Evan slowed down and pulled the van carefully off the blacktop, crunching over gravel to park in the tall, dry grass at the edge of the deserted two-lane road. Behind a low stone wall topped with rusted wrought iron, a disused country graveyard lay, headstones tilting in all directions.
He cut off the engine and glanced over with half-concealed contempt at Tyler, his current cell partner. The boy was barely tolerable at the best of times, but now even this tiny hint of real action had him keyed up to new heights of annoyance.
With his eyes closed and his ears muffled with headphones, Tyler didn't seem to have noticed that the van had stopped. He bounced in the passenger seat as he'd done for miles, fingers snapping, making a "boom-boom" sound through his pursed lips that had already driven Evan close to violence more than once.
The kid had dressed himself in some TV producer's idea of revolutionary gear. Everything was black, from the leather beret to the carefully-scuffed suede boots. He wore a gold hoop earring, and his precisely-grown quarter-inch of sandy beard said quite plainly that here was a man with serious hair.
Evan shook his head in disgust again, as he'd done every time he caught sight of the kid since they'd been thrown together by the vagaries of cell politics. One informer too many and this was the result - an old hand like Evan teamed up with this caterpillar. Maybe some day Tyler'd turn into a revolutionary, a real anti-social butterfly, but today he was just a worm.
Evan hadn't really expected a reaction.
"Hey!" he said, with more force. Tyler's bobbing head never ceased.
Evan delicately lifted one earphone.
Tyler looked over, pooching out his lips in a babyish pout.
"You don't have to yell, Evan."
"Th'fuck I don't, asshole. You were off in radioland. Whyncha take those things off, man? Whaddaya think, this a fuckin' disco?"
Tyler said nothing. He was so young; he might not even know what a disco was. Evan waited for a response for a moment, then continued calmly, professionally, as if nothing had been said.
"Keep an eye out for the truck. I gotta go in back and make sure nothing's shifted." Which was bullshit, of course, because when Evan packed a van nothing shifted until he shifted it. But he couldn't stand to be up front with this green banana any longer, and the pickup wouldn't be arriving for another half an hour - they'd made good time on the freeway in spite of Tyler's forgetting to point out the proper exit.
Evan crawled into the back of the van and began running his hands over the crates lining both sides. Guns and grenades, laser scopes and gas canisters, even a couple of bazookas, plus plenty of loads for everything that might need reloading... the van was a delicatessen of weaponry. It was also worth a lot of cash, as well as being a rolling felony in most of these Disunited States. More than once Evan'd been afraid of popping a tire on the road for real and having to change it with dumbshit Tyler and whoever showed up on the roadside hanging around and offering to help...
But that hadn't happened, and now Evan gained comfort merely from knowing that the stuff was going for a good cause, the right cause. The only cause. The Cadre.
An hour later, the truck still hadn't shown up. Evan was starting to get a little worried. All kinds of things could have gone wrong; perhaps they had their own Tyler and he'd done something really stupid.
Evan's personal albatross was being remarkably well-behaved at the moment. He'd taken off his headphones and was sitting quietly in the passenger seat of the van. He had his machine pistol out, but was holding it low, out of sight, rather than in his lap for passing cops to see as Evan would have expected.
Evan himself was out in front of the van with the hood raised, ready to slam it down if any unwanted good Samaritans happened to stop. Where the hell was that pickup?
Finally Evan couldn't take it any longer. A strong sense of foreboding combined with his full, aging bladder got him away from the van and into the weeds by the side of the lonely road. Tyler stayed inside the van, fondling his gun and no doubt dreaming of conquests and glory.
Evan was just shaking off, back among the dusty bushes, when he heard the crunch of gravel and the clatter of a small diesel engine. Ever cautious, he parted the leaves of the bush in front of him and watched as the pickup truck they'd been waiting for nosed in behind the van.
Something felt wrong. Of course Tyler didn't have a clue. Headphones dangling around his neck, Tyler went up to talk with the driver. He walked with a swagger gleaned from one too many Steven Seagal movies, a self-important strut that belied itself, pointing out his insecurity more clearly than a simple cower would have done.
