The front door slammed.
Matt watched from his bedroom window as Ryan stormed away from the house. What did he say to Mom? Matt wondered.
Ryan stopped at the end of the drive, looked both ways, hunched his shoulders and then slowly walked down the road.
Ryan was in one of his moods again. When wasn’t he? Was that what 17 was all about, hatred and anger? Resentment of everything?
“Don’t try following me, you lib-tool snowflake!” Ryan had said. “And if you even think about going in my room, they’ll never find the body parts.”
All Matt had said as “Good morning,” and maybe something about being glad it was Saturday, but Ryan blew up at him. And what was with that stupid warning about his stupid room? Nick had said that he thought Ryan was making bombs or something there. Matt wasn’t sure if Nick was joking.
With the thought of his best friend, Matt ran down the steps.
“Stop your banging around!” Mom’s voice drifted out of the kitchen.
“Sorry, Mom. I’m on my way out. See you.”
His mother walked into the foyer, put her hands on her hips. “And where are you headed off to today?”
“No place special,” Matt said. “I’m going over to Nick’s and then we are going to ride our bikes up to Logan’s house.” Mom, of course, approved of Logan’s parents, so this was a good story, and mostly true, if not quite right.
“Be careful. The world is crazy these days.”
“Ah, Mom, I’m not a kid any more, I’m 13.” He studied her frown. “OK, I’ll be careful. Don’t worry. Bye!”
He made sure the door only whispered shut behind him as he ran to his bike.
Seeing Ryan up ahead, Matt zipped by Nick’s house. Nick was in the front yard and waved, so Matt wasn’t worried.
“Going off to study? On a Saturday?” Matt pointed at Ryan’s heavy book bag.
“Shut up and mind your own business, jerk.”
A car approached.
“I thought Mom told you not to hang out with Austin,” Matt said.
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, and if she does know, I’ll be sure to hurt you.” Ryan glared at his little brother before turning is attention to the car.
“Get in the back, punk,” the driver, Austin’s older brother, Cole, said. Cole never looked at Matt, just stared straight ahead as Ryan hopped in. But Matt noticed him raise his right hand. Something was in it, something sinister. Was it…? And in the back with Ryan and Austin, what was that?
With a squeal of tires, the car took off before he could focus.
Without thinking, Matt took off as well, crossing the road and going up the Wilson’s driveway. The house was boarded up and nobody knew where the Wilsons had gone, but Matt didn’t care. He continued through the back lawn, across The Jameson’s lawn. He hoped he wasn’t seen, as Mrs. Jameson had told his mom the last time he had cut across her lawn. Matt continued across the street and through the Kline’s and Anderson’s yard. Out on Maplewood, he sped down to the intersection with Berryville and skidded to a stop.
Cole’s car whipped around the corner, heading off towards Main. He thought he saw Ryan’s face. At least he hoped Ryan saw him as he gave the finger to the speeding car.
“Hey Dude, be careful,” Nick said as he peddled up.
“Be careful of what, those butt-holes?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Those ‘butt-holes’ are in the Boys.”
“The Booger Boys? Big whip.”
Nick shook his head. “Don’t let them hear you say that if you want to live to be an old man.”
“What makes you think they’re with the Boys?”
“Those stupid shirts for one. And all of the guns and crap. Come on, let’s go.”
Nick started off, peddling slow at first, but picking up speed.
Guns? Sure, Ryan had seemed obsessed with AR-15s, drawing them on all of his notebooks, and putting up stickers everywhere, but he didn’t use them. Well, as far as Matt knew.
He thought of the quick glance he had of the back seat of Cole’s car. What was back there? And what did Cole flash him before he drove off?
Matt hurried to catch Nick as he crossed Main.
Going down Main would have been quicker, but they wanted to avoid being seen. Logan had said he had a secret. If you are going to see a secret, you don’t want to attract attention, do you?
After the sprint across Main, they continued at a good clip for a few minutes before slowing down.
“Hey, did you hear what Nate said on Tuesday?” Nick asked as Matt caught up.
