Ecotone

Short Story

The sun sat high this hot winter day. A National Union drone careened past several hawks. Shadows of the leafless branches mimic skeletal fingers gripping the life out of Giancarlo and the street. He rode his bike with a cargo trailer attached through the Dundee neighborhood. He wanted to take a drink from his camelbak but knew he’d have to reserve his water for the ride back home. His sweat made his ski mask stick to him. He worried that a mosquito would bite him but hoped his speed would make it difficult for one to land on him.

To his right a flock of turkeys grazed a lawn paying no attention to him. Lawns are overgrown and overrun with animals formerly domesticated and wild. Dogs with ragged collars, a herd of deer grazing backyards. Most people are terrified to go outside due to the disease for anything let alone mowing their lawn. Each lawn had its own wildness to it, vines wind up bird baths, bushes bend toward the sidewalk under their weight. The sound of his radio attached where a water bottle would be on his bike overpowered the sounds of his wheels.

Thank you for tuning into 102.7, The Spirit. Remember to stay vigilant when dealing with the virus. Cover your windows with plastic or wax paper, seal all the cracks in your home, and put down your pets, don’t release them into the wild. These habits will keep your family free of the virus. The funding for our station comes from the National Union, who’s restoring America’s purity. Next up on the hour is The Rosary with your host Father Bilavendirau. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have the most need of your mercy.

The prayer repeats until the show starts.

Giancarlo arrived at Dr. Perez’s house, a line of people waited on the long steps to the porch. The house had bars on its windows. A woman with a rifle stood on the porch. 

Giancarlo parked his bike, shut off the radio, made sure his pant legs were still tucked into his socks, that his shirt and jacket were tucked into his waist line and that his sleeves were tucked into his gloves. He used a small make-up mirror to check if his ski-mask was tucked under his collar. He then checked his 9 millimeter handgun holstered on his left leg to make sure one was in the chamber and the magazine was fully loaded and the safety was on. He put a backpack on his front and put another on his back, kept his hand on his gun and made his way toward the house.

No one paid any attention to Giancarlo, he wasn’t dressed any differently than anybody else other than the backpacks. They only took notice as he made his way up the steps, cutting everybody else. Halfway up the steps he’d stopped by the woman standing guard.

“State your business,” the rifle woman said.

“I’m here for a drop off. May I approach?”

“Put your hands up, turn around and walk backwards slowly.”

Giancarlo did as demanded. She unzipped the backpack, looked at the produce; tomatoes, peppers, chard, lettuce, lacinato kale, sugar snap peas, beans and marijuana. She zipped it back up, pushed the metal flattened expanded sheet away from the metal door and knocked. The slide view in the door opened. Only eyes could be seen.

“We have a drop off, open up,” the rifle woman said.

A series of locks are heard. The hinges of the door squeaked when opened. Giancarlo stepped in, pulled off his ski mask and wiped his face with it.

Every window inside the house had plastic taped around its frames. Dr. Perez’s dining room is a makeshift triage, with miscellaneous chairs, nebulizer machines, epipens and insulin at the ready. A large man wearing boots, jeans, jean jacket with a fur collar and a white t-shirt guarded this area, he leaned against the piano while he read a book, a louisville slugger leaned against the piano as well.

Dr. Perez walked down the stairs with a patient, he’s telling her how to use the tinctures correctly.

“Giancarlo,” Dr. Perez said, “is it that time already?”

Dr. Perez shook his patient’s hand, guided her to a guard who escorted them out through the backdoor. 

“No patients until further notice.” Dr. Perez said. “Let me talk to Giancarlo.”

The man at the door opened the window and relayed this to the rifle woman.

The two men entered the sparsely furnished living room. Giancarlo slipped off his backpacks. Dr. Perez plopped in the middle of the large plastic covered couch.

“The National Union isn’t going to cause trouble?” Giancarlo said in Spanish. “You got a line outside your door.”

“I give them their bribes and they stay clear of me. They’re the reason I had to move my practice into my house. The media kept portraying citizens as looters when it was the National Union.” Dr. Perez sighs, “How’s Maite and Deyanita?”

“They’re doing okay.”

“Excuse me one second. Timothy?” Dr. Perez shouts. “We only have an hour and some change left of power, charge what needs to be charged and go check on the generators, make sure they’re filled. Sorry about that. Million things going on. You haven’t had any issues with the Union?”

“Not since the FEMA aid incident, the end of the first year of the virus. They showed up and strong armed themselves into handing out the FEMA care packages. They only handed them to white families. They shot and killed a man that day and the media, local and national, praised them for it.”

“The media is one of the main reasons we’re in this mess. They never reported the facts. They sensationalized the virus. People didn’t even know the virus didn’t kill you, unless you’re elderly and have autoimmune disorders or live in a tropical area, when that mattered. If you happen to catch the virus it increases the chances of birth defects. That was all it took. No one cared about global warming even though it directly affected their children but say a mosquito could cause a birth defect, then everyone becomes a champion.” 

“Or a crook. Power, water, phone and internet went out so quickly. It made me think it wasn’t a part of the infrastructure at all. The quickest thing the government was able to ship out were those dumb netmat suits. Once again the media painted it as a victory while people were dehydrated and starving. It only took four years for a mosquito to cripple America.”

