This is a section from chapter 13 of my novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege. The work is set in a dystopian America which falls into a second civil war brought on by ecological collapse and resulting economic depression. When this war happens, Jonas Mills, the protagonist, leaves his undergrad at the University of Washington to join the US Army, and is soon involved in operations hunting down “Outsiders” and “Elves” in the Cascade Mountains. The winter after this, he returns to his mother’s home in Seattle, to find the war now dividing his family.
I figured nothing could be worse than the year before: my first year away from home on Christmas, and right after my dad’s passing. But everything had changed for my family, and not just for me.
I met Dillon for the first time in early November, just after the year anniversary of my father’s death. He and my mother had met on the LoveApp; unsurprisingly, they got along perfectly, and worse, I found it difficult to dislike him, once my initial bitterness wore off. He was fifty-five, three years older than my mother. He was well dressed, and soothingly handsome. A high-cheeked face, hapa features, golden-brown skin, light brown eyes and hair. His personality was calm and earnest, almost the opposite of what you would expect in a lawyer.
Still, he made it clear he wasn’t going to take insults or dismissal lying down, and wanted us to be friends, or at least civil. He’d worked in Japan for a few years, like my mother, and they shared an interest in that aesthetic and culture. He meditated, practiced Aikido, ate healthy, gardened, and had dabbled in pottery and watercolor. He was a strange knock-off alternate of my father: kind but serious, hard-working, intelligent, focused on mental and physical health. I sensed he’d found new purpose in life building his alongside my mother’s, but there was no talk of either moving in with the other, or marriage. Dillon had only been divorced for two years. He had a four-year old daughter and five-year-old son with his ex-wife who lived in Bellevue, and he still had obligations to be near them.
On the overcast, cold Friday afternoon of Christmas Eve, I arrived at my mother’s. Her decorative cherries in the front lawn and long since died from Rosaceae and been pulled, and I noticed that the design of the Christmas lights was the same as last year: nobody had updated the Butler’s programming.
Inside, Dillon was prepping a turkey wearing our salmon apron over a Christmas-tree sweater and jeans. My mother was baking cinnamon rolls alongside him while Mona vacuumed the house, and Sam was out walking Sax. Dillion’s son and daughter were with his ex-wife, and he was staying over for the weekend. Not perfect, but things could still turn out OK.
After saying hello and pouring myself a drink from a bottle I’d brought, Sam and Sax came back, and I tossing the ball for him in the back yard. When I came in, Dillon was done with the turkey, and he sipped sparkling apple juice and we bullshitted.
I told him about my recent duty, and the Outsiders we’d captured, which left him a little shaken, and not sure how to move the conversation forward. So I caught up with my mom in the kitchen, talking about her teaching and sisters, who would be over soon. It started raining, and the pattering on the windows reminded me of the night we drank and talked about my enlisting, and I lounged in old feelings of safety and normalcy.
But when my two aunts, Genevieve and Vera, arrived, along with my uncle Philip, the mood changed.
Genevieve lived in Missoula, and had flown in with her wife Sue, and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Ann. Genevieve worked at the University of Montana, doing some kind of web design, and Sue something similar, in marketing.
Genevieve was a mirror of my mother, but taller, bossier, thinner, her hair cut short. Sue was gaunt and wiry too, energetic but with an authoritarian streak, and I always sort of suspected as a kid that she didn’t like me or trust me because I was masculine, and a male to boot.
Ann I’d hung out with throughout my childhood; I had memories of playing catch and building Legos with her at other family functions years before, but I hadn’t seen her since my senior year of high school.
Vera was the oldest of the three sisters, and the leader. Tall and willowy, like my mother, but with long black hair, and a witchy, almost voracious smile. She lived in Bellevue with her husband Luke, a wealthy real-estate salesman. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas two years before, and I was surprised at how tall their son Garrett had gotten. He was thirteen, but had sprouted up to almost six feet in the last two years, while his sister Tricia, nine, was still fully a child.