“Yeah, Logan said something about it. Stupid election and all…”
They rode on, side by side and chatting when traffic allowed, which was most of the time since they were on all side roads. Still, even with the chatting, they made pretty good time, though it wasn’t long before Matt started to sweat. It was only early May, but the day was warm. Besides, the farther they got from Main, the more uphill they went.
Ryan had once told Matt that the higher up the hill they went, the richer the people got. That wasn’t quite right, since the richest neighborhoods in town were close to the river, what Ryan called “Capitalistvile”. He called the entire hillside “Snowflakeville” and said he hoped a landslide would take out those neighborhoods.
Supposedly a landslide did take out a few houses and gas lines back in early February. The fires from the gas lines burned several houses and they closed off a few blocks. It was said to be dangerous, unstable. The 12-foot, barbwire topped fences were for everyone’s protection.
Nick stopped just outside of the Ridgeview development and walked his bike under a tree for some shade.
“Aren’t we going up to Logan’s house?” Matt asked.
“Nah, he called me this morning and said to meet him here,” Nick said. “He was pretty secretive. Do you know what he has up his sleeve?”
Matt shrugged and flopped down beside Nick.
The houses in Ridgeview weren’t any bigger than those in Matt’s and Nick’s neighborhood, but there was something about them that said “money”. Matt studied the closest ones. Was it the brick? Perhaps that the yards were almost twice the size? That was most likely it. The landscaping was surely expensive. They were also much newer. Matt’s house was built in 1981, but none of the houses in Ridgeview were built before 2000. Logan’s house was even newer, only about 8 or 9 years old.
“I heard you talked to Izzy after school yesterday.” Nick’s voice had a sing-song lilt to it.
Matt frowned, hoping he wasn’t turning red. “So?”
“She’s pretty hot. You gonna go out with her or something?”
Matt really liked Isabella Pérez, but knew Ryan would beat him up for even talking to her.
“Uhm, no…, but what about you and Jennifer?”
“Jennifer? She’s my sister’s best friend, so when I talk to her…”
The best defense is a good offence, Matt thought. “Yeah, but I’ve seen the way you look at her. And you hugged her a couple of weeks ago…”
Nick laughed. “You’ve got to admit, she’s pretty hot.” Matt almost brought up that, yes, she was hot, but she was also black, but bit his tongue. Wasn’t that part of what their past argument was about? Nick continued, “But even hotter, in my opinion is Margarite Jones?”
“Are you kidding? Hotter than Jennifer Thomas?”
Matt smiled inwardly as he made the new comeback. It had been ages since he and Nick were able to talk like this. They used to hang out all of the time and chat about anything and everything, though in the last few years, mostly girls. And did they ever spill their guts. But it had ended.
Matt had repeated to Nick a few things that Ryan had said, not just repeated them, but took them on as his own. It wasn’t that he meant to hurt anyone, but Ryan was his big brother, damnit. You only get one big brother, or at least one like Ryan.
But Ryan had changed so much. It had been pretty bad, but with the whole political thing and all that happened after the elections.
And Ryan had been so disrespectful to Mom after that as well.
Ryan had always idolized Ryan, but that was hard, very hard.
It seemed everything Ryan touched turned to lead. Matt, trying to follow his older brother, had been caught by the worst of the fall out. Everything had gone downhill, everything made a bit worse.
And, perhaps worse of all, Ryan had driven a wedge between him and his best friend, Nick.
It wasn’t fair! Ryan was the wrecking ball, why was Matt the one to get hurt?
“So, Kyle said that he heard Margarite tell Em…,” Nick was saying when Matt cut him off.
“God freaking damn Ryan! Freaking, damn him.”
He turned to hide the tears that were forming from Nick, but felt his friend come close, put an arm around him.
“Hey, Matt, it’s OK. I know he has been awful, but it is OK.”
He sat for a minute letting it go, but then worked to compose himself, trying to suck it in. Damn it, he hated to show his weak side, but at least Nick understood. Nick always understood.
