Hearing bad news from your boss is uncomfortable enough. But when the unexpected changes involve what will raise your stress levels maybe a hundredfold, the situation quickly escalates from critical mass to nuclear. Question after question flooded the subordinate’s mind.
He dared to ask only one, more of a plea instead of hope for an explanation.
“Are…are you certain you are doing the right thing?” asked the Vice President. He glanced to his left and right and over one shoulder looking for support before remembering how he and the President of the United States sat alone inside a small office attached to the Oval Office.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
The President stood.
“Well, my last piece of official advice to you is to put together a short list of those who you think would be right to take your place. If you need any help deciding on a final candidate, you might want to call together the Cabinet and talk it over with them before sending your final selection over to Congress for their approval.”
The President walked to the door leading back to the large office where for years he had made thousands of decisions affecting billions of people. His vice president caught up to him at the thick oak door.
“Sir, the other party might now have a majority in the House but there still are not enough of them in the Senate to impeach you. Sure, there are some turncoats in our party who might vote for your impeachment but –”
“Let me tell you something about being POTUS. Sure, you can try to change things here in D.C. But you know what remains no matter what you do or how you try?”
“That is short for We’re Here Indefinitely, New One. So what if a new person becomes president every four to eight years? There is an unbreakable iron triangle of the ones in Congress, the ones who work for the federal government, and the special interest groups that both of the first two parts of the iron triangle cater to. The same is true at the state levels. Only there, the iron triangle consists of those in the legislature, those working for the state government, and all of the special interests they cater to.”
The President shook his successor’s hand. “Good luck. I’ve enjoyed working with you. Well, don’t let me keep you from what you need to do now.”
I need time to sort this out, thought the Vice President as he walked through a maze of hallways past Executive Office staff, visitors, and secret service agents assigned to protect the highest leaders of America.
He told the agent assigned to guard him of his intended destination. After nodding his understanding, the agent spoke into a tiny communications device to inform a driver and four other agents of imminent movement of Eagle, the code name of the one they guarded with their lives. Two of the agents joined the Vice President in his black, bulletproof limo. The other three rode in the lead vehicle of the small motorcade.
Uncomfortable silence reigned in the second car until the Vice President flipped on the TV embedded into a console by the back seat. Already, talking heads on many of the news channels he flipped through were speculating on just what the President might say during his unannounced message to the American people. Nervous, the agent seated next to the Vice President broke protocol.
“Sir, do you know what he’s going to say?”
The Vice President nodded. “Go ahead and watch it with the headphones on. I have some calls I have to make.”
He picked up the phone capable of connecting him to subordinates worldwide. Within ten minutes, he had scheduled a series of briefings that would begin within minutes of his arrival home at Number One Observatory Circle on the grounds of U.S. Naval Observatory. Heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others would brief him with their assessments of a world gone crazy.
* * *
The wife of the Vice President counseled him as well after the briefings ended. Although not officially on the payroll as an advisor to him, that is what she had become. At times, he reminded her how you are worth more than rubies, thank God that I found you or I wouldn’t have made it this far. He did so after she had helped him compile a list of eleven names to serve as his potential replacement.
“I’ll run the names by the Cabinet when I meet with them tomorrow,” he said as he turned off the lamp next to their bed. “They get to choose which order we send them over to Congress.”
Faced with getting the House and Senate’s approval, both of them had agreed that because of the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, it was possible none of the eleven names would eventually have the title of Vice President in front of it.
* * *
As Vanessa Huesca watched the President announce his resignation effective tomorrow at noon she thought he looked even more worn out and depressed than President Lyndon Johnson had in 1968 when he had told America I shall not seek and will not accept the nomination of my party as your President. Vanessa had been five at the time of LBJ’s announcement.
Later during her college years, Vanessa took note when her political science professor claimed that network news anchor Walter Cronkite’s devastating assessment that the Vietnam War had descended into a stalemate was what had driven LBJ to quit. She changed her major to journalism, determined to also bring about major change.
After graduation, the only broadcasting jobs she had found were at Spanish speaking television stations. She quickly tired of being required to wear outfits that accented her large breasts and revealed her lower thighs. But most of all, she resented a long series of men who had promised much but delivered little or nothing.