There were happy greetings and hugs, except Garret was quiet, and would barely speak to me. When he arrived, he mumbled a hello, and looked at his feet. We’d played video games at the last Christmas together, joked and laughed during the play. What was going on?
Ann was glued to her contacts, as was Tricia. Ann was in some endless chat between her friends and boyfriend, ignoring all her family. Tricia was nice enough to show me what she was playing: some VR game where you inhabited an avatar androgband. She tried to show me how to play, but it was overwhelming, and I left her to it.
Before dinner, while we all talked in the livingroom and the kids played in the playroom across the hall, I saddled up to Vera to ask what was wrong with Garret.
“Oh, like most the kids his age,” she said, “he’s upset about the war.”
“Really,” I said.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the ongoing insurgency inaccurately called a “war.”
She frowned, looked past me towards the doorway to the hall, where shouting and pop music could be heard.
“He doesn’t understand it. But a thirteen-year old boy has to have something to rebel against. He’s picked this.”
“He thinks the rebels are right?”
“He doesn’t really know anything. Look, I try to keep him from watching all those crazy videos, but he’s got his own contacts.”
“You ever think about telling him the truth?”
She sighed, looked around for Luke, who sat on a couch across from us, talking earnestly about real-estate in the Bitterroot Valley with Sue.
“He’s not that popular at school, so I think he identifies with the underdog. He’s bought into all that stuff about deep ecology and inevitable dialectics. They add in all those videos about spacetravel and . . . I try to explain that these people want to kill him. But then he comes back with the latest Williams livefeed, and what can I say? She’s literally unstable.”
“Not as bad as some.”
Her face took on a scrunched, pained expression, and inside, I felt a vindictive joy, making my aunt uncomfortable.
“Oh come on. You know–”
“I know. But it’s not healthy for him to buy into that shit.”
“Just ignore Garret, please? Don’t bring it up with him. I–“
“Garret,” I said in a loud voice. All the adults in the room looked at me. My mother’s face clouded with fear and sadness. But I couldn’t stop.
“What?” Garret answered, when I moved to the hallway door, and called again. His voice was sullen.
Vera’s hand dug into my shoulder. “Jonas, please–“
“We gotta talk, Garrett,” I said.
My uncle Philip stepped up, shaking his head. “Come on, kiddo,” he said to me, “don’t do this shit now.”
Garrett opened the door to the playroom, stepped into the hallway. Vera pulled on my shoulder, whispered in my ear.
“Jonas, it doesn’t matter–“
“What? What did I do?” Garrett asked, confused.
“You think the rebels are right, Garret?” I asked.
He hesitated, looked at his mother.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No Honey, go back and play your game–“
“Garrett,” I said, “Your mom told me you support the rebels, is that true?”
Vera was seething.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” Luke called from the livingroom.
“Jonas, quit,” Uncle Philip spat, coming up behind Vera in support.
I shook my head. “Well?”
Garrett nodded. I sighed. “They killed my dad, did you know that?”
His face contorted in anger. He didn’t seem to understand what I’d said.
“She’s crazy. She’s the killer,” he answered, meaning Williams. “And I, I saw it. What you did at Rainier.”
“How could you?” I said, my head spinning. Deep fake?
“I saw the video, with the shooting, and the death-drones. They were just camping–”
Could the videos have gotten out? Someone in the platoon? Or a faked simulacra? Garrett was almost crying, and Ann and Tricia stood in the doorway in shock, while all my family yelled at me. I screamed over the noise:
“It’s lies, they murdered two people before we went to arrest them, they killed my men–”
“Fuck you!” Garrett screamed back, and ran for the front door.
“Garret Northfield–” Vera shouted, but he was already out the door, into the rain.
Everyone was talking at once, my Uncle grabbing at me. I pushed his hands away and ran after Garrett.