“Hey, you guys decide to go gay on me?”
Matt jerked up to see Logan smiling over them.
“Well, no,” Nick said. “Did you decide to become a homophobic jerk on us?”
Logan laughed. “You know better. Hey, you ready or do you need a minute? Let’s go!”
“Matt was just giving me the latest on Isabella Pérez…”
“Whoa, she’s hot,” Logan said.
“Yeah, anyway, I think Matt’s done now. You ready?”
Matt stood up. “Ready, and, no, it’s not like that with me and Izzy…”
“Not like that… yet!” Nick said.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s go.” He reached down and grabbed his bike, inwardly thanking Nick for helping him save face.
They rode slightly away from town, deeper into the country, and then curved back on the backside of Ridgeview. It wasn’t long before they found themselves in another built up area.
Logan tried to talk as they went, giving his little bits of news and gossip about school, but for the most part they just rode. It was hard enough and Matt was beginning to get tired. He was sure he and Nick must have ridden a half a dozen miles or more, most of it uphill. He hoped they didn’t have to go much further.
No sooner had he thought that when Logan stopped in front of a small lot of woodland.
‘What’re we doing?” Nick asked.
“Shhh.” Logan glanced around as if expecting there to be spies behind every tree, then pushed his bike off of the road. He motioned the others to follow.
They wheeled their bikes a little way into the woods before Logan stopped. He put a finger to his lips and half whispered, “We need to hide the bikes really good. Nobody can know we are here, nobody.”
It took a few minutes to find a place that satisfied Logan, but they finally had their bikes tucked away and followed him deeper into the woods. If anyone tried to talk, Logan shushed them.
It wasn’t far before they hit a small drainage dich and followed it uphill. The underbrush was thick around the ditch, so going was slow. A little farther up the ditch disappeared into an embankment. It was brighter at the top, so Matt guessed there was a road or something up there.
Logan pushed some branches back reveling a corrugated pipe about four-foot-high leading into the embankment. It was covered by bars.
After putting a finger to his mouth again, he reached over and moved the cover. There was room for a boy to slip behind into the pipe.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Matt said.
“Shut up,” Logan said as he shook his head. He lowered his voice so Nick and Matt leaned in. “This goes into the forbidden zone.”
“The fenced off area?” Nick asked.
Nick shrugged, and squeezed into the pipe.
“It’s dark…” Matt said, remembering to keep his voice low.
“That’s why I have flashlights for all of us,” Logan said. “Now get in there.”
Matt slid in behind Nick and moved a little deeper in so Logan could get through.
Logan was soon in and handed the other two their lights.
It was small and no passing, so they had to go in the order they had entered, Nick first with Matt in the middle. He felt very claustrophobic, bent over double as he walked, but it took only a minute to get to the other side.
There were no bars or anything else blocking the entrance inside of the fence line.
“Ah, fresh air at last,” Nick said.
“Shut up, dummy, we still need to be quiet. Who knows who comes in here,” Logan said.
The three kids scrambled out of the drainage ditch up to the road.
The neighborhood didn’t look any different than any of the others that they had seen. Perhaps newer and nicer than Matt’s, with the yards being much bigger, but no better than Logan’s neighbor, Ridgeview, and even a bit older, maybe even as old as Matt’s house.
It was all so odd. In one way, everything was normal, but it was quiet. Too quiet. There were no cars on the roads, no people mowing their lawns, as they had been lower on the hill. No people at all.
“What’s that black ‘X’ on the doors?” Nick asked, pointing to the closest house.
“That means they’ve checked it and found no bodies,” Logan said.
“No way,” Matt said.
“Yeah, before they closed this all down and fenced it off, they did a last search of all of the houses, marking them so they didn’t waste time going into the same house twice.”
They walked a little farther. Most of the windows in the houses were shattered. A few had the siding torn off in places.
“Those are bullet holes,” Nick said pointing to a house that had dark spots polka-dotting it.
“Uh, uh,” Matt shook his head.
