusion of every business day. If Woodbern ever doubted the need to keep tabs on Subject 3’s reading habits, or Subject 12’s thing for pilfered underwear, he kept these questions to himself.
Subject 7 was not a morning person. She stumbled to her French press, bare feet fitfully slapping the floor. Woodbern switched cameras, tracking her to the sink. She opened one of the cabinet doors overhead and stared for several moments at the shelves, strewn with cans, mugs, and plastic lids. She reached up towards a silvery smudge on the screen. The effort caused her t-shirt to rise slowly over the backs of bare thighs. He cut abruptly to the sink cam as Subject 7 lowered a teakettle into frame. He looked over his shoulder. The threshold of his cubicle was vacant.
Woodbern poised a finger anxiously at one corner of the touchscreen as Subject 7 brewed her morning chai. Lately, she seemed aware of his intrusion; her cheeks appeared to the cameras blinkered by a scrim of dark curls, her eyes obscured behind interloping rubber leaves. If a subject’s face was not visible for a given cycle, a Possible Breach Report was required for Escutcheon Control, which would then decide whether a Confirmed Breach Report was necessary. He paused in his note-taking, suddenly overcome at the prospect of her going off cycle. She was one of his least remarkable subjects, an old-fashioned girl with a taste for vintage clothing and other accoutrements from early in the last American century. Her phone was special ordered to resemble the rotary dial mechanism from old movies; the dense, pyramidal body resembled an outmoded nanodrone hunkered heavily on the sleek end table. Her landlord didn’t allow pets. She lived vicariously through other people’s cats. She was contemplating a nipple piercing. She stalked an ex-boyfriend via SmugSpace, using the alias account of Faye Greener.
During Woodbern’s orientation, the prospect of discovery was raised and dismissed with brisk assurances about the cutting-edge technology now at his disposal. “You’re the Invisible Man,” said the orientation leader, whose adhesive name badge noted his preference for being called “The Zackster.” The Zackster treated Woodbern to lunch, promising drinks at a later date. The invitation was forgotten in the blur of his first month. By the time he remembered, The Zackster had apparently moved on; his carrel was vacant, every nook and shelf occupied with broken headsets, outdated touchscreens, and other disused equipment.
At last—Subject 7 revealed herself in profile, toweling damp curls at her dresser. Woodbern panned in, managing to make out the lashes of the obscured eye, the edge of a silver nose ring. Close enough. He stood and rolled his chair aside. The break screen read 10 minutes and counting for Upper Body Conditioning. Woodbern reached under his desk and pulled down the training grips. He felt the stiffness in his back as he knelt in front of the desk top.
Had Subject 7 made eye contact just now? He recalled the intensity of her stare from a clear streak in the condensation on her dresser mirror. It was too late to check. Her image had been replaced by the onscreen break clock. 8:27 and counting. The seconds diminished over a scrolling ticker admonishing that ASSESSMENT IS ONGOING. He positioned himself on his back to begin a sequence of low bar pull-ups.
Woodbern, a lover of spy novels, read them by the boxful, salvaged from yard sales, library closures, and shuttered newsstands. Some seemed to have never been opened except to inscribe a discount price on the flyleaf. Most had spines splintered from frequent perusal; a few were little more than piles of yellowed paper bound with rubber bands or rusting binder clips. As a child, Woodbern had learned that books were toys for the maladjusted and lonely, but he didn’t feel alone as he turned pages marked intermittently by business cards, grocery lists, ticket stubs, a fragile leaf dried to copper autumns ago. He collected indiscriminately, one wall of his apartment long filled with deckled, dog-eared pages. Master spies trained binoculars from worn covers onto the dusty linoleum; femmes fatales peered over bare shoulders and champagne flutes as Woodbern waited for water to boil.
She emerged from the bathroom wearing only the bracelet he had seen in photographs. The capsule charm containing the microfilm bounced fetchingly against her taut belly.
He savored every predictable twist and pause for exposition as the first Curfew sirens blared the thinning traffic outside. Boulevards in Paris, catacombs in Rome, a winter beach in Barcelona—all appeared more vividly to him than any street in his native city.