He was jumping down the steps, taking them three at a time, almost slipping on the wet moss. The rain was cold, the temperature in the mid-forties. It was dark now, the neighborhood gaudy with lights.
“Garret,” I yelled, but he didn’t stop.
I caught him by the corner on Galer, and when he wouldn’t stop, I grabbed his arms from behind, and when he struggled, I squeezed.
“Stop,” I said, and when he turned and tried to bite my hand, I took his wrist and put it in a lock. He cried out and went to one knee. I let him go.
“Jesus, Garret. I’m not a killer,” I said. “It’s not like that. How can I sit at dinner and be a killer?”
“You’re all the same,” he spit.
“You know that’s not true. It’s all that crazy shit you watch. Those people will fucking kill you if they get the chance.”
He huffed, refusing to speak.
“Let’s walk,” I said. “You need to clear your head.”
“Jonas.” My uncle came down the sidewalk. “Get in here,” he said. “You’ll freeze to death.”
I knelt, looked Garret hard in the eyes. “Look, there’s bad people on both sides. I know that. But if those people get power, it will be worse. OK? I’m sorry shitty things have happened. But think about my dad–”
I stopped, as my uncle came up. Garrett nodded glumly at this browbeating.
“Jonas–” Philip said.
“Phil, it’s all right,” I said over my shoulder. “Just a little misunderstanding. Right, Garret?”
He nodded, his thin collarbones showing in his soaked T-shirt. I stood up to face my uncle. His beard was wet, rain dripping through his thin comb-over.
“You’re gonna break your poor mother’s heart, kiddo,” he whispered. “Now get your ass back inside, and apologize to everyone.”
I bristled at this, my head recoiling, my body tensing for combat, but then my shoulders dropped, seeing the resemblance to my father in his angry face. Those same bristling brows, that same deep tone.
Inside, after Garret and I made contrition, and changed our clothes, we had dinner. Everyone sat in silence at the table. Tricia was whimpering, and Genevieve was telling her to eat. The vat turkey tasted like dust. Vera made pleasantries about the food, Dillon pointed out how lucky we all were to be together. Eventually, the conversation turned into a litany of things made terrible by William, the war, the food shortage.
“It’s a shame about the Royce Tower,” Vera said, taking about a behind-schedule housing project downtown. “They can’t even evict people for long enough to finish it. And they’re building it for them! And did you see all the shanty boats, out on the Sound, Gen?”
My aunt shook her head, no. Vera went on: “They’ve got all these crazy boats, and the coast guard can’t arrest or deport them out of the city fast enough.”
“It can’t be worse than Montana,” Genevieve added sadly. “I love our house, but since the last breakout, Missoula’s full of farmers and ranchers, all out of work. One of them got shot last week. Right in downtown, in daylight.”
“Police?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Some local. Militia. They all open carry everywhere they go–most of them walk around with assault rifles, some even hunt animals in the city limits. They basically run the county’s politics now.”
“You moving back?” I asked.
“No. We can’t afford a house in Seattle.” Luke shrugged, chagrined he couldn’t help.
“The Turkey’s really good, Dillion,” Genevieve said again.
He nodded. “Thank the Turkey. I just massaged him a little.”
A few chuckles around the table. Since dinner had started, Dillon had worn this look of acceptance of the situation that I found irritating. Like nothing was wrong, and my blowup was trivial. Much later, I found out that his holidays in Hawaii growing up were with an alcoholic, abusive father, so this did seem trivial to him. But in the moment, I hated him for dismissing my anger, and brushing off my father’s death.
“Alyssa, the potatoes are amazing,” Genevieve continued. Then quietly, “Oh, centerpiece is a little wilted, though.”
I realized I’d forgotten to add water to the flowers my mom had bought for the centerpiece. But that Genevieve didn’t offer to help, at my mother’s table, was too much. I got up, took the piece, went to the kitchen and re-cut the flowers and filled the piece with water.
I hardly spoke the rest of the dinner, made a point of not saying a word to Vera.