“Yeah, a lot of them have bullet holes,” Logan said. “I didn’t sleep that night. It sounded like World War Three.”
Matt noticed that there was no black “X” on the door. In its place was a florescent orange number, “3”.
A few other houses also had those florescent numbers instead of the black check.
Matt shivered, but took a step closer, just to be sure he wasn’t missing something.
“Come on,” Logan said. “No use disturbing the dead.”
They walked up to the next house. The black spray-painted “X” on the door, so fresh from the road, was smeared and chipped after so few months. It was obvious the door had been forced open. Was it by the rescue party checking for bodies? Or was it someone else?
Nick pushed the door farther open to allow them to enter.
Most of the furniture was still there. Books and magazines were on the coffee tables, as if the owners had just left a moment ago.
But the house was trashed.
“Why are the walls ripped apart?” Matt asked.
“Someone pulled out all the copper wiring,” Loga said. “I hear they came in within hours of the evacuation, before the police came through. Most likely the plumbing too, and anything of value that was easy to take away.”
Matt couldn’t figure how ripping wire out of the walls was easy.
“And the house next door, with the, the, uhm with the three…” Nick looked pale as he asked, not daring to mention what was in the house.
Logan shrugged. “Yeah. They either left the bodies where they lay, or they finished them off. Who knows? And it might have been the same people, possibly even at the same time.”
“How do you know so much about it?” Matt asked.
“Some of my parents’ friends lived up here. We took them in for a few days. The stories…”
He looked away from the other two. Was he crying? Logan?
Nicked poked his head into some of the other rooms as Logan pretended to study a speck on the floor as far from the other two as possible.
“Man, this is pretty creepy,” Nick said. Matt looked over his shoulder into what was once the kitchen. Nick used his flashlight to point out the flipped over refrigerator and black goo on the floor around it.
“Let’s get out of here.”
They continued up the street, vowing not to enter any more houses. Still, they were curious.
One house had “Go Back Home” scrawled in red spray paint across the front. There was a florescent number “4” next to where the door had once been. The gapping, burnt out doorframe seemed to ooze darkness. Glass was everywhere, all of the way into the street, obviously from the blasted-out windows.
Matt stared at the bullet pocked mailbox, then forced himself to look away. It was just too close.
All that was left of the next three houses were the foundations.
“Were these destroyed in the gas explosion?” Matt asked.
“No, there were no gas explosions. Someone burnt them down and shot everyone who tried to escape,” Logan said.
“The Anti’s?” Matt asked. That was what Ryan had said.
Logan shook his head and looked away.
The house across the street was a burnt out husk, barley standing. It had been spray-painted as well, but it was so burnt as to be illegible. Matt could only make out the word “Snowflake.”
“Snowflakville,” Matt said to himself. A memory of Ryan sneaking into the house at 4:30 one night in February came up, but he pushed it out. Just coincidence.
He looked around and noticed more and more deliberate destruction and random words in red paint.
“Kill Commies!” was written on one house. Another house had the so-called “N-word” scrawled on it.
Matt grabbed Logan’s shoulder and turned him. “What in the Hell happened here?” he asked.
Logan forced himself out of Matt’s grip and started to walk the way they had come.
“It’s getting late,” he said over his shoulder. “I hear the National Guard patrol this place. His National Guard, not the real National Guard.”
The boys didn’t say a word as they retraced their footfalls back to the drainage ditch and culvert. They filed through the corrugated pipe, Logan first, then Nick and Matt taking up the rear.
Matt kept glancing back as the mouth of the tunnel behind grew fainter and fainter, half expecting ghosts to be following.
At last the light in front grew brighter.
Logan slipped easily out, but Nick got caught and took a few minutes.
As he waited just inside of the culvert, a wave of fire-breath cold washed over Matt. His skin grew goose-bumps, and he shivered in the heat. His hands were shaking as he tried to slip out after Nick.
Something was grabbing him, pulling him. He was stuck.
“Shhh,” Nick said, as he reached back and helped Matt out.
He felt his shirt tear where a bar had caught it, not a person or ghost.