How long will you be in Munich , Herr Stallworth? At the foot of the bed, she stopped to slowly undo the smooth russet coil she had worn all day since their meeting at the Consulate.
A few days. A week at most, Stallworth answered . Russet hair poured over her shoulder and reached the tops of her thighs. She stepped softly toward the edge of the duvet.
The plots were less important than what they promised, the world rendered legible, omniscience revealed in the accretion of disparate clues. A newspaper headline, a word displaced in chalk on a fountain’s pediment, a congruence of landmarks disguised in plain sight, at any moment, could coalesce with shared significance.
Dunya laughed. That is hardly enough time to experience the pleasures of Munich!
The world he otherwise inhabited was all clues with nothing holding them together. The most elaborate conspiracy was far less mystifying than the walk to the nearest Metro stop, the scramble for exact change, the blur of brick and glass casting one’s features back in dim outline. He surrendered credits to ticket machines dense with slots and printed disclaimers. He watched his progress, illuminated at intervals, through a tangle of colored lines posted overhead, until his train arrived at the gray platform marking his destination.
I like what I’ve seen so far.
From his berth 18 floors above the Tragedy Memorial, Woodbern watched streets flare intermittently in the rising sun. Faces flinched through gaps in the shadows of skyscrapers. A scatter of dark coats converged in the plaza below, forming the incipient contours of letters.
He read later and later past Curfew, waiting for the afterimage of his office touchscreen to fade. His path to the evening train led him between fluorescent blots corresponding in his vision with where he tracked frame numbers in the upper right quadrant or time stamps in the lower left. In the ambience of klieg lights, he passed sleepless Curfews tracing the skin of Gina’s back, her spine articulated in numbered segments.
His escapes to East Berlin alleyways or Soviet-era Minsk were interrupted on occasion by the woman who loved him. The woman who loved him had yet to say so. Mindful of his reading habits, she spoke in code from the threshold of his rooms, using the cryptography of small talk. They had recently attended a screening of The Manchurian Candidate, one of the last films to be screened at the Montezuma before its scheduled demolition. She almost made them late as she wandered the enormous lobby, carpeted in textured burgundy and lined with posters from cinema’s Golden Age. She had to fight the urge to touch the restored film projector on display next to the vacant concession stand. That the gears and spindles of this hideous machine could produce such delicate, life-like images struck her with a poignancy that rendered the film itself a profound disappointment. She tried to explain herself to Woodbern over a late dinner at Miraflores, but only managed a few truculent half-sentences between sips of pisco sour. She didn’t mention how the film’s assassin, programmed to kill in Manchuria, reminded her of Woodbern, certainly not by his good looks, but by the helpless slack of his expression whenever triggered by the image of a Queen of Diamonds. It was the same expression on Woodbern’s face when she had introduced him as her boyfriend at a party the previous week.
“You’d make a terrible spy,” Gina finally managed.
“What?” Woodbern asked.
“I always know what you’re thinking.”
“I know,” he said.
JB didn’t like having boyfriends around. They spoiled the romance. No romance, no plausibility. No plausibility, no drinks. No drinks, no private dances, no Champagne Room, and no club. Even suckers have a threshold for suspending disbelief. He explained all this as Woodbern tried not to stare at his monocle. He had never seen JB without it. Never ask, never stare, warned Ruby Ridge, Geneva, Dallas, Roz Well. The last guy who did—
JB drained his club soda. His shaved head reflected the blue tint of television screens. His profile looked conical, coming horizontally to a point in the dark rim of the monocle lens. He looked up and watched the first few seconds of the Kennedy assassination loop. He could take his clientele’s money, no problem, but he would never understand their tastes. Why do that to yourself, he mused, risking a boner as the leader of the free world shatters to blood and brain just over a dancer’s shoulder? He forbid historical loops for a time in favor of music videos and the occasional Cold War thriller, but quickly changed his mind after too many slow nights.
There was Kennedy’s motorcade, making the fateful turn into full view of the camera. It would be easy to miss the kill shot if you weren’t looking. The better dancers were expert at accommodating choreography, busying fingers at neckties and lapels, making the little spoon just before the president’s head split open, miming fascination as they ground in place. They would close their eyes just before the crack and splatter of brain, waiting for a slight clinch behind to open them again. Sometimes they were roused to finish by a sharp exhalation or whispered obscenity or the rake of teeth at their throats.