Her obsession to change history the way Cronkite had revived somewhat as one of his successors used fake documents to target a sitting President’s re-election campaign. The end justifies the means became her unspoken code of conduct. Then members of her party called her racist after she backed Hillary Clinton instead of Barrack Obama for President in 2008. Angered, anything goes became her new code.
Her new pragmatic code spilled over into her devising a way of best bringing a conspiracy to fruition. No need to run around in protests like those silly white radicals who wore some sort of mask over their faces and spouted their agendas on social media. No need to pow-wow with the rich who funded the protests or the political hacks and Hollywood elite who labored long and hard to appear to be completely progressive in all things. Being part of The Resistance did not mean telling the world about one’s involvement. For Vanessa, only one other person was required to join the plot to install one of her own as President of the United States.
Maybe afterwards, she might even be rewarded with a government job by those who benefitted from her skullduggery. If not, she would still have the silent satisfaction of having changed the course of history.
As she drove toward her youngest sibling’s apartment, Vanessa remembered reading what one of her heroines, FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt, had said to those around her the first time Whittaker Chambers came into her presence: He’s not one of us. Vanessa sighed as her anger toward her little brother grew into resignation.
“Little Thomas is not one of us,” Vanessa said as she switched off her phone, which chimed nonstop with tweets and calls celebrating the President’s announcement moments before.
* * *
“But I’m afraid I’ll get fired,” Thomas Huesca said after listening to his oldest sibling’s plan.
“Not if you do it exactly like I said. Don’t you want one of our own to become President before we both die?”
Thomas grumbled as he made a face to match his mood. He wondered what was worse, doing what Vanessa wanted or having to listen to another speech of how the white men from Spain destroyed our ancestors in South and Central America. He studied the small vial of clear liquid given to him by Huesca.
“I don’t know. Will it hurt him? Is it poison?”
“No, pobrecito. It will just make him loco en la cabeza long enough to disable him from being President is all. But you have to be sure it gets into his system right after he is sworn in as the new President.”
Western Slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains
Danny Trang awoke with a start, his body once again drenched with sweat caused by his recurring dream. When his dream’s bloody scenes refused to end, Danny skipped breakfast. He walked from his small cabin built into one of the Sierra Nevada’s foothills to the stable with the creature he spoke to more than all other humans combined.
“Just a snack for now,” Danny said as he dumped a small portion of oats on top of a flake torn from an alfalfa hay bale he dropped into his horse’s trough.
While the horse ate, Danny brushed his chestnut hair until the animal looked in better shape than his master. With black hair dangling past his shoulders and chameleon-like skin that alternated between a pale yellow and dark red, Danny often frightened strangers. At times, he spooked the inhabitants of the four parcels nearest to his cabin, his only neighbors for five miles in every direction.
“Let’s go.” Danny guided the horse from his stall into the predawn light and leapt atop it to ride bareback.
Horse and rider climbed a nearby slope for several hundred feet and then followed an abandoned logging road that gave a view of their neighbor’s four homes. They rode a half mile until the logging road ended at the dirt road connecting the neighborhood’s properties. After crossing an ancient wooden bridge, Danny left his horse by a long rusty gate secured by lengths of chain connected by five locks that allowed the five households access to and from their private little world.
Danny climbed over the gate and walked to a large square metal box divided into six smaller ones, one with a slot, the drop off and pickup point for rural mail. He found only a newspaper in his mailbox. Its large bold headline across the top of the front page made Danny curse.
“Now I’m going to have to tell the dream to my neighbors, before it’s too late,” he said to his horse. “Whether they like it or not.”
The White House
Thomas Huesca’s next shift at the White House began at 5 a.m. It promised to be a busy one, his supervisor informed Thomas as he tied a white apron about his waist.
“The Vice President is being sworn in as the new President at noon. Afterwards, he and the Cabinet are having a working lunch.” The supervisor frowned at her inattentive helper. “Are you listening to me?”
Thomas stopped fondling the vial of liquid his sister Vanessa had entrusted to him and pulled his hand from his black pants’ pocket. “Yes ma’am.”