Afterwards, while the kids went downstairs to play, and my aunt and mother and Dillon did the dishes, I sat with my uncle on the couch, drinking scotch.
“What happened up there?” he asked, nodding with his head southwest, towards the Mountain.
“I told you. It fell within the ROE.”
“You think videos really got out?”
“Well what happened to you?”
“Look, the guilt . . . It just made things clearer. I don’t like it, but these people are not fucking idols. They went up there to die, and take as many of us with us as they could.”
“I know,” my uncle said quietly. “But you don’t have to take it out on him. He’s just a punk kid. You did stupid shit like that at his age.”
“I just don’t want to see him end up on their side. Those six that got away? One was no more than sixteen.”
“Jesus. How’d we ever get this far?”
I shrugged again. It was a terrible thought, but nothing seemed too outlandish to be impossible anymore. I asked, to change the subject:
“Did my dad tell you about her family before they got married?”
My uncle looked surprised. “You’re dad? Of course. And shit, Genevieve and Vera fucking loved him. The husky professor. He never told you that? They never thought their little artist sister would ever marry someone like your dad.”
“Musta really been in love, to marry into those two.”
My uncle tilted his head, narrowed his eyes. “You sure you don’t wanna talk about it? Maybe I wouldn’t understand, but–”
“No,” I said, and took a gulp of my scotch.
“Well, you let me know. Since you’re not speaking to the Northfields.”
I looked away, but he went on.
“Shit, you’re bitter now. I’ve been dealing with this my whole fucking life. She’s the oldest in the family Jonas, tends to make people assholes.”
I gave a slight smile.
He leaned into the sofa, sipped at his drink. “I guess it’s harder now that Robbie’s gone. Made a balancing act.”
“It’s strange,” I said, “’cause I didn’t really notice it, when he was around. How he’d give them hell, but in a teenage way, and it’d leave them all subdued.”
“They wish they’d married him,” Philip whispered.
“Really?” I leaned forward, glanced behind me at the doorway to the kitchen.
“No. Not really. I mean, Luke makes plenty of money, and obviously Genevieve’s not interested in men, but it’s a status thing. Now they act like she’s fucked up again. Even though Dillon’s a stand-up guy, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”
Fucking weird, families, I thought. All the Electra, Oedipus shit, the jealousies, the pseudo-incestuous feelings. Fucking twisted apes for sure. I wanted to be angrier at my aunts, but I realized they were still family, the few that were left, and they were just as fucked up as the rest of us. What was the point?
“Do you dream about him?” I asked, ignoring my uncle’s barb, and talking about my aunts wanting to fuck my dead father. He lay his head back against the couch, thinking.
“Of course. He’s my kid brother, he’s always bouncing around in there. Come on,” he said, rising and patting my knee. “Let’s go help them clean up.”
I wondered what dreams he had, seeing him cut off my line of thinking. I followed him to the kitchen, but my head swam with all the lights and high voices. I saw flashes and the house was bombed, gutted, the rain outside leaking through the exposed roof, the survivors huddled in the flooded basement. Rebels in the apartment complex across Galer, sniping if we peaked above the ruins. My father’s ghost floating above it all, watching in sadness. Where I would go if incoming? Basement for sure.
I did a tactical withdraw, slipping out of the kitchen back through the dining and living room over to the basement door in the entrance hallway.
Garrett and Tricia had moved downstairs, while Ann took over the playroom to talk to her boyfriend. As I came down the steps, I logged on, and turned down the thumping cheesy pop-synth on their VR. In the middle of the room, three androgynous angels danced, wreathed in flames, surrounded by a stadium of fans, while the kids danced along, occasionally snatching at music notes for some kind of points. I stood at the bottom of the stairwell, looking at the swirls their feet made in the beige carpet.
Garret saw me and his face dropped. He reached up and did a swipe, with his hand, turning the music off, and freezing the VR.
“Are we leaving?” Garret asked.