Out in the open, on the good side of the fence, away from that little slice of Hell with its bullet holes and florescent numbers, a bit of normalcy came back. Not a word was said as they gathered the bikes and pushed them onto the road, but they all had more energy.
They stood in the bright May sunlight and looked at each other. Nick was the first to giggle at the splash of mud on Matt’s nose. Matt noticed the tear across Logan’s shirt before discovering he had an even bigger one from where the bars had caught him. He started laughing as well.
Logan laughed a little but shook his head.
“Come on,” Logan said. “Let’s get away from this awful place. More to laugh at back at my place.”
The little laugh seemed to have lifted a thousand pounds off of Matt’s shoulders. He felt light and strong as they rode.
They hadn’t gone too far when a car pulled up. It was Logan’s parents.
“There you are,” Logan’s dad said. “We were worried about you. Hurry get into the car.”
“But what about my bike?”
Logan’s Dad looked around as if checking if it were safe.
“Damn. OK,” he said. “We’ll toss it in the trunk. Hurry get the front wheel off so it’ll fit.” He turned to Matt and Nick. “You two need to ride straight home as fast as you can. There’s a curfew starting in 20 minutes. It won’t be safe anywhere. Go!”
He turned from the boys to open his trunk.
“Come on,” Nick said to Matt.
They peddled like mad down the hill for what seemed like forever. As they were almost down to Main Street, they were greeted be a loud rumble.
Neither boy spoke, but both instinctively ditched their bikes and hid.
A half a dozen armored vehicles sped by, going up the hill towards the neighborhood they had just left. Although they all had American flags, the first and last also had Confederate battle flags. “His National Guard”. That’s what Logan had called them.
After the road was clear, they jumped back on their bikes. It took just another minute to hit Maine St.
There were eight small businesses at the intersection.
Three were burnt out.
Even though the fires had been happened over two weeks earlier, Matt could still smell the smoke and burnt wood.
“The Antis…,” he started to say.
“Shut up,” Nick said. Matt strained his ears as Nick said, “They only hit minority owned businesses. Mr. Thomas is still in the hospital.”
Nick shushed him, then nodded.
A loud boom reverberated down the street, making Matt almost crash. Nick didn’t seem to notice.
The sound of distant fireworks drifted down the hill and then was silent. Or were they fireworks?
Four police cars flew by, sirens blaring.
“Almost home, almost home,” Matt found himself saying.
They were about to turn off of Main onto Berryville and thus into their development when a police cruiser screeched to a halt in front of them.
A police officer jumped out and aimed his gun at them. “Freeze! Off the bikes and hands in the air! Now!”
Matt fell from his bike and clumsily got to his feet. He raised his arms, ignoring the skinned knee.
A second car pulled up.
“What are you doing out? There is a city wide curfew, What are you doing?” the police office from the first car said.
“I’m sorry officer,” Nick said. “We’ve been out all day and didn’t know. Really. We’re headed home.” He nodded with his head towards the development.
A policeman from the second car walked up to the first officer. “Let ‘em go, James. They’re just kids.”
“Yeah, but it was just a kid with the bomb and machine gun.”
“They obviously don’t have guns or bombs. Hey kids, you live around here?”
“Yes, sir, officer, just up there,” Matt said.
The second officer nodded. “I understand, this caught most citizens by surprise. Anyway, Officer Jarrett, let these kids go on their way. If it will make you feel better, I’ll follow them home. It will sure make me feel better to know they make it safe and sound. I don’t think anybody hurting any kids is going to make the situation better for anybody, do you?”
“No sir, not at all” Officer Jarrett said. He holstered his guns. “You kids go on, but go straight home! Anybody out on the street tonight is considered a terrorist.”
Matt realized the police officer was shaking almost as much as he was. he was.
“Will do, sir,” Nick said.
Matt felt wobbly on his bike, and doubly so knowing the police officer was watching and following.
Staying on the street instead of taking their favorite shortcuts, Matt and Nick wound their way deeper into the development, always conscious of the car following them.