As soon as he saw the pickup truck's passenger reach underneath the seat, Evan winced and cursed, realizing that, for all Tyler's cinematic bravado, the dumb fuck had left his machine pistol in the van.
Evan thought about pulling out his own gun... the range wasn't too long. But Evan suddenly realized that he had no reason to. The only loyalty he felt towards Tyler was the abstract tie of common party affiliation, a tenuous connection which, Evan now knew, meant something quite different to him than it did to the callow youth. The Cadre had already spent the money the men had paid for their weapons, and he could abandon the untraceable old van.
Time to cut his - and the Cadre's - losses. Evan headed east, away from the highway, moving as quietly but as quickly as he could. With any luck they'd kill the kid before he had a chance to betray that there was anyone else around. They'd figure it out eventually, of course; the absence of any car keys in the kid's pockets would clue them in even if nothing else did, but by that time Evan figured to be a mile away and, in this broken terrain, unfindable.
The sound of a shot echoed flatly from the sides of the road cut. Evan clambered down into a gully and waited for a few moments, listening. The van's engine sputtered and caught, hotwired hastily by one of the pickup's passengers. It roared and dopplered away; a few seconds later Evan heard the pickup's diesel start up and clatter slowly away as well. Evan waited until both vehicles' engine noise had faded away altogether before wading through the reeking trickle at the gully's base and climbing up the other side.
Coming into town via the old railroad tracks was like coming home. Evan had lived in many places in this neighborhood - this stoop was familiar; that decaying frame house had been his uncle's before the mass arrests, that summer when he and his mother had moved out of the house for their own safety and to take advantage of his uncle's air conditioning. Nevertheless, he remained cautious. You didn't get to be old in the revolution business without a hefty dose of mistrust, even of the familiar.
But even Evan was able to relax, a little, here. He turned a well-known corner and saw the place where his mother now lived, a tiny brownstone townhouse, just one room wide but three stories tall, with flowers on the balconies and wrought iron protecting the recessed basement window. He hopped over that and pried up the rusty nails that held the basement window shut, without worrying about what the neighbors would think. Folks here minded their own business. Besides, they'd seen him come home enough times not to worry, although it'd been several years since he'd had to do it this way. He was sure of his mother's reception, but her current boyfriend was always an unknown quantity. Her taste was erratic, though biased towards types like Tyler... and you could never tell what a Tyler was going to do. Or an Evan, he reminded himself sourly. He tried to make himself believe that Tyler hadn't suffered.
He closed the window softly behind him, replaced a couple of the nails to keep it closed, and headed up the basement steps.
No answer. The TV blaring upstairs told him nothing - she often left it on for weeks at a time, conducting all of her affairs in its blue glow with no shame and no thought for the electric bill.
He stepped into the living room and saw her sitting in her third husband's recliner in front of the screen. The remote was, as always, clutched in her right hand. She didn't move, and for a panicked second Evan thought she'd died on him, but then her fingers scrabbled spasmodically at the remote and the channel changed to a different televangelist.
He must have made some noise as he came through the door, because she turned around in the recliner and started, dropping the remote.
"Oh, Evan! You scared me! Are you using that broken window to get in again?"
"Yeah, Ma," he mumbled, shuffling his feet. She had always had that effect on him.
"Haven't I told you to fix that already? You never do what I want you to do," she complained. He stood mute. "Fetch me a 7-Up, will you, dear?" she continued, and with no protest, rather a kind of relief, he turned away from her and went into the kitchen. Popping the top on the drink, he saw a new Polaroid on the refrigerator, held up by the special magnet, the one covered with big, thick yarn patterns embroidered on a plastic frame - a blocky, pixelated design that, if you squinted, resembled Mickey Mouse, or maybe Dumbo. Something with big ears, anyway. The photograph underneath the magnet showed a surly, pot-bellied biker whose name, according to the sleeve of his jacket and the tattoo on his forehead, might have been Harley. The bike in the picture, though, was a Yamaha, and the biker's ears rivaled Mickey's. Or Dumbo's.
