This is a section from chapter 8 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.
Christmas was lame. The year before had been harder, in some ways–my first year away from home on Christmas during RT, and right after my dad–but that year’s letdown was somehow worse. I wanted an old-school Christmas, but my dad was still gone, and the war had changed everything. I knew the house had shifted after Rainier, but stupidly, I tried to convince myself that it would work out.
On the rainy Friday afternoon of Christmas Eve, I arrived at my mother’s house to find the cheery trees in the front and along the roofline lit with Christmas lights. Inside, Dillon was prepping a turkey, and my mother was baking while their bot vacuumed. Dillon’s son and daughter were with his ex-wife, so he was staying with us. Not perfect, but not the worst. After pouring myself a scotch from a bottle I brought, I played with Sax, watched some football with Dillon and told him about the rioter who’d we’d shot. That shut him up for a while. Then, I moved to the kitchen, and caught up with my mom, about her work and sisters. So far so good. The rain 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 aunts and my teen cousins come over, along with my uncle Philip, the mood changed. My sister didn’t fly up, instead went to Brooklyn to visit Ali’s family. It seemed OK at first, with all the greetings and hugs and shit, but soon, I noticed my thirteen-year-old cousin Garret was sullen and quiet, and would barely speak to me. We’d thrown baseballs around, played video games when he was younger at past holidays. Now he mumbled a hello when he arrived, and looked at me with pissed off, brooding eyes.
Genevieve’s daughter, Ann, and my aunt Vera’s daughter, Tricia, were nice enough, but glued to their contacts, and when I asked them about it, they showed me some avatar boyband, which was also connected to a VR game. They tried to show me how to play, but I lost interest and left them to it.
Before dinner, while we all talked in the kitchen and the kids played in the livingroom, I saddled up to Vera to ask what was wrong with Garret.
My aunt 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, you know how teenagers are,” she said. “He’s upset about the war.”
“He’s ashamed of me,” I said.
She frowned, looked past me into the playroom, where shouting and pop music emanated.
“He just doesn’t understand. 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. “We’re all proud of you, Jonas. We all support you. 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.
“What?” he said sullenly from the livingroom. “I’m playing Vanity Screamplate.”
“We gotta talk.”
My mom gave me a dark look, and uncle Philip shook his head. “Come on, kiddo,” he said, “don’t do this shit now.”
Garret stepped into the kitchen, looking down, hands in his pockets.
“What? What did I do?”
“Your cousin Jonas wants to ask you something,” Vera said through clenched teeth, trying to gain the upper hand.
“Why do you oppose the war, Garret?”
He hesitated, looked around the room at all the staring adult faces.
“She’s a killer,” he whispered.
He nodded. “You think I am?” I asked.
He swallowed heavily, nodded again. I glared at Vera.
“Your mom told you that?”
He shook his head. “I, I saw it. About what happened at Rainier.”
“How could you know anything about Rainier? It’s all classified.”
“You killed those Outsiders.”
“Not anyone who hadn’t shot first. Not my Platoon.”
“It’s all the fucking same!” He yelled.
“I’m not staying, I’m not–“
“Garrett,” I yelled, but he’d already bolted for the door, out into the rain.
Everyone was shouting, my two nieces now coming up behind, crying. I ran after him.
He went down the steps, taking them in big jumps, almost slipping on the wet moss. The rain was cold, the temperature in only 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.
“Stop saying that. You know it’s not true. And that all the 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.”
He nodded glumly at this browbeating.
My uncle came up. “Jonas–
“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 off his beanie.
“You’re gonna break your poor mother’s heart, kiddo,” he whispered. “Now get your ass back inside, both of you.”
I bristled at this, my head recoiling, my body tensing for combat, but then my shoulders dropped, seeing the resemblance to my dad in his angry face. Those same bristling brows, that same deep tone.
Inside, after Garret and I changed, we all sat in silence at the table. Ann was whimpering, and Genevieve was telling her to eat. The turkey tasted like dust.
“It’s terrible 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 did you see all the shanty boats, out on the Sound, Gen?” she asked.
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 wasting, Missoula’s full of farmers and ranchers, all out of work. One of them got shot last week. Right in downtown, in the daylight.”
“Police?” I said.
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. I just wish. 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 . . .”