Giancarlo stared off at nothing, holding back tears.      

“I can take a hint,” Dr. Perez threw up his hands, “let’s get to business. Michael.” Dr. Perez shouted.

The man at the door came into the living room. 

“Go get Mr. Rodriguez’s payment.”

Michael headed to the back of the house. 

“Maite and Deyanita need to come by for a checkup.” Dr. Perez said. “Maite needs one so I can see if she healed well after her procedure and Deyanita is getting to that age.”

“I’ll let them know.”

Michael returned with a duffel bag and placed in it Giancarlo’s lap. Giancarlo unzipped the bag revealing stacks of money rubber banded together, ammo, and medicine.

“There’s some Albuterol for Deyanita and nitroglycerin for Ms. Diaz. The rest of the medicine is what we agreed on: aspirin, antibiotics, et cetera. Did you need to refill your water?”

“No.”

“Michael, have Thomas escort Giancarlo to his bike.”

“Yes, doctor.”

The men stood and shook each other’s hands. 

Giancarlo waited at the backdoor. A young man, maybe nineteen years old, wearing a ski-mask. He held a M-16 A2 rifle. Came to the door

“You ready sir?”

Giancarlo put his ski mask back on. He tucked it under his collar. 

“Yeah.”

Thomas pulled the thick 2x4 off the door, pulled the shootbolts from the top and bottom of the door, turned the lock and opened the door. The two navigated through lush yards and blocked alleyways, sneaking around the doctor's house coming out four houses down. Thomas gave lookout for Giancarlo; watched him cross the street, load the duffel bag into the cargo trailer, unlocked his bike and rode down Dodge street.

The city had stayed intact, mostly graffiti, “The virus was made and distributed by the government.” “Fuck the National Union.” “This is God’s Will.” Without the internet people used any surface they could to post their status. The city was unkempt, there were no riots, no looting, no broken windows, nothing burned down. The best line of defense was four walls and a roof and no one wanted to jeopardize that.

The only cars on the street these days were National Union patrol, semis and police, which is why Giancarlo panicked when he heard an engine. He scanned the shopping area. Would he hide behind or in the dumpsters, under a car, in bushes. The bike on the other hand was a different story, he had some camo mesh netting that he and Deyanita used for a school project that he kept in a side pocket of the trailer. He rolled the bike to an overgrown patch and unhooked the trailer, he laid the bike down on its side. He stretched the mesh across the bike with the care of covering a child with a blanket. He pulled the trailer behind the dumpster. He climbed up the abandoned Greek restaurant and hid on the roof.

An M series 2.5 ton rolled up Dodge street. 

“Stop,” a soldier shouted.

The soldier trained his weapon onto the Greek restaurant and shot half a magazine into the storefront. Giancarlo plugged his ears and prayed.

“Fucking spics.”

“Dude, it’s a Greek restaurant,” another soldier said.

“What’s the difference?”

Most of the soldiers in the back of the truck laughed as it continued to roll up Dodge street. Giancarlo laid on the roof and prayed until he felt safe. He climbed down from the roof, uncovered his bike, and rode home.

At the entrance of the alleyways of Giancarlo’s neighborhood he disabled a booby trap, a sound grenade trip wire. He walked his bike through the alley, and reset the trap. He unlocked the padlock to his backyard.

Maite came out onto the back porch with a shotgun. She wore thick denim clothing and a hijab covering her face. 

“I got your back,” she shouted.

She kept her shotgun trained on the alley. Giancarlo stored the bike in the garage. He towed the cargo trailer through the tall grass and up the steps and into the house. Maite shut the door behind him.

Maite set her shotgun in the long pantry next to the broom, dust pan and mop. She pulled down her hijab and Giancarlo pulled up his ski mask and the two kissed and held each other.

“Did you run into trouble out there?” Maite asked.

“No more than usual. Is Deyanita in her room?” Giancarlo asked.

“Yes.” Maite said. “I’ll unpack all this and get it ready for Ms. Diaz. Go see your daughter.”

Giancarlo walked passed covered windows, a stuffed and sealed fireplace, the frame of a upholstered couch. A pile of torn clothes leaned against the table of the sewing machine. He counted the empty and full glass one gallon water jugs as he turned into the hallway. 

He knocked on Deyanita’s door and waited. Deyanita wore a patchwork burqa. She leaped out of her room tackling her father with a hug. Giancarlo held his daughter.

“You’re hurting me.”

“Sorry baby.” He eased his embrace. “This better?”

“Yes. How is it out there?”

“Fine. Saw turkeys today.”

“Should have brought one back home.”

“You’d have to clean it.”

“I’ll stick to the rabbit food.”

“Can I come in and check your room?”

“Yes, daddy.”

Giancarlo checked the window. The plastic and wax paper held strong.

“We should have power soon. Charge what you need and do a nebulizer treatment just to be sure okay.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

He kissed her forehead and left her room, closing the door behind him.

Back in the kitchen, Maite had everything laid out on the counter. 

“Count’s good,” she said. “You want me to take this over to Ms. Diaz?”

“No, I’ll go.”

“You need your rest. I’ll go.”

“Maite, please.”

“Don’t do this. I don’t need you to guard me.”

