The guardsman pinched my passport and driver’s license between his thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but imagine him saying “Papers, please” before letting me continue into the wilds of Nebraska. The guardsman’s eyes flitted back and forth between the pictures purporting to represent Rod Lemon and the actual Rod Lemon seated behind the wheel of a three year old Ford Explorer. My pictures were several years old and out of date in a few cosmetic ways: I’d given up glasses for contacts, and my once close trimmed black hair was now shaggy and laced with silver. The guardsman studied the disparities as though he were discerning the provenance of two identical works of art.
“You should get new pictures,” he said while returning my identification.
I grumbled a reply, took the driver’s license and passport, and turned toward the passenger seat where my editor was fidgeting beneath the gaze of another guardsman who seemed intent on boring into her with his eyes. Finally Meredith was able to reclaim her ID as well.
“On your way.” The guardsman added a subtle forward wave as flourish.
I awakened my vehicle, pulling forward and away from the National Guard checkpoint and easing the SUV toward the westbound onramp for Interstate 80. The heavily armed presence off the 42nd Street interchange, marking the rough border between federally controlled Omaha and the military district that encompassed the rest of Nebraska, sprouted like a weed in what was otherwise an overgrowth of neighborhoods and strip malls. I accelerated down the ramp and brought the vehicle up to speed, finding that sweet spot right around 73 miles per hour where I could indulge my desire to speed without entirely destroying my gas mileage. It would be several more miles before we passed the 80-680 interchange and a few miles beyond that before we escaped Omaha’s city limits. For all practical purposes, though, the stretch of the interstate we were on was already a border land—nominally in the government’s jurisdiction but not heavily patrolled.
“And to think—a few years ago I complained about the TSA.”
I’d switched on my digital recorder as we pulled up to the checkpoint. The mystery story that I was chasing was still hundreds of miles away, but as a rule I recorded everything I heard and said in the military districts—a precaution against missing some revelatory nugget.
“Don’t tell me that was really your first time through a checkpoint,” I said.
“New York’s a long way away.” Meredith turned toward her open window; the wind ruffled her short red hair. “What reason would I ever have to come out here?”
The interchange loomed ahead; I stayed in the left lane as it curved toward the southwest in the shadow of tangled ramps above.
“Curiosity,” I answered. “You were a reporter once. You’ve never wanted to see what’s going on out here?”
Meredith held her gaze out the window and said nothing for several moments. She’d been lost in thought most of the way from Des Moines. Was she from Nebraska? Or maybe somewhere else in the Midwest? I couldn’t remember, and my thoughts drifted down a rabbit hole in consideration as we sat momentarily in silence.
“That’s what I have reporters like you for. So I don’t have to visit the wrong side of military checkpoints and get in Dutch with a bunch of rebels.”
I heard the animosity in her voice—personal, venomous.
Wide billboards proclaimed the end of federal jurisdiction and cautioned that anyone proceeding beyond the next exit did so at their own risk.
“There you go,” I said as I pointed. “Rebel territory.”
“What is this—your sixth trip into a military district?”
“Sixth since you came aboard. But it’s been eight times—nine if you count my trip into Wyoming before Hostetter was assassinated.”
“Wyoming,” Meredith said amidst a hollow gallows chuckle. “Feels like a long time ago. I always forget that you covered the occupation in the state capitol.”
“Wrong place wrong time. It was just a vote recount when I got there.”
I expected Meredith to continue the conversation but whatever had been dominating her attention since before we reached Omaha still held sway. We drove in silence, and the hours passed. The afternoon sun fell toward the flat horizon. For the first chunk of the drive—the stretch from Omaha to Lincoln—normalcy reigned. We pulled off the freeway in Lincoln, filling up on gas and snacks. Nothing in the small city suggested citizens in rebellion. We received a few curious looks at the gas station—most likely owing to our out of state plates—but only a few. Were there even rebels in the city? I couldn’t remember reading anything about rebel activity in Lincoln—or, for that matter, eastern Nebraska. But obviously there was enough unsecured territory in the state to make the government draw their red line back at the border and around Omaha.
“I’ve been trying to remember since the checkpoint,” I said later when we were about twenty minutes west of Lincoln. “Are you from Nebraska?”
“Omaha. North 60th Avenue.”
Meredith turned her eyes from the featureless green landscape to me. She was almost smiling; I think the expression caught her by surprise—the idea of simpler, happier times.
“I loved visiting after I left for college. Just a few blocks to Maple Street and bars and restaurants running the gamut from speakeasies to local breweries.”
“Do you still have family there?”
Meredith turned back to the window, her smile fading.
“No,” she answered after a long time. “You remember what it was like in Omaha after Hostetter was killed? The protests and National Guard? They were…in the wrong place at the wrong time. A protest that turned violent. One of the sides shot them—I don’t know which.”