We all ate in silence for a while.
“The Turkey’s really good, Dillion,” Genevieve said.
He nodded. “Thanks Gen,” he said quietly. I could tell he was wondering what he’d gotten into. I still didn’t know much about him, on purpose, and our relationship was almost like he was a charity case my mother took care of, and sometimes slept with.
“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 didn’t speak to either aunt for the rest of the dinner.
Afterwards, while the kids went downstairs to play, and the women and Dillon did the dishes, I sat with my uncle on the couch, drinking scotch.
“What happened up there?” he asked.
“It’s too fucked to explain. Classified too.”
“You said that. Apparently someone’s found about it. But what happened to you? You can tell me that, at least. You never were like this. He’s just a kid. You did stupid shit like that at his age.”
“I know. I just don’t want to see him on the other side of the lines.”
“Jesus.” He paused, looking into his drink. “How’d we ever get this far? God, I hope you’re wrong.”
We were quiet for a while. It was a terrible thought, but nothing seemed too outlandish to be impossible anymore. Eventually I asked:
“Did he tell you about her family before they got married?”
My uncle looked surprised. “You’re dad? 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, let alone 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. Or the Jones.”
I looked away, but he went on.
“Shit, you’re bitter now. I’ve been dealing with this my whole fucking life.”
I gave a slight smile.
He leaned into the sofa, sipped at his drink. “It’s harder now that Robbie’s gone. Kinda made a balancing act.”
“I didn’t really notice it,” I said, “when he was around. How he’d give them hell, but in a kind of 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, so does Sue, but it’s a status thing. Now they act like she’s fucked up again. 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. And 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 having to talk about my aunts wanting to fuck my dead father.
“Of course. He’s my kid brother, he’s always bouncing around in there. It’s usually when we were kids. 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 bombed, gutted, the rain outside leaking through the plaster, a few survivors coming up from the basement to dig around the fridge for scraps of potatoes or crackers blown in from the cabinets. 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 while my uncle moved to put dishes away, crossed back through the sitting room down to the basement door.
The kids had a huge projector screen up, the noise thumping some cheesy pop-synth. On the screen three androgynous angels danced, wreathed in flames, while the teenagers danced along, occasionally snatching at VR objects I couldn’t see. 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 down, and the girls blinked, the VR going off.
“Are we leaving?” Garret asked.
I shrugged. “I need to lay down. Sorry. You can go upstairs and play though.”
They made a move to dive up the stairs, but I stepped in front of Garret.
“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.”
“Go play upstairs.”
After they left, it was quiet, the voices muffled. I lay on the blue foldout, my arm over my face. Rain splashed against the egress windows. It never snowed on Christmas now. 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 demolitions for Christmas. 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, though 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. Our discussion 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. The police carried out constant raids, SWAT teams traveling in convoys were a regular sight. Everyone was paranoid about security, 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 having a job for any large company was a betrayal. People got harassed for wearing new clothes or over-eating. Beatings and murder of the well-off were on the rise.
“You gonna get your ass beat tonight then, huh? Good thing you stayed in.”
“It’s no joke. But New York is different. I think this city will be here, and be the same, no matter what happens.”
I told her maybe she should transfer to UW, or NYU and she scoffed. “I doubt either of the colleges are much different. You probably got out at a good time. Being a loyalist.”
“What do you think? 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. “At least I wouldn’t have to serve under you.”
“Come on, I’d make you my valet, my batman. 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 Philips.
“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, until I saw 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, and I stood at the basement door and opened it a crack, to see if they were awake. It was fifteen degrees warmer upstairs, and the air, moist and rich with breakfast smells, blew through the crack 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 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, Dillion. 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. Getting smarter all the time.
“Mom, time to open presents?”
My mother sighed, her shoulders sagged, and she looked around the room, as if trying to find an escape route.
“I guess,” she said, shaking her head. “If you’re ready.”
We moved to the livingroom. The fake tree glowed with lights which 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, 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?”
“Right. But maybe it would be useful, or cool, 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.
Dillion 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.”
Dillion 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.
Dillon 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. Dillion was a well-intentioned idiot, but he kept my mother occupied. It was closing on the time to exit gracefully.
“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 fake 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. 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, just waiting for my hiatus from the fighting to finish.