I shrugged. “I need to lay down. Sorry. You can go upstairs and play though. Tell Ann to take her calls in the livingroom. Or my room.”
Tricia dived up the stairs, yelling for Ann, but I stepped in front of Garret as he made to leave. I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Garret, I’m sorry, OK? Your uncle’s had a rough year.”
He swallowed heavily.
“Just remember, I would never hurt an innocent person. I’m doing this to protect you. Don’t listen to those crazy people.”
“Go play upstairs.”
After they left, it was quiet, the voices muffled. I lay on the blue foldout against one wall, my arm over my face. Rain splashed against the egress windows. After a while I called Elise, and she answered on the fourth ring, after declining a video feed.
“Hey. Surprised you answered.”
“Me too. Having fun with Garrett?”
My gut sank, realizing she must have seen a post of the whole thing, or Garrett had a constant LiveJournal feed on.
“No. I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t want to see him on their side. He doesn’t know any better.”
“Yeah? When are you going to wake up, and realize everyone already is on our side? Me, Mom, the whole family.”
“Elise, do you know how crazy you sound? You wouldn’t be on the phone if that were true. We wouldn’t be having a fucking Christmas dinner.”
She paused. “We could get you out, you know. It’s not hard.”
I thought of Rina Colts. Had she just disappeared, found a new life, and not taken a side? Or was that the cost of getting out?
“How’s New York?”
“Oh cut the bullshit. You didn’t call to ask about the holidays.”
“I did,” I said, though that was a half-truth.
“Look, just indulge me, OK? What’d you do tonight? How’s Brooklyn?”
Elise sighed, and told me in clipped tones that Brooklyn was nice, in that they’d stop the seawall demolition constructions for Christmas, and there hadn’t been any mass demonstrations that day due to heavy snow. They were in Ali’s mother’s cozy apartment. After sunset she’d lit the menorah, and made some family recipe lamb dish with latkes. Then they’d video chatted with his father in Manhattan. New York was still a bubble of privilege, which made them both uncomfortable, but Ali hadn’t visited since before 11/2.
“What I’d miss at home, besides you harassing our cousin?” She asked.
Now it was my turn to sign.
“Nothing. Dillon made a turkey, Mom made sweet rolls, uncle Phil brought some thousand-dollar bottle of scotch. And then I fucked it all up.”
“I almost wish I’d been there. To be his public defender.”
“In the court of family?”
“More like practice for the real thing.”
My back suddenly stiffened, hearing the ice in her voice. We’d always fought, like older brothers and younger sisters do. But now every contact was like fencing, probing for weakness, finding sure-fire blame and guilt, just like a courtroom. It sickened me, but I had to face it.
“I guess were at the point where there’s no casual,” I said. “I called to tell you the same thing I told Garrett: don’t do it. Protesting, bail money, that shit doesn’t matter. Just don’t disappear, Elise. Don’t fall for their rhetoric. You don’t know them like I do.”
“No? I saw the videos. Of Rainier.”
“And? What did you see?”
“It looked like a bunch of stormtroopers, gunning down children who just wanted to lower their impact. To save something decent for the next generation. Sound like the rhetoric I heard about was pretty accurate. A bunch of monsters killing kids.”
“Maybe I am one,” I said, baiting her as I grit my teeth.
“Then why are we talking? I don’t want you in my life anymore.”
“Did you see me in those videos? Hear my voice? Come on, Elise, Dad taught you better than that.”
“He did. I don’t need videos to know. Don’t call me anymore.”
“Elise, wait,” I said. “I’ll never give up on you. I’ll find you, no matter what happens. It’ll be OK, please–” And then I realized she’d already hung up.
I slumped into the futon, feeling like I was going to throw up.
Was it inevitable, this divide? Wasn’t that what civil wars were, brother against sister, father against mother? When I really scenarioed it, I knew I’d let her kill me first. I couldn’t do otherwise. Even if I had to fight my own platoon, or spend the rest of my life in jail, I couldn’t kill my own sister, or let my troops gun her down.