I heard Meredith’s voice start to break near the end of her story, but she shored it up and crushed the emotion before it could escape. Again I waited for her to continue talking. Again she chose silence.
Interstate 80 in Nebraska is a pair of black lines cutting across an otherwise flat, green expanse. I’d driven it several times—a few of those trips as a college student long before I had reason to visit the area as a journalist. Once upon a time the 440 mile trip could be counted on for its boredom. Not so since the rebellion. As day transitioned into dusk I watched a trio of military Humvees, complete with mounted guns but no soldiers manning them, speed down the eastbound lanes. An assortment of civilian vehicles, all pickup trucks and SUVs, followed in pursuit about two minutes behind. I counted a dozen vehicles in total, and as they passed us going the opposite direction one of the trucks peeled off from the back of the group and cut across the dirt and grass divider.
“What’s going on?”
I let Meredith’s question hang unanswered. I also ignored the foolhardy escape idea I visualized and pulled my SUV off to the side of the road. The federal government could claim they controlled military districts all they wanted, but the truth of it was that if the army wasn’t standing there to enforce federal law it was the rebels who were in charge.
“Just the rebel equivalent of that National Guard checkpoint in Omaha.”
Rather than pulling up behind us like a police officer might, the truck drove against traffic, coming at us from the front and eventually swinging in on a curve to sit across the two lanes at an angle and block our way. The man in the driver’s seat turned toward me but didn’t take his hands off the wheel. A woman in the back of the cab poked out the window with a hunting rifle. Likewise two men sat up in the truck bed, one armed with another hunting rifle and one armed with an AR-15.
“Should we…” Meredith started as her arm extended toward the backseat.
“No.” I grabbed Meredith’s wrist to prevent her from grasping one of the handguns we’d brought along. “Just go along with it. Everything will be fine.”
The man with the AR-15 hopped out of the truck bed. A second woman, handgun holstered at her hip, walked around from the passenger side.
“This happen a lot?” Meredith asked conspiratorially.
I rolled down my window.
“Depends on how close you get to active conflicts between rebels and the military.”
The woman with the handgun made a beeline toward my open window. AR-15 Man held back a little, maintaining an angle where he could cover both me and Meredith through the windshield.
“Sorry if we got too close to something,” I said once the woman was up to the window. “We’re just passing through.”
“Iowa plates,” the woman said. “You’re a long way from home. And DC rule.”
I reached from the steering wheel to the lanyards dangling from the rearview mirror and handed them to the woman.
“Seriously?” the woman asked.
“What?” said AR-15 Man as he walked toward the driver’s side.
“He’s media.” The woman added a derisive snort. “With the Post.”
AR-15 Man tensed up as he stepped yet closer.
“You don’t belong here,” the woman continued. “The media’s been lying for DC since the campaign—nothing but liberal shills. Turned everyone against Hostetter until some pissed off lib shot him. And then where was your gun outrage when he was shot? Nowhere.”
James Hostetter. Republican presidential candidate who was assassinated after losing the election. For those who thought Hostetter’s rhetoric had trafficked in the worst kind of sexist, racist, and classist stereotypes his electoral loss wasn’t always enough. American intelligentsia wasn’t necessarily above celebrating the end of a life. The rebels lost Hostetter as their symbolic leader, but his shadow and those celebrations were endless gusts of wind at their backs.
The woman threw the lanyard in my face and I flinched back—enough movement to get a quick look at Meredith who appeared on the verge of making a horrible decision.
AR-15 Man stepped closer again.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I recognize this one. He does a lot of embeds on our side—a lot of interviews with our guys.”
The woman tossed a look from me to AR-15 Man and back before offering an angry backhanded wave of dismissal and walking off toward the rebel pickup. AR-15 Man stepped up closer.
“I like your stuff,” he said. “Just telling the story regardless of how your subjects come off. Even back during the Cheyenne occupation. Being skeptical of big media doesn’t always mean not reading it.”
“We’re headed to Cheyenne,” I said, hoping to take advantage of the little bit of goodwill I’d earned. “Anything we should know about?”
“Not in our neck of the woods. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, there’s an exit for Grand Detour a ways down—motels and restaurants. It’s nice and quiet.”
AR-15 Man stepped away after that—rejoining his comrades. Once everyone had returned to their starting places within the pickup it accelerated across the pavement, jumping into the center divide and returning to the eastbound lanes in pursuit of its fellows off in the distance.
“You have quite the readership,” Meredith answered.
I couldn’t resist a laugh.
“Not a bad thing to have a diverse audience.”