JB watched the First Lady clamber away from the tendriled remains of the president’s skull, her mouth a seam of dark pixels. Where did she think she was going? For all she knew, the shots would just keep coming as she toppled from the moving car and tried to run for cover. Maybe this was a sign of surrender, pink-skirted ass in place of a white flag. It was a nice ass, JB thought, and then wondered if he would be put on a watchlist for saying so.
“You want to know how I really keep this place in business?”
Woodbern puckered his lips over a mouthful of thin beer. He swallowed, setting his glass down over a coaster advertising Patriot Ale. “How?” he asked.
JB stared at the resurrected motorcade making its way through another iteration in Dealey Plaza. Woodbern thought perhaps JB hadn’t heard him. “Can I trust you, Woodbern?” The question was enunciated carefully into his ear, JB’s breath fortified by menthol and Mediterranean takeout.
“Sure. I guess.”
JB resumed his idle perusal of the screens overhead. Woodbern reached for his beer, his wrist snagging briefly on the damp bouquet he had brought for Gina.
“Advanced weapons testing.”
“Weapons?” JB gave his shoulder a warning clench as he held a finger to his lips. “Bullshit.”
“For defending strip clubs?” Too late, Woodbern recalled the second thing he was never to mention in JB’s presence.
“I don’t run a strip club. This is a conspiracy cabaret. A gentlemen’s conspiracy cabaret.”
Woodbern raised his hand in a gesture of contrition. “Sorry.”
“This is advanced stuff. That’s why they call it advanced. Not everyone is cleared to know about it.”
“And you are?”
“I didn’t say that.” JB hailed The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress and asked for a rum and Coke. “Hypothetically, though, it would make a lot of sense, right? As proprietor. And a devoted patriot.”
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress returned with JB’s drink. The laminated button winking mutely from her bust line read KENNEDY ’68.
“How many security cameras you think a place like this needs?”
Woodbern felt the damp bouquet stems drip lightly on his knee. “I don’t know. I never really noticed.” He rubbed with his palm at the dark spot on his trousers.
“Exactly. And when was the last time you saw any of our clientele take advantage of the talent?”
“Last Mardi Gras. Gina said some guy tried to get gropey with Ruby Ridge.”
“Tried, sure. But he got led out by the beads before he could lay one finger on Ruby’s camo vest.” JB saluted as the bouncer emerged from the direction of the back office. The bouncer replied by knocking together his knuckles.
“Ever heard of Gandhi?”
“Gandhi. The towelhead who brought democracy to India.” Woodbern shook his head. “Little nearsighted guy. Believed in nonviolent protest. Of course he did. When you’re just skin and bones and a turban, you work with what you’ve got. But he changed the whole fucking game.”
JB tipped a lozenge of ice into his mouth. “Who needs muscle when you see the big picture?” He crunched the ice between his molars and rose from his seat.
“Those for me?”
Woodbern nodded in the speaker’s direction. “I wanted to—” He found himself seated next to MK Ultra.
Ultra brought the flowers to her nose. “Pretty. You shouldn’t have.”
“She’ll love them.” Ultra ordered a soda. She set the flowers back on the bar.
She was the primmest of the ensemble, in her blue smock and white pinafore, shoulder-length hair the color of wheat held in place by a blue velvet headband. Ultra’s regulars were few but fervid. The longing she stoked with her stage show was hard to distinguish from guilt. JB, naturally paranoid, was quick on the defensive as he circulated among the customers. “You pervs don’t get any ideas,” he warned. “Ultra’s legal. In this or any other state.”
Woodbern watched her lean towards the straw in her glass. She could have been one of Escutcheon’s summer interns. Her skin seemed perpetually ruddy and redolent of sunscreen, her attention divided between the task at hand (a slow dragonfly spin executed to the opening bass notes of Jefferson Airplane, the slight adjustment of ankle socks as she bent to collect dollar bills) and something infinitely more mysterious and pleasurable signaled in the abstracted curl of her lips. Her affect—tangible and unyielding as a mannequin’s limbs—offered no clues. Seeing the vacancy in her expression, patrons tried to occupy it with bad jokes, innuendo, cocktails, the odd accessory bought while away on business. They were rewarded with smiles no less cryptic than treasured.