* * *
The first effects of the drug Thomas gave to him hit the newly sworn-in President about an hour after he drank the glass of water served with his lunch. By then, his Cabinet members were arguing about which name from his list of possible new Vice Presidents to send to Congress for its approval. One by one, they stopped speaking as they noticed the President begin to stare around the room. Ten minutes later, irrational statements gushed from him.
His doctor was called. After a quick exam revealed dilated pupils, increased blood pressure and pulse rate, and increasing anxiety, the doctor said, “Mr. President, I think we need to run some further tests at Bethesda Naval Hospital.”
“Oh? Will we fly there on Air Force One?”
“Uh, no sir. It’s close enough that we can drive there.”
A couple of hours later at Bethesda Hospital, two psychiatrists conferred after their independent exams of the President.
“What did the blood tests show?” the Secretary of State asked them after being summoned to the hospital.
“There were no traces in his blood test of alcohol, LSD, THC, cocaine, PCP, MDMA, barbiturates, or amphetamines, all substances which could account for his erratic behavior,” answered the head psychiatrist.
“He seems to be in a psychotic state,” said the other psychiatrist. “For his safety, we need to keep him here under twenty-four hour observation.”
“Definitely,” said the head psychiatrist. “His tweet of Don’t believe them proves the President is paranoid and delusional.”
* * *
Already, the talking heads had become exploding heads as they conjectured about the condition and unavailability of the new President. They quoted sources, always referred to as speaking only on the condition of remaining anonymous, by the score. When the Secretary of State returned to the White House, an army of reporters equipped with satellite dishes had surrounded it.
The one he knew would be waiting pulled him into a private office inside of the White House.
“As Speaker of the House, I’m next in line of succession to the President,” said a sweaty little man, anxious to exploit the situation. “We need to immediately invoke the section of the 25th Amendment that states the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet can determine when the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
“No buts. There is currently no Vice President so I am now the de facto VP, whether you like it or not. Either you and I go in and convince enough of the Cabinet to come up with a written declaration of how the President is incapacitated and I am now the acting President or else I go outside and tell the press that the Cabinet is stonewalling just because of my party affiliation.”
After an awkward introduction, a relationship can only improve, Danny Trang believed. Or so he hoped.
“Have you read the last message that the real President sent out on his Twitter account before he was replaced?” asked Danny.
The one who lived nearby yawned. He was black, looked somewhere around fifty years old, and not easily impressed. Or so it seemed.
“What was it that he sent? I’m not following him on his Twitter account.”
“He said, Don’t believe them.”
Danny jerked his head backwards, a rare gesture used when it felt as if he had been slapped in the face by the obvious indifference of someone he was trying his best to help. “So, it means he was set up. This whole story about him being incapacitated is obviously just a cover-up for what really happened.”
“So what really happened? Were you there?”
“No. But the main thing is how the Acting President is up to no good.” Danny paused. “Let me tell you about my dream. Maybe then you can understand, at least a little bit.” For the next five minutes, Danny spoke of American soldiers killing American citizens on American soil. But Don Gamble remained impassive, unimpressed.
“Sorry, but I’m not into dream interpretation. Your dream sounds like some kind of dystopian thriller sort of movie. You know, the kind that Holly wood has been cranking out for years and years.”
“Look, he’s already federalized the National Guard in all fifty states. Doesn’t that scare you at all?”
“Sort of.” Don shrugged. “Look, I get the impression you’re just dancing around something you really want from me. What is it? After all, I’ve lived here for almost a year now and this is the first time I’ve talked to you. The most you ever did was wave when you rode by on your horse. Until now, what gives?”
“I need to know what you really are. It’s one of two things. And they both begin with the letter N.”
Don’s quick mind jumped – to a conclusion as usual. “Oh, I get if. You think I’m either a negro or a nigger, don’t you?”