The drive toward Grand Detour proved uneventful. The town itself was further from the interstate than I wanted to go so we stayed at the traveler’s oasis of motels, gas stations, and fast food joints. Our experience of checking in to a motel for the night and grabbing a cheap if overly greasy meal felt no different from cross country trips I’d taken before rebellion broke out.
Meredith bid me goodnight relatively early. I spent the evening staring at my tablet and hunting down all the news that could be useful for two non-rebels driving through Nebraska toward Wyoming. Not for the first time I second guessed the decision to lengthen our drive by flying into Des Moines rather than into Denver or Omaha. But Omaha’s airport was a source of vital resupply to maintain the military presence there so commercial flights were at a minimum, and despite the fact that Colorado wasn’t considered a military district, Denver was a calm island amidst waves of unrest in surrounding areas. The truth was that cross country travel just wasn’t as simple as it had been two years earlier.
A sharp knock on my door woke me early the next morning; I’d fallen asleep holding my tablet. We grabbed breakfast and resumed our drive—Cheyenne bound.
“Are you sure about this?” It was the only question I could think of when, hours later, I caught site of smoke plumes rising from the small city’s far edge.
“That’s where my contact said he’d meet us.”
I’d never given Cheyenne a second thought before the occupation of the state capitol; in all my trips on I-80 prior to that I’d never even stopped in the city. In size and scope Cheyenne looked little more than a way station on a long drive through the Rocky Mountains—a concrete weed in a sea of mostly brown.
“He say where we’d meet him?”
“Get off at state route 212. Just outside the city.”
The closer I drove, the easier it was to make out details. The smoke originated from the city’s west side where it butted up against Warren Air Force Base. In the rebellion’s initial days—before the president had realized how widespread the problem was—the National Guard had attempted to advance out of the base and secure Cheyenne. The initial push devolved into urban warfare that played badly on TV. After that push fizzled out, though, I couldn’t say as I knew of anything much happening in Cheyenne, so the signs of violence caught me by surprise. I followed Meredith’s directions until we were sitting in a shopping center parking lot. We both stepped out of the car, Meredith to make a phone call and me to stretch my legs.
“He’s on his way,” Meredith announced after a few moments.
I was only half aware of what Meredith said when she said it. As so often happened when I found myself in more active areas of rebellion I got lost in my own observations. I’d have expected a lunchtime crowd at the shopping center—there wasn’t one. The parking lot was nearly deserted and traffic was sparse. Gunfire echoed from far away, the sound repeated periodically and always coming from the direction of the air force base.
“Lincoln seemed normal,” Meredith said. “Where we stayed the night, too. This…it’s not the third world but it’s not America, either.”
“Standing out here you’d think that.” I meandered away from my editor, warming to my subject. “But walk into a Wal-Mart—their grocery shelves are all stocked, and they’ve got all the new releases on Blu-ray. Twenty-first century America: you can’t have peace but you can go shopping.”
A little more meandering.
“Waste of lives,” I said.
“That’s pretty cynical. You don’t think putting down the rebellion is a worthwhile fight?”
This time I let loose the gallows laughter.
“If the rebels could agree that it is a rebellion, sure. They prance around on the knife edge between violent protest and all out insurrection. They can’t even unite in common cause. And the president…The president is too worried about losing a PR fight, appearing weak to Russia, or interrupting military efforts abroad to actually put this thing down. So commerce within the military districts is the same as without. The states still hold elections and have representatives in Congress. There’s nothing worthwhile in fighting if you’re not going to fight to win.”
Meredith’s reply was swallowed by the sound of a pickup racing through the parking lot on a course straight toward us. I jogged back toward our SUV and reached into the open driver’s side, my fingers extending toward the gun nestled just behind the seat.
“Wait. Rod!” This time Meredith intervened before a weapon could be drawn, grabbing my wrist before I could grab my gun. “That’s him.”
The pickup roared to a stop next to our SUV. Meredith’s earlier timidity was nowhere to be found as she walked right up to the driver’s side window and left me, standing between the two vehicles, to watch in silent curiosity.
“Have any problems getting here?” the driver asked from inside his car.
“Just a bunch of cowboys in Nebraska who didn’t think much of the press.”
The driver looked past Meredith as I stepped forward.
“This him?” the driver asked.
“Rod Lemon. As requested.”
The driver climbed out of the pickup but kept his eyes locked on me like some kind of invasive exam. Meredith provided introductions and revealed that the driver, Brad, was her younger brother. He looked the stereotypical farmer—the kind of muscular physique earned doing work rather than frequenting the gym, a permanent tan on his face and arms, windswept brown hair; had Meredith not said otherwise I would never have assumed he and the petite redhead I’d traveled cross country with were related.
“Trust me,” Meredith urged when I voiced skepticism.