“What did you do?” She took a sip from her drink, hooking the heel of one Mary Jane onto the metal footrest.
“What do you mean?”
“You never bring Gina flowers. So no safe word?” Woodbern stared as Ultra chiseled at a clump of ice with her straw. “Don’t look so surprised. We don’t do secrets here.”
“I know now.”
Her laugh was muted behind a series of kicks from the DJ booth. Scattered applause greeted the empty stage. They regarded each other in the rosy spin of crosshairs projected from overhead. The lengthening pause simmered with spinning vinyl. JB hated vinyl—its bulk and upkeep. But DJ Punir insisted that many patrons were devotees of the warmer, more intimate sound; their enjoyment was enhanced at the impression of being entertained in their own living rooms. JB’s only concession was to pay for a ScratchMat download. A free upgrade simulated the crackle between tracks made by a seasoned stylus.
“Want another?” Woodbern indicated the tumbler of dark slush that Ultra rattled with one hand. Before she could reply, he felt a pair of arms crushing him from behind.
“So sweet.” Gina raised the bouquet to both their faces as she leaned forward over his shoulder. He turned slightly to his side. Ultra was gone. He watched her approach a pair of French cuffs working the foil from a dark green bottle. In the shadows beyond, JB stood in the doorway of the back office, a rangy silhouette giving the thumbs up.
Before he was an orphan, Woodbern was motherless. He spent much of his confused Catholic youth parsing whether this counted as immaculate conception. He could come to no conclusion from the traces that remained in his earliest memories—a shelf of arms, gently swaying, a faceless expanse of blue hospital gown patterned in miniscule paisley. Were these his memories or fabrications after the fact inspired by something resonant spied in passing as his single father browsed television channels? Woodbern remembered singing, snatches of pretty baby, I love you baby.
His father was little help. “Of course you had a mother,” he responded, in one of his less laconic moments, pre-Tragedy. “But it takes more than a womb to raise a child.” There was, just then, something different in his voice, as if Woodbern himself were not the sole interlocutor.
“What’s a womb?” Woodbern asked.
His father tried to dissemble alarm by adjusting his glasses and poring over the latest crime against language and fact perpetrated by the apathetic enrollees of Political Thought from Plato to Bentham. He lingered over a split infinitive, leaving it unmarked to address his staring son. “A womb. A womb is…” Woodbern watched his father’s forehead crease as he sifted synonyms. “A kind of chamber.”
“Like a legislative chamber?”
His father was tired enough to go with it. “Yes,” he answered. “This…chamber is the culmination of a long and important process of collaborative…decision making.”
Thus began Woodbern’s early faith in romantic election. Even years later, post-Tragedy, its last roots—so Woodbern thought—wrenched firmly from his consciousness, a splinter or two found berth and shot forth tendrils, rhizomes, occasional fungal flares, somehow eluding the latest purge. Here was a wedge of Corinthian cornice, there a sodden marble tile, the ruins of his personal People’s House, which one day he still secretly aspired to occupy by landslide with his intended, a match fated with the legibility of bullet points, polling data, Providence solid as sculpted stone.
Inevitably, of course, the question arose of how, in this bicameral process, the elder Woodbern had emerged the sole victor. In his better moments, the question provoked a quiver in his father’s features requiring several minutes alone in the nearest toilet with the door shut and water running. Those times when his father remained seated, cold rage uncreasing his face from the eyes down, Woodbern knew better than to wait for an answer.
In college, between initial reports of the Tragedy, Woodbern came home to voicemail from his father. “I lied,” he said. “I don’t have much time. I know—” His words cut off in the din of passing traffic. “Remember that. Anyone telling you otherwise is full of shit.”