Evan shook his head. His mom had always known how to pick 'em. He closed the refrigerator door and carried the can and glass out into the living room, where his mother was again engrossed in a sitcom about a so-called "normal" family, the kind of family no one Evan knew had ever seen. Without looking at him, she reached out and took a deep swig of the sugary beverage.
"I'm going up to my room," Evan grunted.
"Yes, dear. Whatever you say. Have a nice night... you planning to go out?"
"No, Ma," Evan grunted.
"Whyever not, Evan? 'S a nice night. When are you going to make some nice young girl a happy bride?"
"Don't have time, Ma."
"Oh, pooh!" she said, in imitation of some British show she'd seen on PBS years before. "I never saw such a young man... no time for the girls!"
Evan sighed, not willing to go through this again. The time she'd wheezed and euphemized her way around asking about his sexual orientation still burned.
"I'm going to bed, Ma."
Uncharacteristically, she relented.
"Good night, dear. Sleep tight."
Halfway up the stairs, Evan paused and whispered, "I'll try, Ma." But she didn't hear him.
Time to report in. Evan spent fifteen minutes writing out his report in longhand, including an only slightly-edited version of the events of the afternoon with Tyler, and converting the message into code groups. He pulled out the radio from its hiding place inside the old console TV, and figured out the frequency for the day. Transmitting the code groups took another twenty-five minutes.
There was no answer. There never was. His only feedback came from instructions passed down from his cell leader, instructions that sometimes took into account what he'd done before, and other times seemed completely arbitrary. He had considered the likelihood that he was being watched and instructed based on what his watchers said rather than on his own reports, but then he'd concluded that it didn't matter to the cause.
Report transmitted, he slid the radio back into the TV's cabinet, right next to the slim black packet containing more of his false identification: at least three passports, a couple of credit cards in various names, none of them real. No one at his level in the movement knew who he really was, although the upper echelons had to know or he'd never receive instructions. Certainly Tyler hadn't had a clue.
Evan sighed in exasperation. Couldn't get the kid out of his mind, even though there'd been nothing he could have done to save him.
Next out came the telescope, which Evan set up and trained on the hills overlooking the valley where the city lay. Up there, he knew, they were loading more vans and trucks for the trip into town. After a little searching, he found a pattern of lights flickering off and on in a pattern he recognized. He reached for his legal pad and began copying down code groups, determining locations to scout for the next day...
The breaking dawn interrupted his work, washing out the last faint signs of the groups on the hill. Evan stumbled to his feet, performed a perfunctory washing up, and fell into bed as the sun appeared over the tops of the hills.
He was standing still in the stubble of the field next to where the van was parked, his feet stuck deep in the mud so he couldn't move. He watched, paralyzed, as the shadow men surrounded Tyler and started shoving him around, passing him from one to another until it looked as if Tyler were dancing. There were no strobe lights, no dance floor, but Evan realized he could hear music and wondered where it was coming from, until he realized that he was wearing Tyler's headphones. He turned up the volume so he couldn't hear Tyler scream.
Then the shadow men pulled out their guns and started squeezing off silent shots at Tyler's feet, making his feet jerk up in high kicks that never connected with anything. The bullets came closer and closer to his body until finally Tyler leapt, impossibly high, towards Evan, his face ballooning larger and closer.
Tyler tumbled into Evan's arms and Evan's hands went into the holes in his chest. Tyler's dead eyes stared at him accusingly as Evan pulled his hands out of the red, dripping wounds to hold them up before his face. The shadow men came closer and began to push. Evan, whirling, began to dance...
Evan hit the floor and rolled under the bed, scrabbling for his pistol, before he realized that he was awake and his mother was calling him for breakfast. He'd forgotten about that part of living with her... no matter how late he'd stayed up the night before, she wanted him at the table across from her for breakfast the next morning.
He dragged on some faded jeans and a T-shirt, and stumbled blindly downstairs. The jar of instant coffee was on the stove next to a battered aluminum pan full of hot water. Two spoonsful of the bitter stuff in an old commuter mug. He stirred with one hand, propping up his head with the other as he sat at the worn Formica.
The TV in the kitchen was on, tuned to a different station from the big one in the living room. Evan heard "rioting" on the news and perked up a little. The Cadre was moving forward.