“Let me tell you a thing or two. I was born in South Central L.A. to some parents who did not try to use the color of their skin for personal advantage, okay? Oh sure, Daddy was a dyed in the wool Democrat for a real long time. But then he heard through the grapevine what President Johnson said in private about his Great Society program. Johnson said: I’ll have the niggers voting Democrat for 200 years. Oh sure, there was at least one liberal who warned LBJ. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that the steady expansion of welfare programs is a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure. In other words, all liberals really did for us was to put us on a welfare plantation where more and more babies were born without a father in the home so the mom could get welfare and food stamps and housing and –”
“I’m not finished yet, okay? Anyway, when the gangs started to take over our neighborhood, Pop moved us to Anaheim. He found the most rundown house in the best possible neighborhood we could afford and made it livable for our family.” Don stared past Danny, as if lost in better days from long ago. “Pop always told us kids to find a career in fixing buildings, cars, or human or animal bodies because something is always needing fixing on them.”
“Well, you did a nice job on this place.” Danny accented his nods to try and amplify his praise.
“Yeah, I guess so. Pop taught me all there is to know about remodeling. So have you figured out what word that I am that begins with the letter N yet? Or do I need to tell you even more of my life story to give you more hints?”
“Not quite yet.” Danny leaned forward until his face was half a foot from Don’s and stared into his eyes. “Do you work as an informer for the FBI, DEA, or some local law enforcement agency?”
“Huh? What kind of question is that? No way, man. Why?”
“Because our neighbor to your north and my south needs to know. You remember how California now allows a household to grow up to six marijuana plants at a time?”
“Well, our neighbor grows six at a time for some flatlanders in Sacramento and the Bay Area. Once they get three or four feet tall, he delivers them still in their growing containers to them. He figures he technically isn’t breaking the law because he adheres to the limit of six plants at a time per household.”
Danny stuck out his hand and waited for Don to shake it. Then he leaned back in his chair. “Well, that’s a relief.”
“Your pupils didn’t dilate when I questioned you and your palm isn’t sweaty so I think you’re most likely telling me the truth. You probably wouldn’t like my next test. My ancestors would heat up a knife blade in a fire and then place the hot blade on the tongue of someone they were questioning. If the person was lying his mouth would be bone dry and his tongue would get burned. But if he was telling the truth, then there would be enough saliva on his tongue to keep it from burning.”
Don shook his head. “Look Chief, I am on your side, okay?”
“When I came here, I thought you were either a narc or a neighbor, not one of the two n-words you mentioned. Now I know for sure that you’re a neighbor, which is good news because I have a little secret I need to show you just in case things go bad like my dreams have warning me they will be.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about my rant then. I get sort of sensitive sometimes.”
Their walk on the rutted dirt road to Danny Trang’s cabin took a quarter hour, time Danny used to reciprocate by telling part of his family history.
“My mom is full-blooded Northern Paiute Indian. My dad was second generation American because his parents fled from Vietnam after the Communists took over South Vietnam. My dad was all gung-ho and enlisted in the Army right before the Gulf War.”
“What did he do there?”
“He was a demolition expert and blew up the chemical weapons plants in Iraq. The guys in his squad always teased him because of how he covered himself from head to toe so as not to catch any of the fallout carried by the winds after the explosions. But he outlived the others.”
Instead of entering his roughhewn cabin, Danny stopped at a small shed by the small barn. Sweet smelling smoke drifted from the screen mesh on top of the shed’s walls.
“Here’s my little secret,” Danny said as he swung open the shed’s wooden door.
Thick hazy smoke revealed only the outlines of seven large carcasses hanging on metal hooks from the shed’s ceiling. Danny added more oak wood chips to the faint coals glowing on the dirt floor.
“So you’re a poacher?” Don asked. “Even I know you’re only allowed to bag one deer a year around here.”
“Not exactly a poacher. I go to the casino run by my mom’s tribe and chat up Vietnamese who gamble there. You know how much us Asians love to gamble. Most of them are willing to make a deal to offset their losses gambling.”
“What kind of deal?”
“I get them to enter the Fish and Wildlife Department’s lottery for a deer tag for this region. I keep their tags on hand here and have a written statement from them that they shot the deer and I am smoking it for them.”
“What do they get out of it?”
“Sometimes they want the hides. More often, they just want the antlers for their folk doctors to grind up to make some sort of cure for whatever is ailing them.”
“Why so many deer?”