“I’m not guarding you, you’re guarding me, us, by guarding her.”

“No one is breaking into houses. No one’s leaving their damn houses Giancarlo.”

“It’s my job to protect my women.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Then why are your still here? If you don’t need me why not make it out there on your own?”

“Is that what I said? If we’re sharing the workload why can’t I share this?”

“We can go together. Are you okay with leaving Deyanita at home?”

“Don’t use her like that. Tell me why you don’t want me out there.”

“Because if you died out there how do I explain myself to the people around me?”

“What if you died out there?”

“If I do you don’t have to explain yourself. I was doing what I’m suppose to do.”

Maite began to repack the duffle bag.

She didn’t watch him leave. Giancarlo lugged the duffle bag and kept his pistol in his hand. It was hotter in the late afternoon, making his ski mask sloppy wet.

Giancarlo came to a house surrounded by overgrowth that had grown well before the virus hit. He holstered his pistol and high-stepped through the brush. A figure in a full body ghille suit grabbed Giancarlo’s elbow and pulled him down to his knees.

“It’s me Giancarlo.” Giancarlo was pulled to his feet. “You know the rules. I’ll escort you to the house.”

Giancarlo walked ahead of the escort, they came upon a camouflage covering, Giancarlo grabbed its left side, the escort the right. They pulled it away, revealing stairs leading down to a cellar with a large metal door. Giancarlo knocked on the door. They waited. A loud mechanical cicada buzz unlocked the door.

“Thanks.” He tried to peek through the ghillie suit.

“It’s me, Romina, Mr. Rodriguez. I used to babysit Deyanita. How is she?”

“She’s well. I’ll tell her you said hello.”

He entered. The buzzing of the fluorescent lights mimicked the sound of a late night in a backyard. It was hotter in the basement than outside. Gardeners sprayed water on tomatoes growing on trellis, others pruned, repotted, changed dirt. He was patted down by the guard at the door. They took his pistol, the knife in his boot and brass knuckles from his left pocket. They checked the duffle bag for weapons. Ms. Diaz came upon Giancarlo.

“You need anything?” Ms. Diaz asked

“No, ma’am.”

“Let’s walk.” 

The two walked down the path in the basement. 

“How would have you reacted if you saw this place before the virus?”

“You mean this place full of weed instead of vegetables?”

“There’s still weed in that corner over there.” She pointed. “You were a square right? A banker?”

“An accountant.”

The two came to a workbench with two stools. Giancarlo placed the duffel bag on the workbench. He unloaded and stacked the money. 

“Giancarlo, are you looking to make some extra ends?”

“Isn’t everybody?”

“This isn’t the usual extra.” 

Ms. Diaz pulled a pamphlet out of her back pocket and handed it to Giancarlo.

He read the front page: 

Security positions available, come to the Century Link Center.

“What is this?”

“Jobs, my friend, I want you to go down there and get a job.”

“What?”

“It helps to have someone on the inside.”

“I’m not exactly the right color for the job.”

“That part of the rhetoric is drying up, they need bodies.”

“Even if I get down there, they’ll kill me.”

“No, I’ve sent some of my people down there to check it out, all colors are in the line.”

“Why not have one of your people join?”  

“They got too many priors.”

“And I’m a square.”

“You’ll be a rich square, that can buy a lot of inhalers.” Ms. Diaz grabbed stacks of the money and placed them on a scale. “And I can trust you. You let me divide your cut instead of keeping it when you get home.” 

She piled more money onto the scale.

“Think about it at least.”

Giancarlo and Maite laid in his bed under the mosquito netting, pretending to be asleep.

“Are you still mad at me?” Maite asked.

“No, my love. I’m thinking about what Ms. Diaz asked me to do. What if I get caught? Spies never get treated kindly and it usually spills over to their families too.”

Maite sat up.

“Then don’t do it.”

Giancarlo turned to his side.

“I put both of you in danger if I don’t. I was thinking I could play both sides.” 

“You don’t have any idea how to do that. You couldn’t keep quiet about Deyanita’s surprise party when she was eight.”

“With that said, should I then try and work for the National Union. It would give us the footing to try again.”

“I’m not ready for that now.” Maite said.

“But when you are it would be nice if I had a steady job.”

“I understand why we decided to have the procedure. The photos of those babies the news was showing.” Giancarlo sat up and put his arms around his wife. “We said we couldn’t love a child born that way.”

The Century Link Center had been a FEMA center for six months. The barricades, sandbags and guard posts were all still up and used by the National Union. A humvee with an M60 Saw attached to the top sat parked on the sidewalk, a National Union soldier manned the mounted weapon, he rested his elbows  on it as he scanned the unruly crowd. Bar corrale fences helped the crowd toe the line, but it was more about the armed National Union soldiers. Each held a M16A2 rifle and a 9 millimeter pistol side arm.

Giancarlo sifted through them looking for a line. He didn’t have the courage to ask a soldier or a stranger in the crowd where he could find the entrance. Giancarlo spotted the cleanest man he’d seen in four years, cut hair and trimmed beard, dark grey suit jacket, easter blue button down shirt, black slacks, a brown leather belt. He tapped a manilla folder against the Smith & Wesson M&P9 holster on his thigh. Giancarlo followed him to a security checkpoint. Everyone there was patted down one by one and led into the Century Link Center.  