“Just what am I out here reporting on?” All Meredith had revealed to me was that she had a contact within the rebels who was willing to go on record with something big—something that could change the face of the not-quite-war ripping the country apart. She’d pled ignorance to anything beyond that. Maybe going on faith because Brad was her brother was enough for her.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Brad answered. “Grab your gear.”
Meredith offered a final reassurance, and I did as Brad bid. The two vehicles parted ways moments later, the departure silent save for the enthusiastic sound of Brad’s engine and the punctuating bursts of gunfire in the background. I watched Meredith start on a return course out of the military district.
I only knew one thing about Brad so, as he drove us through Cheyenne, I began there.
“It’s not just a cliché. The whole brother versus brother thing—or sister in this case.”
“Different miles on our souls. Maybe if I’d have left too we’d be on the same side. Or if she stayed.”
“But she still trusts you?”
“I’ve never given her reason not to.”
Brad continued north along 212; the city—such as it was—grew less dense with each half mile.
“Where are we headed?”
“I-25. The long way around. We’re staying well clear of the base.”
“You know what’s going on out there?”
“Hotheads trying to cause trouble. Happens every now and then.” Brad warmed to the subject, something of a personality shining through for the first time. “Sometimes the soldiers. Sometimes us. Waste of time. They didn’t have the will to take the city before so I doubt they’ll try again, but they’re also not going to let us overrun a base that’s responsible for 150 Minutemen ICBMs.”
“Then why the fighting? In a lot of other places with that kind of equilibrium both sides have been content with a quiet standoff.”
“The freeway interchange is part of it. Neither side has made any movements to seriously restrict trade—if DC stops trucks going into the military districts it prevents the two firmly loyal coasts from sending goods back and forth, and if we interdict shipments to keep them only for ourselves it would almost certainly force DC’s hand in launching an aggressive anti-insurgency campaign. But even so, each side would rather it be in charge of the major thoroughfares and interchanges. Just in case.
“As for the rest—this all started with that protest and occupation of the capitol grounds during the recount. Cheyenne’s a symbol.”
212 had curved west and I’d hoped to get a closer look at the conflict along the base, but Brad turned onto another state route running north parallel to Interstate 25.
“Sounds like you’re fairly well plugged in. Were you out here during the occupation?”
“No,” Brad answered, leavening the syllable as though there was more to follow the single word. I sat in silence as Brad drove on, eventually pulling on to I-25. I turned around, thinking to see something of the events at the base but only finding wisps of faded smoke in the distance.
“No,” Brad repeated. “I was still in Nebraska when everything got rolling. Reading stories like what you were writing about the recount.”
“You know my work?”
“I was a politics junkie long before that election. I’ve read your stuff. Can’t say I really remember what you wrote about the recount.”
“Probably wasn’t my best work. I was filling in for someone else who was assigned but couldn’t go. I didn’t want to be there. Sure, the Democrat winning Wyoming was downright bizarre. But Hostetter had cratered so badly coming out of October that just about anything was conceivable. I didn’t expect to find much of a story.”
I waited for Brad to continue the exchange but he’d gone from animated and engaged to mute and stone still. How big a Hostetter supporter had he been? I worried that I might have come off as too much of a cheerleader for a particular viewpoint and poisoned the dialogue. My stories aren’t supposed to be about me.
“There’s something under your seat,” Brad said after a few minutes.
I reached forward and patted at the floor of the car until I could grasp an object. Pulling it out and sitting up, I found myself looking at a dog eared, yellow-edged paperback with a blank black cover. The book was a little taller and wider than a typical paperback and 140 pages thick. I opened it, found I was looking at it upside down, and tried again. There was no title page, no copyright page. One blank page separated the cover from the beginning of the prose.
“What is it?”
“I didn’t come here to—”
Brad’s outburst left no room for interpretation. I started reading. Written in the first person, the prose dripped with venom from word one. The writer had just received a pardon, and I felt his bristling indignation at not having been afforded a trial to prove the legitimacy of his cause. The anger was too obvious—too intense—to be taken seriously until I read the word “secession.”
“What the hell is this?” I asked, flipping to the last page in the hope that the mysterious author who hadn’t been revealed at the beginning signed his work at the end. “Jefferson Davis? The Jefferson Davis?”
“First and only president of the Confederate States of America. Keep reading.”
I returned to the first page, picking up where I left off. Every word I read filtered through a near bottomless well of doubt. I refused to get caught up in the emotion that Davis—purportedly Davis—had poured into his writing. The product of a man who’d been defeated but not beaten, the manifesto was first an indictment of the Union for not having the courage to put Davis’ views on display in a trial and then later a call for continued rebellion within the Union lines. The goal of a white man’s republic wasn’t dead to Davis’ way of thinking—it had simply been approached in the wrong way. I slogged through the book for as long as daylight allowed, rolling my eyes in frequent intervals.