Nick’s dad ran out of the house as they pulled even.
“Thanks God you are OK,” He turned to the car. “And thank you, officer, for seeing them safely home.”
“What’s going on, Dad?” Nick asked.
Nick’s dad shot a glance at Matt then said, “We’ll talk about it later, when we are inside.”
Four more houses down, four houses with that car following. Four houses, and Matt had no idea what, or who, he’d find.
He pulled into the drive and turned to the policeman.
“This is my house. Thanks for the escort.”
The police office just waved, but the car sat there. Matt knew he was waiting to see Matt enter the house.
“Where in the Hell have you been?” Matt’s mom asked before he was all of the way inside.
“We went to Logan’s house, as I said.”
“His dad called here looking for him…”
“We went out in the woods exploring. What’s going on?”
“Where is your brother?”
“How should I know?”
“You saw him leave. Who is he with?”
“How should I know?”
She slapped him. Matt saw red, black and stars for a second. His jaw hurt.
“Who is he with?” She raised her hand again.
He put an arm across his face to block the next blow.
“He left with Austin. Cole was driving.”
His mom dropped her hand and slumped down into a chair.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
“They called and told me about the attacks. Some spotted Cole Adam’s car. Some said a boy that looked like Ryan hid a backpack, one that exploded when the rescuers showed up to take care of the first victims, killing several and wounding a lot. Firemen. Paramedics. Police. Helpers. It wasn’t my son. No way. I told them he’d never hang out with Cole and Austin. Nope. Not my son, not him.”
She dropped her head into her hands and started to sob.
Matt hesitated, feeling totally helpless, then took a step closer. Another step. He slowly reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, felt the uneven rising and falling as she sobbed.
“Are you ok, Mom?”
She jerked her head up.
“Some said that same car pulled up to a BLM march and started shooting. Three police officers and five others were killed, including a four-year-old. A four-year-old! But not my son, he would never hang out with them. Not my son, who went to Sunday school and was taught to respect all people. Not him.”
She put her head back into her hands.
Matt stepped closer.
She reached up and grabbed him, covering him in a suffocating hug.
“I was so worried about you.”
He buried his head into her chest and listened to the sobbing.
Matt stood at his bedroom window. He couldn’t see much besides the darkened houses across the street, but he could hear the occasional sound, sometimes from the distances, sometimes too close. “Like World War Three” Logan had said when talking about the inauguration night disaster. Matt now knew what he was talking about.
Did someone just flit across the lawn? Ryan? Worse?
There was no movement out there, and no sounds from close.
He tip-toed to the door and cracked it open.
But then, voices.
It stared at a whisper, but grew louder; his mom and Ryan were arguing.
A loud bang.
Matt jumped out and ran down the steps. “Mom!”
She was standing, back to him, staring at the floor.
Ryan was at her feet, covered in dried blood, his clothing torn to shreds. He wasn’t wearing shoes and his white socks were black with blood.
New red blood rose from the fresh wound in his chest.
Matt gasped and stepped back.
“Call the police,” his mom finally said. “See if they can send the nice officer who brought you home.”
Matt called 911 and was instantly put on hold. How many others were calling? How many of the emergencies were far worse than his own? He thought about the burnt out stores and Jennifer’s father at the hospital. He thought of the red numbers on the house marked “Go Back Home” and the name “Pérez” on the mail box. Were they related to Izzy? Did they have time to call 911? Did anyone respond?
He thought of the police officer with the gun and realized he was scared to death of them.
Because someone was killing police officers.
Matt hung up the phone.
“Nobody can come, Mom. Let’s go in the other room and try again in the morning. He’ll be fine in here by himself. Let’s go Mom.”
“Not my son, uh-uh, not him.” She said, but then let herself be lead into the kitchen.
Matt glanced at the clock as he prepared coffee. 2:23 AM. A distant rumble shook the house.
It was going to be a long night.
OK, I know, that was dark…
I got the idea watching the video for the Arcade Fire song The Suburbs