Giancarlo sat next to the well-dressed man. The idea of small talk was too far removed from either man. There were no sports or television shows to talk about, no paper to read or traffic to complain about. Talking about the government only instigated anger within anyone these days. Only misery and guilt were on the men’s mind. 

“Hello.” 

Giancarlo extended his hand toward the man. 

“Hello.”

The man took Giancarlo’s hand. 

Before the two could talk, the well-dressed man was called to the backroom for his interview. 

The well-dressed man weighed on Giancarlo, that man had the confidence that the world would be up and running but he didn't have any illusions about it with his gun on his thigh.

A soldier came out curled his finger at Giancarlo. He took that as an order to go. Fear churned his gut, he didn't see the well-dressed man leave. He thought maybe the National Union hadn't changed, maybe they stripped the man naked, shot him and left him on the street for them to investigate.

A woman dressed in a peach knitted short sleeved dress sat at a desk surrounded by munitions, ordnance, and tactical gear. She stood, went around her desk, and extended her hand to Giancarlo.

“Hello,” she said, “Dorothy H. Penner. I'll be conducting your interview today.”

Giancarlo took her hand.

“Giancarlo Rodriguez. Thank you for the opportunity.”

She sat back down. Giancarlo took the seat before him.

“I’m feeling under-dressed.”

“Yes, Mr. Escutia surprised all of us, but don't feel that way. We know times are tough. I’m sorry, how do you say your name?”

“Giancarlo.” He said his name slowly.

She nods.

Tell me about yourself

“Born and raised here in Omaha. My whole family is from here. Married my college sweetheart and we have a fifteen year-old daughter. I worked at Federal Fertilizer as an accountant for fifteen years. That's me.”

“I'm sure the times have prepared you for certain things this job demands, but I must ask, are you prepared to be a target? This uniform will make you one, to strangers, friends and family. Can you handle that?”

“Yes I can.”

“Do you speak any other languages?”

“I speak Spanish.”

“Are you familiar with firearms?”

“I've shot my pistol in the air twice.”

“As long as you're accustomed with them. There will be training. Do you have a ID, social security card and a birth certificate with you?”

“I do.”

“My making copies of these documents doesn’t mean you are given employment. We will use these items for our background check and if we like what we see you will be offered employment.”

Giancarlo handed her the documents. She rose from her chair and made her way to the copier which wasn’t far from her desk. She came back with the originals and copies in her hand. 

“Here you are,” she said as she handed them back. “Are there any question you have for me?”

“Nothing comes to mind.”

“Alright then.” 

Ms. Penner reached into a drawer in her desk and pulled out a communication radio.

“I’m done here,” she said into the radio. “I need an escort.”

Giancarlo stood and extended his hand to Ms. Penner. She took it.

“Thank you for your time.”

“We’ll be in touch.”

A soldier dressed in full tactical armor toting an assault rifle strutted into the room. Giancarlo followed him. They walked through the motor pool. Giancarlo watched a soldier hosing off blood from a truck.

*

The Rodriguez family waited at the door of the Escutia home, the knock still lingered in the air. They didn’t want to seem pushy. 

“One second,” the muffled voice said.

The systematic unlocking of the door sounded no different than someone snapping their fingers casually. The door opened, even through the heavy metal screen door Mr. Escutia’s sharp cheekbones, light brown eyes, trimmed beard could be seen. He pulled out the dead bolt and unlocked the knob and stepped outside to greet his guest.

“You didn’t encounter any trouble on the way here did you?” He asked.

“No, all fine.”

“Come in, please.”

Mr. Escutia observed his horizon as his guest entered his home. He walked inside backward and locked the two doors again.

“We got wood floors, feel free to keep your shoes on or take them off. I’ll give you the tour.”

Maite, Deyanita and Giancarlo uncovered their faces,

Giancarlo and Maite saw how more of a home the Escutia family kept their house. In the living room, family albums still laid on the coffee table for display and not in a fire safe. Their library and their wooden furniture still intact, not in a firewood pile. They couldn’t decide if they were pessimistic and the Escutia’s were optimistic or they were smart and the Escutias were stupid. It didn’t look like a clean-up job when company comes over, this is how their home had always been.

When they turned into the kitchen the Rodriguez family stopped mid stride as Mr. Escutia kept walking and talking.

“My wife is putting the finishing touches on dinner.” He turned around. “What’s wrong?”

The Rodriguez family stared at the the baby carseat on the dinner table with the black curtains draped over it.

“This is our daughter Romina. She’s sleeping now. You can hold her when she wakes up.”

Deyanita shivered at the idea. Maite tried her best to keep calm. Giancarlo went deaf and into a dead stare at the car seat draped in black. He could see movement within. Jealousy rose in his gut which morphed into fear. It wasn’t until the baby began to cry that Giancarlo believed there was a baby inside, he wondered if the baby was healthy.

Mrs. Escutia turned around from the stove, making her way to the table. She walked passed her husband, grabbed the handle of the car seat, and turned and faced the Rodriguez family.

“Thank you for accepting our invitation.” 

Maite tapped Giancarlo with her elbow as she answered.