“This is some alt-right fan fiction?”
“Real deal.” Brad sounded unfazed by my question—downright serene compared to when he insisted I read the book.
“A real deal that somehow escaped notice for a century and a half? Jefferson Davis calling for ongoing secretive rebellion would be taught in every class on the Civil War if this were legitimate.”
“If it were common knowledge. Davis spent the last years of his life encouraging reconciliation, and he wrote a memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that came out at the start of that period. What you’re holding was written just after his pardon in 1868. He never published it but he did share copies with others of the Confederate’s angriest partisans. There’s no evidence he ever acted on it, and it’s not hard to believe a man might have a change of heart in 12 years—especially as he gets closer to the end of his life. Regardless, though, of Davis’ intentions when he wrote it or afterward, the people he showed it to believed in it and never wavered from it.”
Awareness and control of my own bias was a critical part of being able to present a fair retelling of my experiences with rebels, but so often I wanted to scream at them over the absurdity of some of their views. Political disagreements were one thing, but wholesale disbelief of established facts and the occasional racial superiority fetish—that crossed a line that often left me needing a shower. And here my editor had stuck me with her rebel brother who was conjuring up some sort of lost history fantasy in the mold of Tolkien or Martin—just with less magic. It took a few minutes of staring out into the night to reset my emotions.
“Where are we headed?” I asked at last, my toe dipping back into the water of conversation.
“I’m going to need a little bit more than that.”
“Northern Wyoming. Should be there in thirty minutes or so. We’ll stay there tonight.”
“Why have me read the book?”
“For context of what I’m going to tell you—what we did.”
“You mean the rebels?”
Brad glanced my way. In the dark I couldn’t translate his expression though I guessed he had bristled at the designation I’d given him. Most rebels hated being called out on what they were—it didn’t jive with their internal thinking—and I usually avoided the term when interacting with them. But I thought Brad needed some grounding if we were going to continue.
“Yes,” Brad conceded. “Certain rebels. And everyone else who got swept up in something they weren’t aware of.”
“Let’s get to Buffalo first.”
I gave Brad the silence he requested for the remainder of our drive toward the small Wyoming town. The vibe I felt when we arrived was closer to Lincoln than Cheyenne—people in Buffalo looked to be going about their business as though little had changed in the last two years. Brad parked at a motel, checked the two of us in, and then led the way on foot down the street to a restaurant.
“How much do you know about the Civil War?”
The question was Brad’s opening remark after we sat down. I suppressed a sigh—this still wasn’t what I was expecting to discuss.
“Whatever I can remember from a college history class.”
“The advantage the Confederates had over today’s rebellion was that even though there was some pro-Union sentiment in the Confederacy it was insignificant. The Confederate states were more or less a united front.”
“They had slavery to rally around.”
“Kind of. There was a whole class system at work that even the poorest whites bought into. But the overarching idea was a white man’s republic.”
“Yeah, the author of that alternate history in your car used the phrase more than once.”
Brad bit back his response as the server arrived with our food and drinks. I pressed him further.
“What does that book have to do with why I’m here? I don’t write or review fiction.”
Brad’s eyes flicked up toward the server as she finished depositing our orders; I took the hint and waited in silence until she departed our table.
“Who’d you vote for?”
“I asked you about the book not—”
“Who’d you vote for?” Brad repeated.
That time my sigh was audible.
“I live in New York City. I voted for exactly who you think I voted for. You?”
Brad had dug into his meal while I answered. A bite of potato in his mouth, he was cutting a piece off his bleeding rare steak when I spoke, and I didn’t receive an answer—not that it was ever in doubt—until Brad finished chewing.
I heard in that single word a regret I’d never heard from a rebel—and not just the regret of somehow being let down by the man, but the understanding that somehow the failure was inevitable and that Brad had known it even as he voted.
“I tried ignoring the nasty, inflammatory rhetoric and did my best not to think about what voting for him said about me. I listened to all the talk from his surrogates about what his policies would mean, and I wanted to believe that my folks and I would be better off with him than with four more years of what hadn’t been helping us for the last eight. And yes I knew I was rolling around in the mud hoping that somehow I’d emerge cleaner.”
No two interviews were ever the same, but I’d found subjects with similar backgrounds often fell within a predictable range. So it had been with most all the rebels I’d met—different points within a common shared space. Brad’s answer placed him far beyond that spectrum.
“So why get caught up in the rebellion if you knew how toxic he was? I mean—fine, vote for him. But from what you’ve told me you’ve gotten more involved since the election—not less.”
Brad worked at his steak and potato—a delay that reminded me of the chicken and rice growing cold in front of me.
