This is a section from chapter 15 of my novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege. The work is set in a dystopian America which has fallen 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” 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.
All of this coalesced into a lame, fucking sad-ass Christmas. The year before had been harder in some ways–my first year away from home on Christmas, and after my dad–but that year’s letdown was somehow worse. I’d hoped for an old-school Christmas: the aromatic Douglas Fir in the livingroom bedecked in lights, a roasting lab-ham in the kitchen, eggnog on the couch, lazily watching football. But my dad was still gone, Dillon still around, my sister in Brooklyn to visit Ali’s family. I knew the house had shifted after Rainier, but somehow, I initial convinced myself it would work out.
I’d met Dillon for the first-time during OCS. 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. Always well dressed, which dovetailed with his soothing handsomeness. He had a high-cheeked face, hapa features, golden-brown skin, light brown eyes and hair. A subdued manner, 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 the 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, focused on promoting mental and physical health. I sensed he’d found new purpose in life building his alongside my mother’s. There been no talk of either moving in with the other, or of marriage. It was still too soon for my mother, and 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 to find the cheery trees in the front and the roofline lit with Christmas lights. Inside, Dillon was prepping a turkey wearing our salmon apron over his Christmas-tree sweater and jeans. My mother was baking cinnamon rolls alongside him while their butler vacuumed the house. 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, I played with Sax, tossing the ball for him out back. 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 rebel who’d we’d shot, 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 work and sisters. So far so good. It started raining, and the pattering on the windows reminded me of the night we drank and talked about my enlisting, and that old feeling of safety and normalcy came back.
But when my two aunts, Genevieve and Vera, arrived, along with my uncle Philip, the mood changed. Genevieve lived in Missoula, and had taken a car in along 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, and 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 boy. 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 lived in Bellevue, and her husband Luke was 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.
Everything seemed OK at first, with all the greetings and hugs and shit, except I noticed Garret was quiet, and would barely speak to me. When he arrived, he mumbled a hello, looking at his feet. We’d played video games at the last Christmas, joking and laughing 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 boyband. She tried to show me how to play, but I felt nervous in VR, and 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.
My aunt Vera was tall and willowy, like my mother, but with long black hair, and a witchy, almost voracious smile. She was the oldest, and the leader of the three sisters. All my life, she’d carried herself at family functions with a kind of aloof, dismissive air.
“Oh, like most the kids his age,” she said, “he’s upset about the war.”
“Really,” I said.
She frowned, looked past 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.
“Jonas, we’re all proud of you, we all support you. And obviously something had to be done after 11/4. But Williams has taken it too far. 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.
“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, surprised. My mother’s face clouded with fear and sadness. But I couldn’t stop myself.
“What?” Garret answered, when I moved to the hallway door, and called again. His voice was sullen. “Mom, I’m playing Vanity Screamplate.”
Vera’s hand on 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?”
He shook his head, his face contorting 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 happened 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 killed 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.”
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. But if the government goes, it will be worse. OK? I’m sorry shitty things have happened. But if those people win, it’ll be bad for you, for your family, for everyone. 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 dripped 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 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 depression.
“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 and 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–god–most of them walk around with assault rifles when they grocery shop and have coffee. 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. “Sometimes I wonder about Ireland or something . . .”
“They wouldn’t take you,” I said. “Or any of us. Well, maybe those islands off the west coast . . .”
“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 off. Like nothing was wrong, and my blowup was minor. Later, the next day, he told me most his holidays in Hawaii growing up had been much worse with his alcoholic, abusive father. But in the moment, I hated him for dismissing my anger, for 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 it and filled it 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.
“It’s too fucked to explain. Classified too.”
“I assumed so. You think videos really got out?”
“Well what happened to you? You can tell me that, at least. He’s just a kid, Jonas. You did stupid shit like that at his age.”
“I know. I just don’t want to see him end up on their side.”
“Jesus. How’d we ever get this far? I hope you’re wrong.”
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, kinda makes 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 my saying so. And you’re not making it any better.”
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 skipping 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. It’s usually when we were little. You spend so much time together, more than as an adult. 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 rounds came in? 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. 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 VR objects I couldn’t see, since I wasn’t playing. 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, and the music turned off, and the VR froze.
“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.”
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, we’re not all bad. I would never hurt an innocent person. I’m doing this to protect you. Don’t listen to those crazy people online.”
“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. It never snowed on Christmas now, I thought. After a while I called Elise, and she answered on the fourth ring. It was late, her and Ali were watching some documentary on the Seychelles and Madagascar’s mass emigration.
Brooklyn was nice, she said, in that they’d stop the seawall demolition constructions for Christmas, and there hadn’t been any mass demonstrations. It had snowed, which was fun to watch from the apartment window, but hell on the streets below. Ali’s mom had made some family recipe lamb dish; obviously, they weren’t celebrating Christmas. She’d suggested going for a walk around the city, but they’d eaten too much, so now they lazed and vegged waiting for sleep to come.