“Thank you for inviting us.” Maite said.

“Yes, thank you.” Giancarlo said.

Mrs. Escutia looked at her husband.

“I’m going to take the baby to our room.”

She left the kitchen with haste.

Mr. Escutia brought them back to the living room and sat them down on the sofa. He sat in his maroon lazy boy. Ms. Escutia walked back into the room and sat on the arm of the lazy boy.

“Maite, did you ever think you’d be married to a cop?”

“I didn’t think I’d married an accountant.”

Mrs. Escutia laughed. “Is that what you did before?”

“Yes.”

“Give me five minutes to set the table and I’ll call you all in.”

She stood up and headed back to the kitchen.

“What did you do, Maite?”

“I was a public school teacher. I taught fourth grade.”

“Sorry to hear that. Public schools were the first thing to shut down.”

“People became more fearful as time went on.”

Mrs. Escutia came back into the living room.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said.

The family moved into the dining room. The table had a colorful spread of kitchenware and vegetables. The utensils were placed correctly and maroon napkins laid next to each plate.

The men took the ends of the table and their wives took the seats to the right of them. Deyanita sat to the left of her mother, she straightened her hijab. Giancarlo spotted a baby monitor resting on a side table.

“Let us join hands in prayer.”

They did.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for all your blessings: My wife, my child, our new friends, and the food on this table that will nourish our bodies and our new relationship with the Rodriguez family. Blessed is Virgin Mary, in Jesus name we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” they all said.

Mr. Escutia picked up the large bowl filled with bean salad and served the Rodriguez family.

“Let me know if you need more, Deyanita.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Mr. Escutia sat down and Mrs. Escutia picked up the bowl and served herself and her husband.

“What do you think of the company store, Giancarlo? Makes it a lot easier than scraping and dealing with lesser folk.”

“I have my concerns. Having money in your pocket helps.”

“Walking around with it isn't healthy. You rather some thug rob you of it?”

“No, but them paying us in credit worries me.”

“You saw the warehouse, everything from medicine to MREs up for sale. Not to pry but how are you on supplies?”

“Fair. We know some people with gardens that let us work in trade.”

Ms. Escuita put down the bowl. 

“What's the difference?” Mr. Escuita picked up his fork.

“I know the people.” Giancarlo took a bite.

“These people are criminals, Giancarlo. Nothing has disgusted me more than doing business with them.”

“And the National Union? What do you think of their crimes?”

“They did what they had to do to maintain order, our way of life. These people hired us, they trust us. The past is past. If we want to survive we have to adapt, not comply with their methods. We’ll be on the ground floor helping get our city back on its feet.”

Giancarlo looked at Mr. Escutia with complexity.

“You don’t feel that you owe these criminals? They’ve helped, right?”

“I paid them for certain services. A man has to make tough decisions.”

“What they’ve done for you, that shouldn’t be respected?”

“I paid them, our dealings are done.” 

“It goes beyond that. It’s not necessarily friendship. They’re a business associate. Don’t you think they could help us on the job?”  

“Isn’t that what they’re thinking? They will do it to us the first chance they get.”

“What did you do before, Mr. Escutia?” Maite asked.

“I owned several Quickys gas stations. Why do you ask?”

“Hoping to change the subject of conversation.”

“I apologize. It’s been too long since we’ve had company over.” Mr. Escutia said.

“Yes, it’s just that…”

The baby’s cries wailed from the monitor, scaring Maite and Deyanita.

“I’m sorry. It’s so quiet in our house. The baby scared me.” Maite said.

“It’s fine.” 

Mrs. Escutia stood and made her way to the baby.

*

The families lingered by the door. 

“I hope you all had a wonderful time.” Mr. Escutia said.

“I did,” Giancarlo said.

“I had a lovely time,” Maite said.

“Did you Deyanita?” Giancarlo asked.

“I did, Papa.”

“Tell him.”

“I had a great time.”

“Great. We did, too. I hope to have more dinners like this.”

“Us too. Hopefully next time we can host.”

Mr. Escutia turned on the porch lights, unlocked the door and opened it for the Rodriguez family. As they walked home the street lights turned on.

“The National Union must have their heads on straight.” Maite said.

*

A company of fifty men wearing all black ski masks and all black sweat suits stood at parade rest, waiting for instruction. Waiting in the center were Giancarlo and Mr. Escutia. 

“How long do you think we have to wait?” Giancarlo whispered. 

“As long as we have to.”

“This is ridiculous. This hurry up and wait shit waste everyone’s time.”

“Can’t you understand this is part of the training? This will be the job at times.”

A golf cart with two officers pulled up and parked in front of the company of soldiers. 

“Company, attention,” A soldier shouted. Snapping all the soldiers into the position of attention. 

The two officers stepped out of the golf cart. One didn’t bother with the men; the other stood in front of them, ready to give commands. 

“Company, at ease.”

The men switched back to parade rest.

“How are you men doing this morning?”

“Fantastic, Sir,” they all shouted.

“Good to hear. Today we’re going to work on grappling techniques. After the command to fall out you will form a circle and cop a squat. Company, attention. Fall out.”

The men had no fluidity when moving into a circle, people bumped into each other, friends moved next to one another and they’re divided racially.