“I knew people that believed Hostetter when he said the election would be rigged. And if you had heard the things those people said about the other side—the disgusting vitriol… But I never believed what he was saying. How do you rig the election independently in all the swing states? Then Hostetter lost Wyoming. And I don’t care how big a wave election it was going to be—it was Wyoming.”
“It’s not like Wyoming put it over the top,” I answered. “Hostetter would have lost either way.”
“Sure. But still weird. And close enough for an automatic recount. You were there—as soon as the recount started the original results looked suspect. It made you think—if the result could be manipulated in a solid red state like Wyoming with Republican state officials, what might have happened in all the others? Hostetter, meanwhile, had conceded but as soon as news about Wyoming is released he starts egging everyone on again. Poisoning the well. You get protesters occupying Wyoming’s capitol building. You get protests in other states. Then Hostetter is shot. It was a snowball that became an avalanche—it was hard to keep ignoring what he’d been saying. Even so, if that had been the only thing I probably would have stayed in Omaha.
“Did Meredith tell you about our parents? I was with them when it happened. I don’t know who fired the shots. But the violence broke out that day because the National Guard opened fire on a protest. I know that for certain because I saw it. We were out shopping and drove too close to the protesters’ path. They were angry people. Furious. If they hadn’t been diehards to begin with the trouble in Wyoming, Hostetter’s murder, and the federal government’s efforts to crush ‘anti-government activists’ had turned them into diehards. It’s amazing how loud a group of angry people can be. The protestors were marching and the National Guard had established a perimeter; you could feel in the air that the world was just a little bit off—a little bit wrong. We tried to get away from the protest but there was nowhere to go. We got out of the car, trying to get inside somewhere and away from the fray. Then it happened.”
Brad reached for his beer, taking a long pull from the pint glass. When he set the glass back down his eyes stayed fixed on it, staring at something beyond the object more than looking at it.
“I don’t know if there was an order to fire or if one person got nervous. Someone fired into the crowd of protesters. Then they all fired into the crowd of protesters. I wouldn’t have thought you could hear people screaming amidst that much gunfire, but you can. The protesters ran in every direction, the group of them seeming to explode under the assault. For a few moments it was a one-sided massacre. Then some of the protesters started shooting back. Mom and dad and I—we ran. Heads down and screaming we ran. But there were too many other people and we were separated.”
Brad reached for his beer again but didn’t quite bring it to his mouth.
“Fifteen minutes. They say the whole thing lasted fifteen minutes. Felt like an eternity. Felt like hell. Then I found my parents’ bodies and realized it was.”
Brad downed his beer and stood up. He tossed some money out from his pocket.
“We’re headed up to Billings tomorrow. I’ll wake you up when it’s time to go.”
Brad’s words echoed in my head long after he’d gone—ghostly sounds that matched the ashen look on his face. If that book he’d given me to read was context just as he said, then I’d received a great deal more in our conversation over dinner. But context for what? I wiled away the rest of the night alone and found, when I returned to my room, that Brad had left the dubious Davis manifesto on my bed.
We left early the next morning. I was tired of context. I wanted whatever story Brad thought he had to give.
“So far we’ve talked about whom you voted for and what pushed you toward the rebellion,” I said. “And I’ve read Jefferson Davis’ long lost manifesto. What does that have to do with why I’m here?”
“You finished the book?”
“I did. Davis is all but endorsing the creation of a secret society within the Union—a plan to win through long term deception and corruption what couldn’t be won through force of arms. It’s ludicrous.”
“Not so ludicrous. Think of how Southern politics solidified after the war. The Greys—that’s what Davis’ believers have called themselves—dominated a wing of the Democratic Party. You remember George Wallace?”
“Avowed segregationist governor who ran for president—yes.”
“He was a Grey. But Wallace’s failure and the decision of Democratic leadership to embrace civil rights convinced the Greys that they needed a new approach and a new home. Enter Nixon’s Southern Strategy.”
I laughed. I had to—there was just no other option. The Greys with these powerful politicians in their pocket—Brad was straying into Illuminati territory.
“Richard Nixon—he was one of these secret adherents to Davis’ lost manifesto? You should write fiction—alternate history. You’d be good at it.”
Brad glanced at me with a look cold to the point of freezing. He said nothing. I composed myself.
“The Southern Strategy,” I said. “The Republican focus on winning in the Electoral College by winning the entirety of the South. What about it?”
“The Greys jumped ship to the Republican Party. They got in with Nixon’s campaign. They were more subtle this time, fomenting the Southern Strategy—an implicitly racist tactic that focused on the South’s dominant white population. The strategy worked so well for Nixon that it’s been a cornerstone of Republican strategy since. In response the Democrats diversified, tailoring arguments to every minority group they could. That focus—and Nixon’s impeachment—gave the Democrats the White House three terms in a row and gave the Greys the ability to push the GOP, in desperate times, to slowly make the Southern Strategy more explicit. Like a frog in water brought to boil, most Republican voters and politicians didn’t realize what was happening to their party until it was too late. And a few elections later the Greys find their perfect candidate.”