Mr. Woodbern then sketched out the history of the Sisterhood, a loose collective of artists, critics, and cultural terrorists galvanized by the open curriculum and hothouse isolation of Medina College, a tiny outpost of liberal learning in the western hinterlands of New York State. Woodbern’s mother, a major in political performance, decided to take her honors thesis a step further after she graduated, meeting, marrying, and mothering a child with Woodbern’s liberal but far from radical father less than a year after graduation. The Sisterhood needed someone on the inside to expose the contingent roots of Western civilization’s most cherished institution: the maternal instinct. The performance had to be convincing to all parties, not just the audience; only the full experience of bourgeois courtship and parturition could make a stage sturdy enough for Mrs. Woodbern to subsequently dismantle. She followed the well-worn rut of first date, girlfriend, fiancée. A born Unitarian and practicing agnostic, she converted to Catholicism in order to placate her in-laws. She fretted over place settings and flower arrangements, settled on a dress that maximized both her budget and her most flattering physical characteristics—she had lovely shoulders—hid said garment from Mr. Woodbern for good luck, learned the paso doble for the reception. Woodbern was conceived in a cramped suite overlooking the Parthenon, but Mrs. Woodbern contemplated another set of ruins as Mr. Woodbern thrust away to the blare of old-school hip hop from the passive motor traffic below—the Temple of Artemis, goddess of women and childbirth, a straight shot across the Aegean on the west coast of Turkey.
She stayed long enough to name and learn to feed him. The nurse that helped said she was a natural. Woodbern heard his father’s voice thin with irony through the wafer of his wallet phone. Two days later, as they waited for release papers, she sent her husband out for a magazine. When Mr. Woodbern returned, her bed was vacant. He knocked gently at the lavatory door. There was no answer. He set her magazine and his coffee down on a wheeled nightstand, scratched the stubble on his chin. That was when he noticed the turquoise envelope swaddled in the tangle of hospital sheets.
The note inside explained everything, more or less. She cited several previously unreleased documents—all of the Sisterhood’s manifestos are transmitted orally from memory—in providing a rationale for his abandonment. She bore no ill will toward him or their son, nor did she bear any remorse for what she was doing. Her extraction from the maternity suite had been planned to the second; there was no point in attempting pursuit. She acknowledged that his role in her contrarian plot would be little consolation, even if it somehow survived media dilution as spectacle to persist as a cultural watershed. For what it was worth, in their time together, she had come to trust him, a foundation far sturdier than the romantic chimera celebrated in film.
Mr. Woodbern, who had slept little in the last 48 hours, folded the note back in thirds, replaced it in its envelope, and reached for the coffee he had set down minutes before. He drained the cup in three gulps. The future tasted of cold hazelnut coffee.
A nurse arrived with his son, who had begun to whimper with hunger. He felt the nurse’s eyes linger on the empty bed as she handed him over. Woodbern grew silent in his father’s arms, their gentle sway from the effort of keeping upright. He reached for the envelope sprouting from between his father’s blanched knuckles. She had provided a list of media for him to contact when he was ready to go public. It was essential that this story be told, and she would accept whatever blame he ascribed if it brought attention to the Sisterhood. He wouldn’t be alone for long, she was sure. Gently, Mr. Woodbern withdrew the envelope from his son’s grasp and tossed it in the nearest bin.
“She was right in the end.” Woodbern pressed the phone closer to his ear and heard his father address a voice in the background. “Not about how, but what. If everything can just…stop, then what did it all mean in the first place?” He paused to let a siren pass. “You’re an orphan now, but not because I don’t love you. I want you to be safe. You’re better off in the New Homeland. The most I can hope for—” A caravan of enormous vehicles seemed to swallow his last syllables. The voice of the System indicated no further messages. Woodbern checked the time, a Northern area code he didn’t recognize. North, the province of cowards, lost causes, a.k.a., Objectors. Within 36 hours of the first confirmed deaths at Surface Zero, a bicameral landslide passed emergency security measures. The Objectors formed caravans to the Northern border, protesting gutted civil liberties with the righteous abandonment of a populace still coated with blood and debris.
Say what you want about the old man, he wasn’t wrong. It took a certain type to survive in the New Homeland. On one of the first clear days after the Tragedy, signs at every corner read FORWARD. Lacking explicit direction, however, it was unclear whether the signs encouraged progress east, away from the blast site, or further into the rubble to the south, or crosstown to the west, where the displaced squatted in temporary housing trailers.