“Just in case things get really bad like in my dreams and we are cut off from food supplies way out here. Last I heard, one of our state’s National Guard units is headed this way. It seems that our Acting President is more afraid of honest citizens who legally own guns than the gangs with illegal guns who control all of the inner cities.”
Danny paused, wondering if he should tell Don his big secret now that his neighbor knew his little secret.
“But the amendment specifically says that when the President sends a written statement that he is able to resume his duties, we are supposed to let him do so,” the Secretary of the Treasury said.
The Acting President shook his head. “No way. If the doctors had found some trace of anything that might have caused his mental breakdown then I could let him take back over as President. I’ve already told the American people that much. But we can’t afford to take any chances. What if he has another breakdown? He could start World War III.”
“The 25th Amendment also says that if we don’t accept his request to return to power, then Congress has to vote on whether to let him do so,” said the Defense Secretary.
“Exactly,” the Acting President said as his smile broadened.
By the time Congress is called back into emergency session from their vacation, maybe we can line up enough votes to deny the President his return to office for another twenty-one days, the Acting President calculated. Sure, the issue might end up in the Supreme Court.
But, if nothing else, the Acting President knew all of that gave him enough time to permanently disable those he loved to demonize by calling them racists, white supremacists, domestic terrorists, and Nazis.
Thirty Miles South of Danny Trang’s Cabin
So far, Captain Samuel Morris’ National Guard platoon had confiscated twenty-seven weapons, arrested forty-two citizens who had been categorized as Domestic Terrorist in a data base maintained somewhere in a federal agency 3,000 miles away, and shot and wounded five who had resisted. Captain Morris was especially proud of his no kill rate to date. Other federalized National Guard units elsewhere throughout the country had killed a total of 259 citizens, according to the tallies that the exploding heads on the news networks updated 24/7. All of them agreed such casualties are collateral damage necessary to restore order.
Intell and reconnaissance was the captain’s motto. To gather intell, he now chatted up the only one of the local yokels willing to talk to him, an old woman who took a selfie next to Captain Morris and immediately posted it to her Facebook page.
“Can you show me on this map where these people you told me about are holed up at?” Captain Morris asked as he shoved his hand held device under the woman’s nose.
“I sure can. They’re right there, off of Old Bear Creek Road.” The woman left part of a freshly picked booger on the screen as she tapped it. “I never did like that bunch or trust them one bit either. It would not surprise me at all if they had a command post for the rebels up there.”
“You don’t say?”
The woman nodded.
Then she turned to hurry back inside of her home to call neighbors and boast. They all lived in a small foothill community numbering less than 1,000 residents, the closest town to where Don and Olene Gamble and Danny Trang and their neighbors lived. The one providing intell was known by locals as a gossip, a reprobate willing to slander and revile anyone just to garner attention. If Captain Morris had bothered to verify her story, he could have learned of her wild imagination and evil suspicious nature. But he was anxious to be the first platoon to return to his National Guard unit’s headquarters.
That meant reducing the time devoted to intell gathering to a minimum.
He walked to the sergeant in charge of reconnaissance and gave him the coordinates of their target. The sergeant in turn ordered a corporal to launch a small drone. Its whirring blades quickly lifted it above the surrounding oaks and pines and fir trees. It soon disappeared over the treetops as it buzzed toward the coordinates fed to it by the corporal’s computer.
Then the captain hopped into his Humvee and punched his desired destination into his phone, which began barking directions to its driver. As the commanding officer’s vehicle lurched forward, the other Humvee with equipment to control the drone, two 5-ton trucks packed with twenty-eight soldiers, and a mobile kitchen vehicle followed to where foothills met mountains.
“What do you think, Sir?” asked his driver. “Will we get to take down some domestic terrorists this time? This whole mission has been pretty boring so far.”
“Huh?” The Captain looked up from his I-Pad and the stories about the latest conflicts between soldiers and civilians across the nation. “Who knows? I just hope it doesn’t come to that for us.”
* * *
Olene Gamble could not decide what was worse – moving from urban southern California to isolated rural northern California because her husband Don was convinced an apocalypse awaited L.A. or his latest bad news.
“At least one of our neighbors has prepared for what we’re in for,” Don said as he finished telling Olene about the smokehouse full of deer their neighbor Danny Trang had shown him.