I can’t pinpoint the moment my brain decided Brad’s tale was plausible, but at some point I lost the urge to laugh.
“Was Hostetter one of these Greys?”
“Just a patsy that ran for president. The Greys, by now wielding a lot of influence on the right, maneuvered behind the scenes to make him the Republican nominee. Hostetter’s outsider resume, penchant for saying anything no matter how inflammatory, dubious policy ideas—it was a dog whistle piped through a loud speaker that the Greys could use to manipulate angry, disaffected voters while staying close enough to Republican tenets to hold the party faithful.”
We passed a sign; Billings was an hour away.
“You know there’s no way that I can write this,” I said. “Even if I believed it—if I hand this story to Meredith she’ll chuck it in a paper shredder.”
Brad didn’t speak, but neither did he direct that cold and unforgiving glare at me. What I saw of his expression reminded me of that same regret I’d felt the night before. Assuming that what Brad was telling me was real—or that at the very least he believed it—I found myself wondering whether the regret I sensed was rooted in sharing with me what he was sharing or in appearing to be the sort of person the Greys might recruit in the first place.
“Why are we going to Billings?”
“Because you need evidence.”
That proved the end of the interview for the rest of our drive north. I asked a few more questions, the first of which was what the Grey’s backup strategy had been in the likely event that Hostetter lost. I expected the answer to be something like the occupation of Wyoming’s capitol building—a piecemeal attempt at opposition that got lucky when the situation spiraled out of control. But Brad wasn’t in an answering mood.
As Brad took an exit on the eastern edge of Billings, I turned my attention to the world beyond the car window. As was the case in Lincoln and Buffalo people seemed to be going about their business as usual.
I rolled down the window, listening for signs of battle like those in Cheyenne but heard nothing. Billings possessed one standout feature, though—everywhere I looked I saw signs and flags either in support of the rebels or in opposition to the president. Montana might be quiet so far as conflict went, but it offered strong opinions.
“I’m going to park,” Brad said. “Keep that press lanyard visible. And stay in the car.”
Brad parked along a curb a few blocks hence. He climbed down from the pickup’s cab and walked toward a house. Brad knocked on the door, stepping inside after an older man opened it for him. I watched and waited. In that moment my thoughts drifted back to Meredith—just what had my editor embroiled me in? Presumably she’d been promised some kind of story, and I suppose because it was her brother who did the promising she’d believed him. But I’d seen no story besides a broken, mournful man who’d invented a fairy tale to justify choices he regretted.
Gunshots rang out from inside the house, interrupting my navel gazing. The front door flew open and out ran Brad, a bag slung over his shoulder and a black pistol in his right hand. His left hand pressed against his side as his legs pumped.
A stupefied expression was my only response.
“Drive!” he repeated.
My brain caught up to the moment at hand. I slid across the seat and started the car as Brad ripped open the passenger door and climbed into the cab before falling across the seat. My foot found the gas pedal and slammed against it.
“Back to I-90,” Brad said amidst heavy breathing.
I flipped a U-turn at the first intersection and sped back the way we’d come. By that point the older man who’d greeted Brad at the front door was outside and shooting—vaguely but without success—in our direction.
“What did you do?” I screamed the question.
“Just drive. I-90 east. Get off at Old US 87. They’re going to be after us. We need to stay off the interstate.”
A list of questions sat on my tongue, but the time for them wasn’t in the middle of a desperate escape from whatever fury Brad had brought down upon us. I drove as directed. It wasn’t until we reached the onramp for the freeway that I saw vehicles in pursuit—two cars, both of them old Crown Victorias that had spent former lives as cop cars.
“We’ve got company.”
Brad pushed himself up which gave me the first look at his blood stained shirt and the truck’s blood stained upholstery. Brad groaned as he reached behind the seat and retrieved a .308 hunting rifle.
“Keep us steady,” he choked out while sliding open the back window.
Absent any other options I endeavored to do as Brad asked. Uneven pavement wasn’t making my job any easier, but I kept the truck on a straight line as best I could. Single shots rang out in quick succession. I glanced toward Brad but couldn’t take my eyes off the road long enough to see what he was aiming at. I watched my driver’s side mirror, practically staring at the two cars in pursuit. They adjusted their position, moving to run side by side as they chased us. I drifted into the middle of the interstate to keep either one from accelerating next to us and to give Brad a clearer shot at both.
Brad continued firing. Shot after shot achieved nothing until at long last he sunk two rounds into one of the cars’ engine blocks. That car fell behind and Brad turned his attention to the second one, eventually breaking the windshield and hitting the driver. I couldn’t tell if it was a fatal shot, but it was enough to send the Crown Victoria into a swerve toward the right shoulder.