I didn’t mention Garret. I was sure she’d find out from my mom soon enough. Despite this, our discussion immediately turned to politics and the war. I hesitated, doing it over the phone, but what else could we discuss? Surveillance or not. Berkeley was like an armed camp, she explained. The police avoided the campus and adjacent areas of town, and whole swaths of Oakland. If they went in a pair, or alone, they’d often get disarmed, beaten, and left hogtied near a bus route or at a BART station. If not worse. The police carried out constant raids, SWAT teams traveling in convoys were a regular sight. Everyone was paranoid about security, and undercovers, and you could start a fight by having contacts on when not asked. Everyone wore recording detectors. The scariest part, my sister said, wasn’t the police, but that you never knew when there were real rebels around, and that if they won, you wondered if they’d turn on you for your lack of faith. More than just rebellion against the government, was a rebellion against capital. Many people thought taking part in any kind of paid work was a betrayal. People got harassed for wearing new clothes or over-eating. Beatings and murder of the well-off were on the rise.
“Good thing you stayed in, huh? Or you’re not back home?”
“It’s no joke. And I know you don’t understand, but this can’t last. The whole system’s flawed.”
“What are you gonna do?” I asked.
“I’m gonna finish school. I’m gonna help the side defending human rights and sanity. What else?”
“Which side is that?”
She laughed softly. “You probably got out at a good time. From UW. Being a loyalist.”
“You think it’s going to get worse?”
“I know it will.”
“So who’s gonna win?”
“I think we’re fucked. Nobody will.”
“Really. Maybe you should join up. We could use a cynical, quasi-sympathetic youngster like you. Maybe you could work in counter-intelligence.”
She laughed again. “At least I wouldn’t have to serve under you.”
“Come on, I’d make you my valet. You can shine boots, right?”
“Say hi to Ali for me. Tell him I wish I’d come with ya’ll, I’d fuck up that Baklava.”
“I’ll tell him.”
When I heard my aunts and uncle preparing to leave, I came up 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, Jonas,” she said. Garrett and the girls didn’t say anything. The hugs were stiff and cold, except for uncle Philip’s.
“Come see me, whenever you’re in uptown, huh?” he said. “We’ll have a beer. 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 sighed, then immediately started to lecture on 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, easy fields of fire from my vantage. 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 nightmares. The rebel on the rocks, bleeding out for hours and hours, Rainier’s cratered face looming above us. 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 the 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 Dillion’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 said wearily. “Except the opposite. It’s funny that they get along so well.”
“But it makes sense. If one was a moderate, they’d probably hate each other–”
His 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, time to open presents?”
My mother’s shoulders sagged, and she looked around the room, as if trying to find an escape route.
“I guess,” she said, shaking her head. “you know Vera called this morning, said Garrett had nightmares about you last night?”
“I was just trying to save his life.”
“Don’t say things like that. God, I know she’s a pain, but I can’t blame her for trying to protect her kid from you.”
“From himself. Presents?”
We moved to the livingroom. The tree lights reflected off its dozens of silver orbs. The capping star on top glowed like a nightlight. I felt a twisting sadness, thinking of Christmases gone by, and guilt at having ruined this one, but even just going through the motions of ceremony held a kind of transitory fun. I handed out gifts, and we all started to open them.
My mother had got me a vintage Omega Seamaster watch, the kind they gave to British fighter pilots in WWII. She looked startled when I stood and hugged her and thanked her.
“You probably won’t need it,” she said. “Everyone has clocks on their contacts, you probably have fancy ones in your, what do you call them, battle suits?”
“Anyway, maybe it would be useful, I don’t know.”
“Mom, I love it. It’s always good to have a backup.” I knew Kelly would approve, and the troopers would think it fitting, since they figured I was rich anyway. More than that, it was a charm, a memento of my mother to carry with me.
Dillon had helped buy the watch, of course, but he’d also gotten me another gift. I opened it, looked at the cover of a distraught infantryman, an old K-pot dangling on his head. The Warriors by John Grey Glenn.
“You know, Paul Fussell said this guy was full of shit.”
Dillon rested his arms on his knees, leaning forward in one of the quilted livingroom chairs. His cup of steaming coffee rested on the end table next to him. He narrowed his eyebrows.
“A war scholar, a lieutenant in the infantry in WWII.”
“But you’ve heard of it? I thought you might find it interesting.”
“Oh yeah, Fussell says in his memoir that he met Glenn, who was a CID agent, in France, during the search for some German secret agent, who wasn’t there. He was never in combat.”
“He’s a philosopher, I thought he had some great insights into the warrior mentality–“
I dropped the book on the Persian throw carpet.
He looked at my mom, who had a wide-eyed cagey expression, and from how she sat up, I could see how much she feared I’d go into a rage. But it wasn’t worth it. Dillon was a well-intentioned, and he kept my mother occupied.
“We picked it out together,” my mom added.
“You couldn’t get me some escapism, some space opera or exploration or something?”
My mom sighed, and I could tell she’d advised against it.
“You should open your sister’s present,” she said. She nodded towards a silver package under the tree. I peeled back the wrapping, and found Amazon Nights, a new graphic novel series about a group of female Chinese-American secret agents and their exploits in civil-war ridden China.
“Good ‘ol Elise,” I chuckled.
After breakfast, I purposefully put On Warriors at the top of the trash pile, and went downstairs to play Empires of War until Christmas dinner was ready. Later, the family returned, and it was no less awkward and brittle than the previous night. The next day, I went back to my apartment, back to the bar, and back into stranger’s arms, knowing this was all a hiatus, and that when the fighting freshened, my own family would be split by it.