Woodbern wandered east. He skirted a peace demonstration on the steps of Pitkin Hall. One protester, megaphone rampant, declaimed to a sparse crowd waving placards at the shadows between entrance columns. He tried to make out what they were chanting when he was interrupted by Gareth, his TA for Time Management, the last introductory hurdle toward Woodbern’s major in Efficiency Engineering. Gareth scanned the dwindling protest with glassy eyes before asking Woodbern if he was going to see the Muses.
“Who?” He was handed a flyer advertising a free concert by the visiting Medina College Muses. “Women’s a cappella? I’d ask if you’re high, but I already know the answer.”
“My grief coach says I need an outlet of some kind. Something non-narcotic.”
“And this is it?”
Gareth took the flyer back and folded it carefully it into his jacket. “We can go ironically. The point is to feel something, anything. I can rebuild my entire worldview from a single shard of irritation. But I’ve got to start somewhere. And I can’t do it alone.”
Woodbern shook his head.
“Professor Kinneret’s planning a pop quiz on Monday.” Gareth withdrew a wrinkled sheet, folded in quarters, from one of his coat pockets.
Pitkin Hall was nearly full when they arrived for the show. A few of the protesters from earlier lingered by the entrance, waving placards at the gathering crowd: CHICKENS—MEET ROOST; DRONES GO HOME. They managed to find two seats together in one of the front rows.
The Muses took the stage promptly at 8, introducing themselves with the Medina College alma mater, a cloying enumeration of rolling hills, amber valleys, and trundling waters that garnered polite applause. “I’d be more irritated if they wore matching outfits,” Gareth noted with disappointment, as the ensemble of nine segued to a more upbeat number with simulated bass and snare. The chorus flaunted the singers’ knowledge of where it’s at. As far as what it was, the Muses betrayed little between hip rolls and synchronized turns.
Woodbern checked his watch, mindful that tonight was Thirsty Thursday at House of Pints. He considered bartering the first round for an early exit. The wings filled with sudden descending harmonies. He tried and failed to find their source, distracted by a rank of snapping fingers. The soloist emerged slowly as the middle shuffled back. The first notes goaded him to the edge of a precipitous hollow; now the solo took its full measure. It was not her voice he heard but the distance it traversed. He felt every pause for breath, each verse resumed. Her hair formed a taut plait pinned above one freckled cheek. Its copper color blurred to rust in his vision at the bridge:
I love you baby
Trust in me when I say it’s okay
Medina. He blinked and memorized as much as he could of the soloist’s features. He was interrupted by a gale of applause. He felt Gareth’s arms circle tightly around him.
“I’m not crying, you asshole,” Woodbern whispered into the grip of damp fleece.
“I know,” Gareth answered, swaying them both together.
They waited at the stage door to offer their service as tour guides. Gareth was game, though his grief coach had warned about dating too soon after significant trauma. Woodbern heard movement behind the door and motioned for quiet. Gareth lowered his voice. “Not judging. Just sharing,” he added, as the alley filled with light.
Chloe, the soloist, was a frequent visitor to the City and had little need for guidance. She led them away from campus and into a district of cocktail dens opening out from streets Woodbern had never seen before. The gathering dwindled with every passing block until they found themselves a foursome—Woodbern, Chloe, Gareth, and a humorless soprano from Vermont whose name even her sister seemed to forget.
They paused at the doors of Peristalsis. The bouncer greeted Chloe by name. Woodbern’s beer cost more than a six-pack. He looked for Gareth between funnels of blue smoke before he was taken by the hand into one of the pods on the second level.
She wasn’t one for small talk. Neither was Woodbern. “What do you know about the Sisterhood?”
“I’m not a dyke, if that’s what you mean.” She scooped a clear capsule from the surface of her cocktail and held it up to the pod’s single overhead bulb. There was something inside, filaments suspending a reflective orb. “You sure you don’t want one? My treat.”
“No thanks. It’s not—That’s not—The Sisterhood, I mean.”
She smiled. “Sorry. Medina is like sensory deprivation with cows. Whenever I get to the City, it’s like…” The capsule caught her attention again. She crooned softly to the filaments inside. Senses working overtime. She drew her cocktail closer, its neon layers shifting slightly against the glass.