Brad dropped back down, his rifle slipping awkwardly behind the seat. The exit for Old US 87 came up and I swerved toward it, slamming the brakes so I could safely turn right on to the highway.
“We need to get you to a hospital.”
Brad groaned and shifted on the seat, forcing himself upright.
“We will,” he answered. “Eventually. Just keep driving.”
“What did you do? What was in that house?”
Brad breathed deep and loud for several seconds. I wondered if I was going to get an answer.
“I told you the Greys were about messaging and manipulation,” Brad finally said, practically exhaling the words. “They didn’t need a backup plan when Hostetter lost. They hoped he would. They expected a Hostetter administration would be a bumbling, disorganized mess that would turn people fast against him. They only wanted him to put people in the right frame of mind. The bag—the bag was the next part of the plan.”
Brad reached to the wheel, holding it steady as we came to a straightaway.
I reached toward the duffel Brad had taken from his house. The most conspicuous item was a chrome handgun with a black grip. Several thumb drives rattled around with it.
“Hostetter’s behavior made his victory impossible,” Brad said as I retook the wheel, “but not before he gave the Greys their opening. Davis’ manifesto told them to build their republic from the grassroots up—to make the followers rather than the leaders break the Union. We’ve all let politics divide and subdivide us until common cause seems too difficult. We self-sort and distrust those who disagree. Hostetter’s purpose was to convince enough people he could never legitimately lose.”
The last few words faded as Brad spoke them. He shifted on the seat, adjusting how he held his side. He just sat and breathed for a while before he continued.
“The Greys have people in state government. Since they couldn’t win the election, they destroyed its legitimacy. The reason no one could find proof that the Democrats rigged Wyoming even with all the irregularities was because the Greys had thrown the state for them.”
“Wait. Hostetter’s people rigged Wyoming?”
“And made it obvious that it was rigged,” whispered Brad. “Yes. That’s what’s on the thumb drives.”
“The Greys were counting on Hostetter’s supporters’ outrage.”
Brad stopped talking. He continued to pale. He retained consciousness, but I could tell he wasn’t applying much pressure to his wound. When I pulled off to the shoulder Brad stared at me in confusion and curiosity. I retrieved two shirts from my bag behind the seat. The first I pressed against Brad’s side and urged him to hold it firm in place. The second I ripped along one side to make wider and then tied the ruined garment around Brad so the makeshift bandage would stay tight in place. With Brad a little better off, I pulled up the GPS on my phone and found a hospital.
“Just hang on for another forty minutes,” I said as I pulled back into the lanes.
Brad mumbled his assent.
“So that’s it? Your Greys rigged Wyoming and got lucky when someone shot Hostetter?”
“I was a fool,” Brad whispered. “Year after year where I fell behind. The election. My parents. The spiral never found bottom. Weight on my chest as I drifted—somewhere along the line it made me angry. I chased that anger to Wyoming, to the rebellion. I chased it until a Grey took me for a kindred spirit and let me in on the secret. I saw something dark and perverse inside her and the others—an anger without boundary or reason. I worried if I stayed angry long enough…what I might have let myself become…”
Brad kept rambling like that for most of our drive—not quite delirious but unable or unwilling to carry on a conversation. I pushed the pickup as hard as I could on that old road until we made it to a town called Hardin and a small county hospital.
“It wasn’t luck.” Brad gripped hard to lucidity as I pulled in, a breathy urgency behind his words.
“Hostetter. The rigged election in Wyoming gave people a grievance. But the Greys wanted a martyr. That man I just robbed—he killed Hostetter. With that gun. Using Davis’ own plan he’s ginned up enough popular support to try birthing a second white man’s republic. And the longer we live in what seems like a split country—the more comfortable we get—the likelier it will stay that way.”
I parked in front of the emergency entrance and ran to find help. Doctors and nurses poured Brad out of the pickup onto a gurney. I followed behind as they rushed him inside.
“Keep the pickup,” Brad said as I chased him down the aisle. “Get back home. Give my sister a hell of a story. They’ve all been played—make them see.”
That was the last I saw of Brad—though he did pull through. They wheeled him further into the hospital, and I jumped back into his pickup—driving off before anyone could ask me questions. Heat radiated off the stolen bag, and I could barely keep my eyes off it. I spent that entire drive out of the military district considering the implications of Brad’s tale and realizing I no longer doubted it. Yes the Greys had manipulated us. But in our dismissal of each other we’d left ourselves fertile ground for them. The truth had rescued Brad from his anger; for my whole drive home I hoped the rest of us weren’t so far gone that the truth couldn’t save us as well.