“Who here has never been in a fight? No judgments here. It’s our job to get you accustomed to being in these certain situation. Please, show of hands.”

Giancarlo raised his hand.

“Step in the middle, John. Don’t be shy. Who else has never been in a fight?”

A white man the same size of Giancarlo raised his hand. The officer gestured him to the center.

“You should never be in the field alone, but there is a possibility that you could be separated from your partner. In those instances, it will be up to you to keep your wits and remember your training. John, you’re going to be yourself and David will be the suspect. You just caught him trying to break into a house.”

The officer walked out of the circle.

“Sir,” Giancarlo said, “please get on your knees and put your hands on top of your head.”

“Fuck you.” 

David ran away in a quick jog around the circle. Giancarlo looked at the commanding officer, who raised his eyebrows indicating that Giancarlo should chase him.

Giancarlo caught up to him, pulled his sleeve, tried to bring David to the ground. The David wiggled away from him, lunged at Giancarlo going for a headlock. Giancarlo anticipated the grab, went for his legs brought him to the ground. He pulled his zip ties out of his side pocket and wrestled an arm into one cuff. David punched Giancarlo in the cheek, Giancarlo shook it off, grabbed that hand and slipped the zip tie on that wrist.

“Excellent,” the officer said.

He walked over and helped David up. He took a knife out of a side pocket and cut the cuffs.

“You all right David?”

He nodded.

“Alright, who’s next?”

The men practiced until lunch, when they separated into their own groups. Giancarlo and Mr. Escutia sat on the curb eating.

“You okay Giancarlo?” Mr. Escutia took a bite of his vegetable tortilla roll up.

“Yeah.”

Giancarlo stared at nothing. He fumbled with his lunch, some rice and beans spilled out of his bowl when he tried to scoop them up.

“Your face alright?”

“Yeah.”

“You going to say anything other than ‘yeah’?”

Giancarlo stopped himself before he said it again. He chuckled.

“Sorry, it’s a lot to handle. I’ve been called a spic, wetback, beaner, but this is as if they’re changing me. No one here calls us by our names. They claim they can’t pronounce them, but do they try? I’ve never been surrounded by people who ignore me and hate me at the same time.”

“It takes time, Giancarlo. We’re most likely the only brown people they've worked closely with. They’ll respect us, especially when we bring in cases.”

“Do you have a lead on anything?”

“I had to make connections with some unsavory people during the crisis, was thinking about turning some of them in. Arrests will get us promoted.”

“From what I’ve been reading, having informants is the best way to do any kind of policing. What if you keep those guys on a tight leash to help us get the big dogs?”

“That’s what interrogation is for.”

Giancarlo slowly ate his lunch.

*

Giancarlo stared at the playground as he snuck his way into Dundee Elementary. He entered the school from a broken ground floor window into a kindergarten classroom. He quickly made his way to the principal’s office.

The small lockers and the small square yellow tiles made Giancarlo think about his dead child. Deyanita went to this school but Giancarlo never made it to PTA meeting but he dropped her off every day. Their other child would have attendant this school as well.

Giancarlo entered the principal’s office, Ms. Diaz sat behind the desk.

“Your teachers are telling me you’re causing trouble in class.”

“Yeah, I'm a real trouble maker.” 

“Giancarlo, you aren't looking too well. Is everything all right?”

“The National Union are a bunch of thugs and I'm associated with them now. I have to act like them.”

“What's the difference? You had no problem being a coconut before this all went down, what's the difference?”

“Providing for my family makes me less Mexican? Living in a white neighborhood makes me less Mexican? But being a criminal makes me more Mexican.”

“I'm tugging on your balls, Giancarlo. Wanted to see if you threaten to bust me, I’d hate to hurt you but I would. Well, what do the National Union know about me?”

“They're jack booted thugs. Investigations aren't their strong point, but if they crack enough heads of the right people they could find out about things.”

“Then keeping them off of me should be easy.“ 

“That I didn't say. Did you ever do business with a man named Escutia?”

“You are one of the few people I do face to face business with. Anyone else goes through my dealers.”

“I’m honored.”

“You should be. What about this guy?”

“His moral compass didn't recalibrate during the crisis. Promotions are based off arrest. Bigger the arrest, bigger the promotion.”

“Happy to know you think I’m queen bee.”

“You have a boss? I never thought you’d let that happen.”

“Everybody answers to someone. There’s a house in Benson that I want you to give up.”

“What? Why?”

“Ropeadope. Let them think they have you on the run but you’re actually storing energy. Before I forget.”

Ms. Diaz took a small brown paper bag from off the desk and tossed it to Giancarlo. He looked inside and counted ten inhalers.

“This will last Deyanita for a year, maybe longer. What's this?”

“Payment. This was the deal and you're performing better than I thought. By the look of your face there’s something else I can do to alleviate your pain and suffering.”

“No, Ms. Diaz, this is quite enough.”

“Always good to see you Giancarlo. You leave first, my guards will get me home.”

“I didn't see anyone out there.”

“That's what I pay them for.”

*

Giancarlo and Mr. Escutia patrolled the Benson neighborhood on foot, their patrol car is parked a distance away. They checked the full property of houses, checked for illegal powerline tampering, boarded up homes, locked gates, strange sounds, movement, whatever direction their gut tugged them.