“My parents met at Medina. I was just wondering—”
She placed the capsule on her tongue and drank. “Why would you ask?” She pushed her empty glass away. “The Sisterhood hasn’t existed for years. Not since—”
The light in the pod dimmed. Chloe yelped and laughed, clapping as the walls closed completely around them. The darkness broke along bright shards, matching the dyes that had dosed her cocktail. Streaks of color unpeeled from overhead; catalyzed by gastric juices, they formed kaleidoscopic patterns projected wirelessly by the swallowed capsule. The pod console illuminated her face as she adjusted the audio to Sand and Surf. Waves broke in rhythm to her digestion, punctuated by the cries of gulls.
He reached for his beer and found her hand. She clambered onto the narrow table, swinging her legs around. She penned him between her knees as she moved in his lap. He felt his way to the braid framing her face; it unscrolled as his fingers traced its length.
He awoke by himself to sky the color of a hangover. He turned aside from the cluttered nightstand where he knew not to look for any trace of his Muse. He now understood his father’s last words, redacted in transmission before turning his back on the New Homeland and vanishing into the wilds of Canada. Love was not an election; it was a coup, a covert action whose intricacies were best enjoyed furtively, before morning dispelled its flattering shadows.
He slept through his morning classes and cobbled together a lunch from free samples distributed every Friday by vendors in the Student Commons. He managed to escape a credit card syndicate with a blank application and a handful of pigs in blankets. He was relieved of the card vendor’s indignant expression by a pair of private security representatives from Escutcheon Enterprises, who invited him to peruse their literature. An ornate silver keyhole cover rose from the flatness of a textured slate brochure. The moveable flap revealed a dark iris peering up from the surface. The representatives smiled blandly from behind piles of swag: notepads, pens, a messenger bag that would be raffled off to one lucky registrant completing Escutcheon’s Skills Assessment Inventory. He was offered a pen and clipboard. As the woman in the slate blazer tried to engage him in small talk, he decided to have some fun. He took the proffered clipboard and responded to every question truthfully. HONORS: None. PUBLICATIONS: None. HOBBIES: None. SKILLS: I like to read. In the spaces for personal and contact information, he wrote out his full name: THOMAS JEFFERSON WOODBERN. He tore his form from the pad of blanks and listened to it crackle feebly along the lines he had scored on it. He returned the clipboard and thanked the representatives, walking off before they could engage him in more cursory conversation.
The messenger bag arrived at his dorm via personal courier along with an invitation to Escutcheon’s main office uptown.
Back at the office, Subject 7 continued her dance with the camera. Woodbern pored over the freckles on her neck, connecting them in his mind—a kite, a star, the letter L, an N on its side. A high mechanical whine pierced his headset. Woodbern stood. Two workers were dismantling one of the corner cubicles.
When he looked next, she was gone. He panned the living room—empty. So was the kitchen and the breakfast nook. He scrolled through the remaining screens of the feed. His stylus stopped at the dresser cam, which was slashed with opacity. Movement. He tracked back, but could still make out nothing. Then the corner of her face peeked out from behind her upper arm. She was reaching for something. Her arm halved the screen. He zoomed in. From this low angle, her eyes looked like dark creases. She continued her search. She leaned down until he could see the whites of her eyes, the pupils narrowing as they looked directly into the lens, then darted to her right. Woodbern checked the Environmental Intake. There were three bedroom cameras; the one he looked through now was installed inside a plush bear whose sentimental value forestalled any risk of disposal or disassembly. Woodbern blinked and reached for his vial of eye drops.
Subject 7 stood on her bed, facing the wall. The springs of the mattress bounced her gently in place. She waited for the bouncing to ebb. In her left hand, she held a hammer. She seemed to focus intently on the wall behind the headboard—a muted floral pattern with green-breasted hummingbirds coupled at intervals over large blue blossoms. Subject 7 approached the wall carefully, fingered a seam in the panels, traced it to an obscured point somewhere at the level of her face, and applied the hammer claw. She moved aside, revealing a hole in the plaster. She hit again. The force of her wrenching made a larger hole. The blows came faster now, the holes proliferating as blanks on his monitor.
He heard a knock at the door. Gina had taken extra shifts and would be working late tonight. Woodbern opened his eyes.
