“W.M.D.” The letters rolled like spent artillery shells from his tongue as he glared into the eyes of the others around the long oval table. Only the pitcher of water remained motionless. “Weapons of Mass Destruction!” he continued, picking up speed despite his pacemaker. “Chemical, biological, nuclear. Our entire way of life may be at stake.” He scowled like a man with a sinuous length of metal shot up his rectum.
Then, all of a sudden, he relaxed. “Gentlemen, nobody wants to go to war.” He down-shifted his tone. “But before you leave here today, I want you to ask yourself a question: In these uncertain times, is not going to war something you are willing to carry on your conscience once the smoking gun turns into a mushroom cloud?”
As defense secretary under the president’s father, the vice president had pushed to outsource a variety of military functions to private contractors as part of a broader effort to transfer government functions of all kinds to the private sector. Today, with the country on the brink of war and his company uniquely situated to handle the demands of such an undertaking, his efforts were set to pay off handsomely. He just had to make sure the war didn’t end too quickly.
• • • •
Los Angeles made me want to scream. Banging my forehead on the rubber grip, I closed my eyes, forced myself to sit back and relax. Sweat dripping down my forehead, I imagined a slow parade of peaceful marchers just out of view. Drums, flags, banners. In my mind’s eye the sidewalks were crowded with a cheering mob en route to city hall, where a stage was set up for speeches delivered to floods of chanting activists. “So fucking close,” I thought to myself, while sitting immobile in a cloud of exhaust.
Moving again, I switched the radio back on, fiddling through static and quick bursts of noise before landing on the news. “Tens of millions of people around the world today took to the streets to protest what many believe is an inevitable military action . . . “
I sped up only to slam the brakes in frustration. “Damn it!” I punched the radio dial and immediately regretted it. Knuckles bleeding, I tried to center myself after 18 hours without sleep. In through nose. I imagined a rose blossoming and sank my face in its petals. Out through mouth.
My mind slowed as some tension released. At the same time, it felt like my molecules sped up. I imagined my frustration as a bolt of lightning I could call forth from the sky. I wanted to leave my body and fly to the action, but strain as I might, I remained trapped in my skin.
I managed to exit the highway about an hour before dark and inched my way through various detours, past the tall collection of spires I’d been forced to admire from a distance all day. Making a U-turn to situate the car in the direction of three possible escape routes, I took off on foot, the day’s golden-hour glow ripening around me, illuminating an alkaline haze. With a stinging in my nostrils, I scanned for clues. The trash in the street looked as though a parade had passed. All around lay the bright, shiny exoskeletons of consumables, but there were few people. As streetlights replaced the fading sun, the party appeared to be over but for a low rumbling.
I ran-walked in the direction of the noise, which intensified in timbre as I approached. Turning a corner, I finally felt the eeriness of being alone lift, with a siren’s shriek and a wall of tear gas, like an army of wraiths descending from toxic clouds. The sound was so loud and shrill, I didn’t hear the cries and screams of the retreating stampede until bodies rushed past, adding to the cacophony.
Caught in the path of a fleeing army, I braced myself low against a wall as twisted faces ran past. I could see only a few feet in any direction. Soon the trailing melee of batons and rubber bullets that were pounding back the defiant few caught up with me. Ducking low, I hid beside a hedge and watched an armored man kick a woman to the ground, her neck flailing. The officer grabbed a fistful of her hair and began pulling her away. Clenching my fists, I ran low behind the length of the hedge and came out the other side, ahead of him.
“The whole world is watching!” Billy clubs beat back the chanting masses. “The whole world is watching!”
I don’t know what happened––I’d spoken to Grover about a switch having flipped, in Mrs. Warburg’s class, but I guess, looking back, it hadn’t really been flipped until that moment. The tension had been building since long before. I was full of frustration—instead of dispelling those feelings through a vent of adventure, all those days in the car or sleeping on hard ground had compounded them. I stared at the cop as he yanked on the woman’s hair to make her be still. He was dragging her through the street.
I sprang forward and lunged horizontally through the air, dive-tackling the bulletproof man. The woman floundered for a moment before regaining her feet to run. I rolled away, ducking a gloved fist only to run headlong into a boot that deflated my chest. I bowed up, my breath knocked out. When I tried to stand, a baton smashed my temple, silencing the world. Faces contorted with the twisted manifestations of hatred and misunderstanding as I fell before my skull hit the ground.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.