“Maybe I should check out what our other neighbors are doing?” Olene asked, any ruse to avoid listening to her husband’s worries, which had metastasized in the last couple of days into what she considered mania.
Their first neighbor to the south was a widow who somehow had managed to stay on her ten acres of forestland since her husband had died six years ago. For Mary, visiting with Olene always elevated just another day of waiting to die into something special.
“Do you know much about our two neighbors to the north?” Olene asked as she bit into one of Mary’s soft homemade chocolate chip walnut cookies.
“Only that they are more private than private,” answered Mary. “I’ve lived here nine years now and you would think both of them are deaf-mutes.”
“Because the most I ever get out of either one of them is a wave. Even when I yell out hello or hi they never stop whenever they pass by, the one in his truck and the other on his horse. They have never even said thank you for the boxes of cookies I leave for them out by the mailboxes every Christmas.”
Olene cut her visit with Mary short with a promise to return later and next walked to the Bannon’s house, which sat closet to the gate secured by five lengths of chain and five locks. As always, Mrs. Bannon was delighted to see Olene. And, as usual, she sensed what nagged at her neighbor before she said a word.
“So is Don acting all crazy too?” Mrs. Bannon asked as she poured a cup of Irish coffee for her guest.
“You should see my Michael. Ever since the Acting President declared martial law, Michael has been taking apart and cleaning every single one of his guns. He must have more than twenty of them. He keeps on saying the second Civil War has begun! At least one good thing has come of all this craziness though.”
“Michael was finally able to talk to those two loners who live north of you. It took a national emergency for that to come about.”
When Olene asked what might happen if any National Guard troops came to where they lived, Mrs. Bannon shuddered. Then she wiped her tears with her apron.
Bethesda Naval Hospital
The head psychiatrist whose diagnosis of paranoid and delusional had caused a newly sworn-in President to unwillingly step down mulled the case over as he walked through his hospital’s parking lot. Why had his patient shown no further signs of mental illness beginning the day after the initial onset? The psychiatrist still suspected the dethroned President had been dosed with some kind of hallucinogenic drug. But then why hadn’t any shown up on the tests done on his blood work?
An ancient muscle car distracted the psychiatrist’s train of thought. A bright decal attached to the car’s rear window that read STP seemed to jump out at him, triggering a faint memory of STP being used as an acronym for a drug popular before the psychiatrist had been born.
He hurried to his office and typed STP into his computer’s search engine. Over 90% of the hits were for an oil additive. But a few detailed an illegal hallucinogenic drug used during the 1960s and 1970s. Another few minutes of searching gave him the chemical formula of the drug, which in many cases produced a psychotic state in the user, especially if taken unknowingly in a high enough dosage.
He ran through hallways and down flights of stairs to the hospital’s lab. There, the psychiatrist grabbed the lab tech he trusted the most by the collars of her white coat.
“Do you still have the blood samples that were drawn from the President on the day of his mental breakdown?” he asked.
He handed her a copy of the chemical formula he had printed from his computer. “I need you to run another test to see if any of this is present in it, no matter how small the amount is.”
* * *
Captain Morris ordered his driver to stop their Humvee at the rusty gate and open it. The driver returned a minute later with a shrug.
“Sir, it’s got five locks on it attached to lengths of chain.”
The captain cursed as he leapt from his seat and stomped to the Humvee parked behind his.
“What is the drone showing?”
The corporal operating it pointed at a computer monitor displaying a live video feed from the drone’s camera.
“It looks like there are five dwellings off of the dirt road once you cross this bridge.” The corporal tapped his keyboard, which brought up a series of still shots of each of the homes. “Something is cooking at this place, Sir.” He pointed at an overhead image of the smokehouse on Danny Trang’s property.
* * *
Mary Bannon had spotted the advancing National Guard convoy first. To keep her husband from going outside, she asked him to make lunch. Then she called and whispered a warning to Olene Gamble.
Don Gamble noticed the expression his wife used when she did not want to tell him something he needed to know. “They’re here, aren’t they?” Don asked as Olene set down her phone.
“Great. You know what that means.”