DJ Punir needed to borrow his television. “What’s wrong with yours?” Woodbern asked. He had forgotten it was Punir’s night off, when he would take full advantage of his proximity to Woodbern’s apartment.
He checked the ticker on his Prizm and thrust a six-pack in Woodbern’s face. “Beer?”
Punir didn’t have much time; he was in mid-set, spinning for a prosthetics convention uptown. He also had a tip about a one-way party afterwards although he wouldn’t get the coordinates for another hour.
“I thought the City banned one-way Metro tickets.” Woodbern twisted the cap on his bottle.
“There’s more than one way to break Curfew. Is that Puppy Party?”
On his television screen, a mother pug nursed her litter in front of a roaring fire. “It’s almost over.”
“Perfect.” Punir raised his Prizm and framed the screen in his viewfinder. One of his ear buds fell out; Woodbern heard the noises of the convention crowd being patched in wirelessly.
“How do you know what to play if you can’t see the crowd?”
“I don’t need the crowd. The crowd needs me. If the set holds together, the crowd follows. And for it to hold together, I can’t be distracted by the players.” He scrolled back to the Prizm’s viewfinder, reframed his shot, and hit Record.
DJ Punir knew a guy who knew a guy. For a modest cut, this guy, an employee inside the Network, would text the time and date of hot content buried in official broadcasts that had somehow passed the censors. It was a niche market, certainly, but the audience was loyal and willing to pay top dollar for discreet, quality downloads.
“The light in your place is perfect. Like watching TV in a motel that charges by the hour.” He shifted the Prizm up slightly just as a pair of bare feet entered from the right. They stopped short at a corner of blue fleece where the puppies were feeding. Scarlet toenails flexed furtively into the plush beige carpet. “Money shot!” Punir replaced his dropped ear bud.
He sat back in Woodbern’s recliner and reached into his jacket pocket. “Got something for your trouble.” He pulled out a ribbon of white lozenges and shook them invitingly in his direction.
Woodbern declined. “We get randomly piss tested at work.”
“Corporate bullshit. You should go freelance. It’s hand-to-mouth for a while, sure, but when it pays it pays.” Punir unsealed a lozenge and placed it on his tongue. “Anyway, these catalyze in no time.” He closed his mouth and pursed his lips. After several seconds, he reached into his mouth and removed the lozenge; its chalky skin was now clear. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve, setting the lozenge in the crook of his arm. A tiny bubble of air was visible just beneath the softened skin as it began to drain. The Subscriber Override had started with breaking news: a body found in the hedge maze at Prester Park. A member of the walking meditation group that found her that morning noted the peacefulness of the woman’s expression, so complete that the group feared waking her. Only when they noticed she wasn’t breathing were the authorities called. An inset picture of the dead woman was broadcast in one corner as witnesses were interviewed. Apparent suicide.
DJ Punir shook his head. “You know what they say,” he began. Actually, Woodbern didn’t, and he paid little attention to the rest of his neighbor’s ramblings. He stared at the inset picture, studied the dark hair, the pale skin, the caption with her name and residence information.
A gun was recovered near the body although witnesses didn’t mention a gun in their initial statements to police. This was later attributed to the amount of blood from the single, self-inflicted wound to the head.
Woodbern recalled Subject 7’s Environmental Intake, the blank under WEAPONS IN RESIDENCE. He saw again the hammer claw embedded in plaster, the deliberate shape of the damage noted in his report, leaving interpretation to Escutcheon’s analysts. The wall appeared vividly before him as Punir pried the spent lozenge from his skin—a circular flatness, fragile as a web—and thanked Woodbern for his help. Woodbern didn’t answer. As the door to his apartment shut, he watched the clawed markings proliferate again on the length of wall overhead, acquiring in recollection ragged but legible rigidities:
R U N
The national anthem played over a montage of historic monuments. The Subscriber Override was over. Woodbern turned off the lights. A pulse signal from the Network doused his television screen. Five minutes to Curfew. He thought he saw movement in a corner of his darkened windows. He turned on the lights. An elevator chimed from one of the lower floors. He turned the lights off. On again. Footsteps ascended steadily then stopped. Off. On. Again.