"Terrible," his mother said, watching him watch the report and misunderstanding his interest. "Just terrible. Have you been hearing about these terrible people? Tearing down what others have built up... I just don't know where they get the idea." The roll call of cities in flame went on... Houston and Dallas, Detroit, Pittsburgh; old standby Los Angeles made an appearance but for once it was way down the list. Evan grunted as his mother went on rambling, trying to conceal his elation at the news.
Then there was a flat crack and the window in front of the living room shattered. Evan leapt up and so did his mother, but their moves were in different directions. He went under the table, hoping he could make it up to his bedroom where his cached weapons were before they came in through the front door. His mother had no idea what had just happened. She got up and staggered towards the living room, her voice rising to an indignant pitch.
"Goddam kids and their goddam stickball in the street! What the hell do they think these windows cost nowadays? I've got half a mind to-OOF!"
She fell onto the couch as Evan ran into her, knocking her over.
"That wasn't a baseball, Ma, that was somebody shooting at, uh, us. Get down!"
"Whaa-aat? Why would anybody - Evan, is there something you haven't told me?"
"Nothin', Ma. Just sit tight while I run upstairs. They don't seem to be comin' in. Maybe it was just a fluke."
He didn't wait for an answer, pounding up the narrow staircase and hurling himself into his room. Under the bed there were guns he could use in a cramped space like this, a couple of handguns and a rifle with scope. He chose the rifle and one of the pistols, then ran back downstairs.
All was quiet, except for the street sounds outside, which were gradually returning to normal. He went over to the window, knocking out a bit more of the broken glass with the butt of his rifle to get a better angle on whatever might be in the street.
There was nothing in the street. It didn't look as if anyone had even noticed the attack, if it'd been an attack at all. Evan was starting to feel a little embarrassed at what was starting to look like an overreaction.
Then he looked at the wall opposite the window.
In the middle of the faded enlargement of the last photo his father had appeared in with his family, there was a starred hole, going back into the plaster. A dull glint of metal appeared in the center of his father's head. It'd definitely been a shot. Only question now was who had shot at him... the enemy? Or his friends?
The one-room apartment across town was small and dirty, but it was the best Evan could afford at such short notice. He'd packed off his mother to her sister's "for a few days," and taken only the few things he couldn't do without, his radio and guns (camouflaged in the shell of a massive but almost nonfunctional boom box) and some clothes. He hadn't been out of the apartment since he rented it, except for a single trip to the corner market for some exorbitantly-priced peanut butter, loaves of bread, half-gallons of milk about to go sour. He thought it ought to be enough for a couple of days, anyway.
Evan stared gloomily around the nearly-empty apartment. The silence was oppressive, but when he'd packed up he hadn't been thinking about entertainment. He didn't even have an AM radio to listen to, much less access to his own music collection. Alone with his thoughts. Too bad those weren't more entertaining.
It'd been little different in college, the year he'd tried that whole bourgeois vocational-training rat race... he'd been alone with his thoughts in the little off-campus apartment all too often, hadn't seemed to fit in with either the mindless partying or with the serious studying that, despite every distraction, did go on. But being in college had put him in position for that first contact from the Cadre.
Sandra. That memory brought a smile to Evan's face. Slouching around campus, her undeniably female form swathed in shapeless surplus camouflage gear several sizes too large for her, face still incongruously chubby with baby fat, he found her wry, throaty comments on the inevitable collapse of the system irresistible, irrefutable.
Sandra had recruited him, sharing her mind and her body equally with him until he was so deeply entangled in the movement that he couldn't even consider pulling out. Then she'd pulled away from him, and moved on.
Even his new revolutionary understanding was powerless against jealousy. He couldn't keep from seeing her departure as a betrayal. He'd realized afterwards that he probably didn't even know her real name - there'd be no reason to divulge such information to a raw recruit.
Sandra's absence left him bitter and cynical, yet also unsuited to college life. He'd moved on soon as well... there didn't seem to be much point in staying in college, or even trying to get an associate's degree from night school, when the entire world was going up in flames and the only skills that were really necessary were those of warfare and survival.