Visions of Danny Trang attacking on his horse at a full gallop, Mary’s husband Michael Bannon armed with God only knows how many guns, and her Don doing something foolish flashed through Olene’s mind. “No, what does it mean?”
“That as usual I get to be the diplomat.”
“Just like always. My whole life I’ve been caught between other blacks who said I was an Uncle Tom or a sellout and whites who couldn’t believe a black wasn’t only interested in sucking on the social welfare teats of the system. White liberals were always the most condescending with their you can’t be black and be a conservative too attitudes. Maybe I should just give up.”
Olene inched closer to Don. “Does that mean that you’re going to just stay inside and not go out there?” Her arm trembled as she pointed at the door.
While Don walked the quarter mile toward the rusty gate, Captain Morris sifted through his options. One of his privates persuaded him to choose the one he least liked.
“I’m telling you straight up, Sir. It’s a meth lab for sure,” Private Horton said as he studied the image of the smokehouse that had been forwarded from the computer controlling the drone to the handheld devices of the platoon’s members. “Look at all that smoke coming out the top. They must be cooking up a batch of fifty pounds at least.”
“Sir, someone’s approaching.” Another Guardsman pointed at Don Gamble, who had stopped halfway across the short wooden bridge.
“Looky there. The white supremacist Nazis running that meth lab even got themselves a nigger to deliver their dope down to the ghettos,” Private Horton said before he spat out a large wad of spit toward Don. It landed fifty-three feet short. “He’s a no-good traitor to his own people.”
“You can’t say…” Captain Morris cut his reprimand short when he remembered that because Horton was African-American, he could use the n-word with abandon. He strutted to the gate and faced Don. “We need you to open this up or we‘ll have to break it down.”
“Are you looking for anybody in particular?” Don asked.
“We have orders to disarm anyone deemed a threat,” answered Captain Morris.
“Well, there are five houses up here behind that gate. I think I need to get my neighbors’ input before opening up the gate.” Don turned and walked toward the Bannon’s property.
Watching from a thicket of trees that gave him a clear view of the bridge, Danny Trang waited until Don’s shoes touched the dirt road before he pushed the button on the remote electronic detonator his father had taught him to use a week before his death. Danny’s dad had also shown him the metal canisters of explosives hidden beneath the bridge and left him with a final warning: only detonate these as a last resort, son.
He had also told Danny of the 30-second delay between pushing the detonator’s button and the resulting explosion, a detail Danny forgot during the last nine years. Danny now wished there was also a button to cancel the Detonate command. For whatever reason, Don Gamble had made an about face and now walked back across the bridge toward the gate and Captain Morris.
Don stopped and clenched his fists. His face contorted with rage as he yelled, “Don’t believe them!”
As Don nodded an affirmation to his warning, a deafening explosion splintered the bridge. It catapulted him fifteen feet into the air like a circus acrobat, spinning him into a back flip ending with his butt landing on a bed of pine needles at the edge of the steep ravine. The explosion also caused the platoon of Guardsmen to seek cover, flip off the safeties on their weapons, and point them at where the injured Don writhed in pain.
“He’s a suicide bomber, Captain Morris!” Private Horton yelled. “Give us permission to shoot him before he explodes another bomb and kills all of us!”
Captain Morris alternated between disbelief and awe and hesitation until his communications specialist yelled for him.
“What is it?” Captain Morris asked after he walked to the Humvee.
“Sir, we just got orders to stand down and return to headquarters.”
As the news buzzed from soldier to soldier, most of them dropped their weapons and pulled phones from pockets. Every site they visited broadcast the same story: President Rogers returns to power….President’s doctor claims he was given hallucinogenic drug without his knowledge….President Rogers cancels national martial law…Guard units returning to their bases…
It took a life flight helicopter to evacuate Don from his neighborhood, now more isolated than ever because of its missing bridge. It took him weeks to agree to see Danny Trang.
“So, have you finished rebuilding the bridge yet, Chief?” Don asked as Danny walked into his room at the convalescent hospital.
“Uh…” Danny shrugged as he placed his peace offering of Vietnamese pastries fresh from his mother’s oven onto the nightstand by Don’s bed.
“You better get cracking, Chief. How else am I ever going to get back home?”