“Have you ever come across this Rita Diaz in your dealings? Mr. Escutia asked.

“No, she’s a pretty high player. I can’t imagine her dealing with anyone on the street level.”

“Let’s check this house out,” Mr. Escutia said. 

Tall grass swayed before the American foursquare two story blue house with green trim. 

The men walked around the home, the windows were boarded instead of plastic sealed. 

The two met on the side of the house.

“I checked the back door, it’s locked.” Giancarlo said.

“Did you hear or see anything?”

“No.”

“I did.” Mr. Escutia said. “Let’s find something to pry off this boards.”

Giancarlo looked through the high grass looking for a stick or an abandoned tool. He went to the tree in the backyard and broke off a hefty branch.

“What are you doing?” Giancarlo asked.

“My job. You want to help me?”

“Can we try the front door first?”

Giancarlo leaned the branch on the house. The two went to the front. Mr. Escuita knocked aggressively. The men waited, Giancarlo put his ear close to the door.

“Do you hear that?”

“I didn’t hear a thing.”

Giancarlo stepped back, raised his leg, and threw his weight forward in an attempt to kick down the door. The door shook, Giancarlo hopped in pain.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, it just hurts is all.”

“That door is barred. The backdoor must be too. The window you leaned the branch by is the lowest window. Let’s jump through there. Your foot good?”

“Yeah.”

The men jogged around the house. Giancarlo picked up the branch, jammed it under the first board, and used the frame of the house as leverage to pry them off.

“This is going to break, grab another branch.” Giancarlo said.    

 They broke three branches getting the boards off.

Mr. Escutia leaned and squatted on the house, Giancarlo used his knee as a step, ripped the screen off, and turned his head, he used his elbow to break the window. 

The men were separated by the reporting officers to keep their statement clear. Their haul was seven hundred pounds of marijuana, one hundred fifty thousand dollars in cash, sixty gallons of gasoline, two hundred cans of food, seventeen automatic rifles, four handguns, and three hundred rounds of assorted ammunition.

Giancarlo, Mr. Escutia, the commanding officer, and other uniformed men stood in a circle in the street.

“This is a great find, boys,” the C.O. said. “What brought you to this spot?”

“The windows were boarded not sealed, it felt strange to me.” Mr. Escutia said.

“And you heard the noise John?”

“Yes sir.”

“What did you hear? We didn’t find anyone in the house, there’s no electronics in the house to speak of. What did you hear?”

“Shuffling of some kind, it could have been a cat or something.” Giancarlo said.

“Right. Pat yourselves on the back boys, this makes all of us look good. Go home and enjoy your families.”

*  

Giancarlo entered his garage to change out of his uniform. He sat in the metal folding chair, untied his boots, slipped them off, crossed his leg, rubbed his feet and sighed. His breath fogged the visor of his netmat suit. He took off his helmet and hung it on his knee. He unstrapped the velcro on his knee pads, and elbow pads, unclipped his LBE, unlatched his belt, unbuttoned his pants and pulled open his flak jacket. He saw himself in the glass clad in black and it made him think of the Escutia baby. He put on the clothes he hung before he left: boots, jeans, sweater, jean jacket, ski mask and gloves. 

When he entered their bedroom he removed his ski mask and placed it on his night table. He sat down on the bed.

“Hey, baby.” Maite said.

Giancarlo turned and put his hand on her hip. 

“Hey.”

She sat up.

“Everything okay?”

“No. I think my commanding officers know something is up. Also I think Mr. Escutia is up to something. He knew which house to go to.”

“Are you sure that he knew?”

“He wanted to check out the house before I did.”

“You don’t think he had a gut feeling about it?”

“It didn’t feel that way. There’s a lot going on in my head right now. I don’t have a way out. I didn’t think this through. I put you and Deyanita in danger. I don’t think this is a job I can quit. Even if I do I couldn’t go back to Ms. Diaz, I doubt Dr. Perez would let me do runs again. I’m dead in the water.”

Maite grabbed her husband’s head, pulled him to her chest.

“You’ll find a way out.”

As the company of men sat in the conference room waiting for the commanding officer, Giancarlo and Mr. Euscutia heard whispers about them.

The two sat in silence. They barely exchanged eye contact. The commanding officer step in.

“At ease. Let's get this over with.”

His pace was quick, yet heavy, and his shoe claps echoed throughout the tiny room. He stood at the podium at the head of the room.

“We're rotating partners. Let's not piss and moan. This comes from high. In order to keep government funding we have to have integrated partners.”

Out of the twenty-two National Union police, five were various shades of brown, and only one was Jewish. Giancarlo and Mr. Euscutia were partnered with white men.

Giancarlo and David Evans, the same person he sparred with during the training demonstration. They patrolled a business strip of Benson. The buildings were empty, most businesses were in moving trucks or on carts. The patrons of the bazaar quivered with fear as the two walked through the streets.

“I hope there are no bad feelings between us, John. That punch was for training. We cool?”

Giancarlo didn't look at him.

“We cool.” Giancarlo said.

Giancarlo saw Dr. Perez shopping. He wanted to say hello but he knew he couldn't. He did his best not to bring attention to his friend.

“Shouldn't we be trying to make contacts, connections with these people?”