He sometimes wondered what had become of Sandra, but had no way of finding out, no address to send her the letters he'd considered writing in the first weeks since she'd left him. She had ignored him as well - not so much as a postcard had arrived in his box.
He'd had no patience for mindless dancing and carousing after that. Now and then a woman would throw herself at him, aroused by his dark good looks and the air of mystery with which he'd surrounded himself, but he usually turned them down. No time for that sort of thing with the fate of the proletariat in his hands.
Evan sat at the wheel of a Dodge that was old even before they'd stopped making them, in a line of other cars waiting to get out of the city. The checkpoint was new, and the boys who were holding machine guns and peeking into every vehicle were new too. Evan waited patiently; he had no desire to become a victim of the state's paranoia at this point. It'd be a useless sacrifice. Besides, he ought to be able to get through without any problems. He was clean, or nearly so. He'd ditched his gun collection in the old apartment. The cell, or one of his neighboring cells, would take care of him in that department once he got through the roadblock. All he had with him was an ancient laptop and a load of software. The guards were unlikely to have anything that could break through the deep encryption into Evan's real contraband; it was all multipurpose ware, word processors that doubled as code generators, screen savers that analyzed phone communications when you pressed the right key sequence... items of the spy trade that would buy his way into a state that was a little friendlier to the Cadre.
It turned out to be a good thing Evan was unarmed. He heard a sharp knocking on the passenger-side window, and reflexively reached for the holster that was no longer inside his jacket.
It took him several moments to recognize the shaggy bearded face that was grinning at him through the window. He didn't look anything like a revolutionary.
Evan could hear him through the glass.
"Yeah, open up! I need a ride, brother!"
Evan pressed the button that popped up the passenger side lock. Tyler opened the door and slid inside just as a space opened up ahead of them. Evan eased the car up a few feet before they had to stop again, taking the time to get the shaking of his hands on the wheel under control. Tyler was grinning like a maniac, talking nonstop. "I almost didn't recognize you, man! Never seen you in a suit and tie. I know what that's like, though. I've been through so many disguises, I don't think I'd recognize myself in a mirror anymore.
"You know those assholes stole the van, right? You know one of them shot at me, man? I think they thought I was dead. I am so fucking sorry I didn't find you. I crawled up on the other side of the truck and got it started okay... I drove around a little looking for you, but I was so nervous... I didn't know what I was doing then. I thought they'd got you for sure. I'm glad you're all right."
Evan drove forward when the cars in front of him moved, stealing sidelong glances at Tyler every time they stopped. He looked healthy, though there were new lines around his mouth that the blond beard couldn't quite hide. He no longer looked... callow.
"You look good, Tyler." It was all he could trust himself to say.
"I've been busy, though, man."
They'd reached the checkpoint. Three guards, one on each side of the car and one hanging back, machine gun ready, just in case.
"Here, let me take this," Tyler said, pulling out his wallet and handing a shiny red electronic passcard over to the guard on Evan's side. The guard swiped it through his belt reader, studied the results, and returned the card to Tyler with a wave. Evan stepped on the gas and they were through the checkpoint, just like that.
"Hey, we make a pretty good team, don't we?" Tyler said. Evan couldn't speak for a moment. They drove on a block or two, out of sight of the checkpoint, before Evan had to pull over and put his head on his hands on the steering wheel.
Tyler put a hand on his shoulder.
"You look beat, man. Why don't you climb in the back here and let me drive. I know where we can contact Papa, get fresh instructions, maybe directions to a safehouse."
Too tired to argue, Evan did as he was told, letting the front seat down far enough that he could climb into the back without getting out of the car. Tyler climbed across and started the engine.
Evan lay back and closed his eyes as Tyler pulled the old car smoothly out onto the road. Even his driving had improved. For the first time in a very long time, Evan drifted quickly off to sleep. Someone - someone he could trust - was watching his back.
This story has a gimmick, of course, though I'd like to think that you don't need to be aware of that to enjoy my work. If you haven't figured it out by now, perhaps because the cultural referent you need isn't in your repertoire: the plot is based on the song "Life During Wartime," by the American avant-garde rock band Talking Heads.
©2000, Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document was last updated May 20, 2000.