When I heard my aunts and uncle preparing to leave, I dragged myself upstairs to say goodbye. The awkwardness on their departure was thick.
“So good to see you, Jonas,” Genevieve said, like a question.
Vera looked at me with dark eyes.
“You take care of yourself,” she hissed. Garrett and the girls didn’t speak. The hugs were stiff and cold, except for uncle Philip’s.
“Come see me, whenever you’re in uptown, huh?” he said. “Family’s all we got. Remember that.”
I nodded, and he pulled me in for another hug.
“Merry Christmas, Jonas,” he whispered in my ear. “Don’t take it too hard. Tell me when you’re ready.”
“Merry Christmas, Uncle Phil.”
The door closed, and my mother immediately started to lecture me for calling Garret out. Dillon stood behind her, in support. We argued, and then I left them to their civilian disapproval and after-dinner coffee, retreating to the basement. It was cold, but I got piles of blankets from the hall closet, and I felt safer, and calmer, up against one wall, dug-in on the foldout, the floorplan wide open, able to watch every entrance. I had my service pistol in my bag, and I got it out, checked it, and tucked it under my pillow.
I slept OK, only waking once from a nightmare. The rebel I’d bandaged at the ambush site, now horribly wounded in the head, beckoning for me to kiss his ghoulish, gore-covered face. After, I dreamed of my father and uncle as boys, somehow trying to flirt with my mom’s sisters by harassing them over their clothing. Waking, I sat and looked out at the beige carpet, fogged over windows, and thought about the strangeness of it all. Eventually, Hecate come down the stairs, looking for me. I called her over for pets, then got up when she scratched me after I over did it.
The house creaked from a wind outside, and a lash of rain pattered the egress windows. I came upstairs quietly, stood at the basement door that was opened a crack. It was fifteen degrees warmer upstairs, and the air–moist and rich with breakfast smells–blew through the door into the basement. I could hear Dillon’s voice from the kitchen:
“His intentions are right, he’s just going about it so harshly. It’s all binary for him now, black, white, us, them. It’s part of the training. But you can’t blame him. Just leave it–”
“Elise is just like him,” my mother cut in. “Except the opposite.”
“God. Raising kids is hard enough without a civil war.”
“She told me last night they no longer speaking–”
Her voice stopped, hearing me open the basement door. I came into the kitchen, saw them standing nervously by the coffee pot, holding cups.
“Morning, Jonas,” Dillon said.
I didn’t respond. “Morning, Mom,” I said, and stepped past her to get a mug from the cupboard.
Filling it, I said, “Glad you approve, Dillon. Funny, how getting shot at does make things binary. Dead, alive, enemy, friend. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“No,” he said quietly. I looked at him, and he dropped his eyes.
“Mom, I’m sorry about last night.”
“You should call Vera and tell her the same thing. She said Garrett had nightmares about you last night.”
“I was just trying to save his life.”
“Don’t say things like that. God, I can’t blame her for trying to protect her kid from you.”
I choked down my anger, and asked steadily: “I need you to tell me you won’t listen to Elise.”
“Oh for god sakes, you know better than that.”
“Promise me. I need to know who I can trust.”
“Of course.” Her eyes wide, shoulders tense.
“Jonas, you know my politics. And maybe you don’t want to hear it, but I love your mother. I would never jeopardize that.”
“Apologize to the family for me,” I said. “I can’t stay for tomorrow. I’m sorry, Mom.”
“It’s all right,” she said, her voice shaking.
I went downstairs, to grab my things. Coming back up, I shook hands with Dillon.
“Watch the perimeter for me, huh?” He nodded, gulped.
“Goodbye, Mom,” I said, giving her a deep hug. As I caught my waiting car out front, dripping tears cold in the freezing air, I wondered when was the next time I’d see her, and if I’d ever see my sister again.