“Most of them will feed us shit to keep us off their trail. They can't help themselves, John.”

“Then what are we doing here?”

“Taking action like you did taking that house. Just because our country has stumbled doesn’t mean we have to lose ourselves in it. This is our great depression, we have to handle it with dignity, honor and grace like others before us. You excited about your bonus?”

“Bonus?”

“Pulling in a big bust gets you points. Didn't the brass tell you? It's also in your hiring packet.”

“I remember but no one has come to me with a bonus.”

The two cut into an alley.

“John, let me ask you. Was anything funny to you about your last partner?”

“What do you mean?”

“Guy shows up in a suit, you’ve been to his house, he has to be up to something.”

“Yeah, he rubbed me the wrong way, but to me it was more revealing to myself about what I’d done since the collapse. Nothing too serious, but I’ve made sacrifices, and it seemed to me that he hadn’t.”

“Exactly. How did he do that?”

“Maybe he's stronger than us.”

“I don't believe it. He has to be on somebody’s take.”

“Do you have any evidence to back that up?”

“We’ve all read the report. He suggests the house and forces you to say you heard something. We all get covering for your partner, but you shouldn't have to carry the weight of something you didn't do.”

“I don't know what he did, you don't know what he did, and until you get some evidence, we can't do anything about it.”

“Until he puts evidence on you.”

“What?”

“If it gets hairy. He’ll need a fall guy and you were the closest to him.”

“Stop. Nothing like you're suggesting happened. There is no evidence to build on either of us.”

“Partner, for your sake I hope there isn't.”

*

Giancarlo and David laid in the tall grass with binoculars. Giancarlo had been staking out Mr. Escutia and Ms. Diaz for the three weeks, with the help of David on duty and by himself at night. Giancarlo had caught Mr. Escutia and Ms. Diaz meeting at Dundee Elementary on the day before Giancarlo was supposed to meet with her.

“This is our chance,” David said. “I’mma call it in.”

“There could be guards patrolling.”

“We got the guns and the numbers.”

The thumping of the helicopter blades was heard before its spotlight was shined onto the school. Piercing sirens echoed through the neighborhood, spinning red and blue lights danced off the houses, windows, and abandoned cars. People peered out their windows to see the commotion. A SWAT van pulled up in front of the elementary school. A black cruiser pulled up behind the van, and out stepped the commanding officer with a megaphone.

“This doesn’t have to end in bloodshed. Surrender and will be lenient.”      

Giancarlo slipped into the company of men, and made his way to the SWAT team. He wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt Ms. Diaz. Three SWAT members carried a large duffel bag, there was some movement and muffled screams in the bag, the other three of the team carried a bag out as well, there was no movement or muffled screams. They stowed the bags in the back of the wagon, the SWAT team climbed into the back.

Giancarlo’s radio activated.

“Eagle to Matador.” 

“This is Matador, go,” Giancarlo said into the radio.

“My cruiser is parked in front of the school. Meet me there and we’ll go back to the station and write up the report.”

“Roger.”

Giancarlo and David sat in the commanding officer’s office. Giancarlo sat in fright. This was no different than what he and Mr. Escutia did, how would he explain investigating a fellow officer? The commanding officer entered the room.

“Sit, sit.” 

He made his way to his desk and plopped down in his chair.

“Excellent investigation work. Giancarlo, we understand that you were protecting your partner. David here told me that your gut wouldn’t let this go and you took to investigating him. You saw some suspicious behavior in the Benson market and followed up on it and it lead you to this bust tonight.”

“Are they alright?”

“What?”

“He was my partner.”

“Until the end. He’s been roughed up a little. We had to show him how we treat traitors. The old woman is too frail but not too frail to pepper spray, we’ll have to play nice with her in order to get her to talk. We can wrap this up tomorrow. I just wanted to tell you two, job well done.”

Outside the office the two stood in silence. 

“My wife has been bugging me to get you over to the house. What works for your family?”  

“I’ll check with the missus.”

*

Giancarlo, Maite and Deyanita stood before the Evans Family home. The door opened revealing David, his wife and a twelve year old son.

“Come in,” David said.

THe Rodriguez family walked in and revealed their faces, David closed the door behind him.

“Jennifer, this is John, his wife Mary and their daughter Diana.”

“Hello,” Giancarlo said, “thank you for having us in your home.”

“You have a lovely home,” Maite said.

“This is the standard remodel the Union does for your home,” Jennifer said. “Come I’ll show you the windows, Mary.”

“Benjamin, show Diana your room.”

The men drank beer in the kitchen. 

“How you doing John?”

“I’m well. You?”

“Excellent.”

“You don’t still feel guilty about what you did? You did your job, John. He stopped being a cop when he met with that criminal.”

“Were you always in the Union?”

“No, I scraped by with some neighbors and the strength of my family.”

“You don’t think Mr. Escutia was doing the same?”

“He may have been, but he wasn’t doing it in accordance with the law.”

“The law as it stands now.”

“Which is still the law.”

The families converge in the kitchen.

“What are you two talking about?” Jennifer asked.

“Nothing,” they both said. They laugh.

“We were talking about how blessed we are,” Giancarlo said.    

The families sat at the table and prayed before dinner.